Caldwell ‘skimming’ victims had no clue

The electronic devices that steal credit card info at gas pumps are not visible and leave no trace.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJanuary 24, 2014 

  • CONSUMER REPORTS GIVES TIPS TO MINIMIZE FRAUD

    - Use cash when buying gasoline.

    - Use a credit card rather than a debit card for gas purchases. That will prevent money from being taken from your bank account. (Even if your bank reimburses the loss, you won’t have to wait for the money to be restored.)

    - If you must use a debit card, never type in your PIN. Instead, select the option that allows your purchase to be handled as a credit transaction. If thieves have access to your PIN, they could use it to get cash from your account at an ATM.

    - Monitor your bank and credit card accounts regularly to spot unauthorized charges or cash withdrawals. Delays in reporting fraudulent transactions, under federal law, can increase your liability for losses.

Debbie Davis was surprised early last year when she went to use her debit card at a store and it wouldn’t work.

She had plenty of money in her bank account, so the Caldwell woman couldn’t figure out why the transaction would not go through.

Before she had a chance to call her bank to inquire, a security officer from Wells Fargo contacted Davis and told her that the bank had placed a stop on her card after noticing a trio of unusual transactions.

Someone had used her card to pay for $1,500 worth of fuel at three stations in three other states.

“It was always at a truck stop,” Davis said. “I couldn’t understand how that could happen when I still had my card in my hand.”

Davis had been the victim of a credit card skimming operation. An electronic device that steals account information was placed inside the housing of the gas pump she used at a Caldwell fuel station. Her debit card data had been tapped.

The skimming device was in place on the Caldwell gas station pump for 2 1/2 weeks in late December 2012 and early January 2013. Information from nearly 100 debit and credit cards was collected before the device was removed, according to federal documents. It’s unclear from those records how many victims might have been from the Treasure Valley or other locations.

Because Davis used a debit card, the skimmer also collected the PIN she entered to authorize her purchase. The thief might have been able to use that number to initiate the fraudulent transactions.

“It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me,” Davis said.

Thankfully, she said, Wells Fargo reimbursed her for her losses.

A federal grand jury meeting in Boise last month indicted Vachik Babayan, who resides outside Glendale, Calif., on charges connected to the Caldwell skimming operation. He is charged with two counts of access device fraud and six counts of aggravated identity theft.

Babayan is scheduled for a first appearance on March 4 in Boise.

He also is accused of being part of a group that used skimmers to steal credit card information last year in Glendale, Calif., and make counterfeit credit cards. The false cards were used to purchase large amounts of gasoline, which was then sold for half-price, according to the Glendale Police Department.

Federal court documents do not name the Caldwell gas station where Babayan allegedly committed his crimes other than to say it was in Caldwell. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boise has refused to identify the station. Neither the Caldwell Police Department nor the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office had any records of a skimming investigation in late 2012 and early 2013. The owner of the station where Davis regularly buys gas did not return calls from the Statesman seeking comment.

Caldwell resident Billie Huskey said she bought gas at a different Caldwell station but fell victim to a similar crime Oct. 24.

Using her card information, large gas purchases were made on Nov. 1, 2 and 3 in Cheyenne, Wyo., Girard, Ohio, and Newburgh, N.Y. Each purchase totaled more than $400, she said.

“It was very disturbing,” she said.

With a skimmer collecting card information from inside a gas pump, there’s no way for customers to see the device or know they’re being defrauded, said Charley Jones, president and owner of Stinker Stores. A skimmer steals account information while allowing the gas purchase to go through, so the customer never suspects anything, he said.

Jones said his company takes extra measures to reduce the chance that gas pumps are compromised by credit card skimmers.

Stinker uses special locks that make it difficult to get inside gas pump housings, he said. The company views security tape every day to look for people who appear suspicious around pump doors. Anytime they see someone acting strange, they inspect that pump.

“They’re not stealing from my business,” Jones said. “But I want our customers to be protected.”

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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