Amid skimmer controversy, officials advise using cash at pumps


For the Gazette

Published: 06-19-2017 10:19 PM

State officials are advising consumers to use cash instead of debit and credit cards when buying gas after a state investigation found skimmers attached to pumps at two Hampshire County gas stations last month.

The state’s consumer watchdog agency said the skimmers were found on pumps at F.L. Roberts gas station located at 124 Northampton St. in Easthampton and 399 Northampton St. in Amherst. State investigators found the skimmers on May 2 during a statewide sweep of 1,525 pumps.

Skimmers are physical devices attached to a card reader that steals credit or debit card information by reading a card’s magnetic swipe strip. Only the four pumps in Amherst and Easthampton had skimmers.

Easthampton Police, however, contend that there have been no recent reports of skimmers at an F.L Roberts in their city.

Chris Goetcheus, spokesman for the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, said it is standard for state investigators to turn over evidence to local police, which he said happened in this case.

Amherst police could not be reached for comment. 

Goetcheus said people who have used the stations in Amherst and Easthampton before May 2 should check their card statements. He said that even if the bank statements look normal, it’s still possible a skimmer has stolen their card information but not used it yet.

“It might be a good precautionary task to get your cards changed,” Goetcheus added. 

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However, Easthampton Police Officer Chad Alexander said there isn’t reason to worry. There were skimmers found at the Easthampton F.L. Roberts in 2016, he said, but affected customers have already been contacted and their accounts have been secured. 

Lynn Starr, chief information officer for Easthampton Savings Bank, said she saw stories from a few media outlets about the skimmers the state said were found in Hampshire County in May.

Starr said ESB has not received any information about the skimming in May mentioned by the state investigators, and she added ESB hasn’t seen any recent fraudulent transactions it would attribute to skimmers in Easthampton and Amherst. 

If someone is concerned about their card, ESB offers walk-in, same-day debit card replacement at branch locations. Starr added that if a customer experiences a fraudulent charge due to skimming, it is federally mandated that they receive a reimbursement.

Goetcheus said using cash at gas stations is best if consumers are concerned about skimmers. 

Starr said credit cards can be preferable to debit because customers have a chance to catch fraudulent charges before paying their balance. However, she said customers will be reimbursed for fraudulent charges from skimming on either a debit or credit card.

Part of what makes gas stations vulnerable to skimmers is that many pumps are opened by universal keys, according to the state press release. People can buy keys online that will open these pumps, and then they can insert skimmers.

The state recommends gas stations replace pump locks with ones that are opened only by specific keys, not universal keys. 

Cody Heron, manager of the affected F.L. Roberts station in Easthampton, said he doesn’t recall any skimmers being found at his station last month, but he added he can’t be totally sure. He said the locks on the pumps at his station were replaced in the last few weeks with new ones that only two keys open. One key stays inside the store, and he carries the other. 

“Nobody’s getting in there,” he said. 

Heron said the lock replacement was initiated by Nouria Energy Corp., which owns F.L. Roberts. Nouria Energy Corp. could not be reached for comment. He said the station is also equipped with security cameras, although footage is only kept for seven days.

Skimming problems have been on the rise nationally in the last few years, including in Massachusetts and the Valley. In recent years, several businesses and ATMs in the region were found to have skimmers.

Goetcheus said three skimmers were also found last week at an F.L. Roberts in Agawam in a separate investigation.

Goetcheus said his office started to notice skimmers across the state in late 2015 during routine checks on gas pumps for fuel pricing accuracy. Now, he said his office will do annual checks for skimmers and compile the information into a spreadsheet detailing date and location when the devices are found. 

Gas pumps are more vulnerable to skimming than most retailers because many gas stations do not utilize credit or debit card chips, which encrypt card information to protect against interception by skimmers. These gas stations instead rely on the magnetic swipe strip, which is less secure than a chip.

Most retailers updated their in-store card readers to utilize chips in 2015 under pressure from major credit card companies. Gas stations have an extension until October 2020 to make technology upgrades, and skimmers take advantage of this.

“Gas stations are a target,” Starr said.