BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – It used to be that if you tugged on the credit card reader at a gas station pump, you could pull off a "skimmer" - a credit card reading and recording device - if one was fraudulently attached.
But now, there's no way to tell, according to Brevard County Sheriff's Office Agent Justin Wood, with the Economic Crimes Unit.
"This is inside and can't be seen," Wood said. "You'd never know."
Wood said skimmers have evolved to become so small and sophisticated that they attach in seconds inside a pump.
A thief can unlock the pump panel, disconnect the hardware inside the panel, plug in the skimmer, reattach the hardware, close up the panel and drive off, undetected.
"I can have one on here reading credit card data within 30-45 seconds," Wood said. "And then close it up and drive off and come back in a week and have potential 40 cards. That's money in my pocket if I'm a bad guy."
The skimmers even include Bluetooth technology so a thief doesn't have to get out of his car to collect the stolen credit card data. It transmits wirelessly to his collection device just by getting close to it.
And even gas station attendants who regularly check the insides of pumps often miss fraudulently attached skimmers, Wood said, because they don't know what to look for.
A skimmer looks like a piece of computer hardware - a short computer ribbon attached to a small computer chip.
As reports of stolen credit card number began to rise in Brevard County, Wood and his Economic Crimes Unit started inspecting dozens of pumps several times a week.
"We go out two to three times a week, and I'd venture to say we find two to three at least a week," Wood said. "We can hit 20 to 30 gas stations in a day and usually find one to two a day."
Wood said as soon as the card numbers are stolen, they are sold to counterfeiters who print and embed the stolen numbers into real credit cards.
Wood said most of the time, the stolen credit card numbers are used to steal diesel fuel with "bladder trucks" - vehicles with hidden tanks stored inside.
The bladder truck drivers then sell the stolen fuel to fuel yards that turn around and re-sell the fuel at a discounted price.
"They sell it to big rigs, construction companies that have vehicles, or maybe individuals," Wood said.
A large-scale fuel yard in South Florida was just shut down, Wood said.
Whenever the Brevard County Sheriff's Office Economic Crimes Unit finds a skimmer, a technology expert downloads the stolen credit card numbers from the skimming microchips.
Agents then contact banks and credit card companies to find where the numbers are being used.
Agents will then obtain surveillance video from the gas stations from where diesel fuel was stolen and track down the thief using a license plate.
"Within the past few years, we've arrested and made cases on 14 different vehicles fuel bladder vehicles that were using stolen card information from skimming devices to purchase illegal fuel," Wood said.
Wood said the Brevard County Sheriff's Office is leading Central Florida in skimming arrests.
Since there's no way to tell if the gas pump you're using has a hidden skimmer, Wood recommends always using a credit card and not a debit card. Credit card companies usually offer better fraud protection than debit cards. Funds are withdrawn instantly when a debit card is swiped, whereas most credit card companies will allow you to refute a charge.
Wood said the best protection is to pay cash or with a credit card inside the store.
Most skimmers seem to turn up at older pumps, Wood said, because the older technology is easier with which to tamper.
Florida’s Department of Agriculture said it inspects almost half a million pumps every year and has found 2,200 skimmers statewide since 2015.
Starting next year, all gas pumps in the state have to be upgraded with new technology to make skimming tougher.