Visa this week delayed by three years a deadline for fuel station owners to install payment terminals at the pump that are capable of handling more secure chip-based cards. Experts say the new deadline — extended from 2017 — comes amid a huge spike in fuel pump skimming, and means fraudsters will have another three years to fleece banks and their customers by installing card-skimming devices at the pump.
Until this week, fuel station owners in the United States had until October 1, 2017 to install chip-capable readers at their pumps. Under previous Visa rules, station owners that didn’t have chip-ready readers in place by then would have been on the hook to absorb 100 percent of the costs of fraud associated with transactions in which the customer presented a chip-based card yet was not asked or able to dip the chip (currently, card-issuing banks eat most of the fraud costs from fuel skimming). The chip card technology standard, also known as EMV (short for Europay, MasterCard and Visa) makes credit and debit cards far more expensive and difficult for thieves to clone.
This week, however, Visa said fuel station owners would have until October 1, 2020 to meet the liability shift deadline.
A Bluetooth-based pump card skimmer found inside of a Food N Things pump in Arizona in April 2016.
“The fuel segment has its own unique challenges, which we recognized when we first set the chip activation date for automated fuel dispensers/pumps (AFDs) two years after regular in-store locations,” Visa said in a statement explaining its decision. “We knew that the AFD segment would need more time to upgrade to chip because of the complicated infrastructure and specialized technology required for fuel pumps. For instance, in some cases, older pumps may need to be replaced before adding chip readers, requiring specialized vendors and breaking into concrete. Furthermore, five years after announcing our liability shift, there are still issues with a sufficient supply of regulatory-compliant EMV hardware and software to enable most upgrades by 2017.”
Visa said fuel pump skimming accounts for just 1.3 percent of total U.S. payment card fraud.
“During this interim period, Visa will monitor AFD fraud trends closely and work with merchants, acquirers and issuers to help mitigate any potential counterfeit fraud exposure at AFDs,” Visa said.
Avivah Litan, a fraud analyst with Gartner Inc., said the deadline shift wasn’t unexpected given how many U.S. fuel stations are behind on costly updates, noting that in some cases it can cost more than $10,000 per pump to accommodate chip card readers. The National Association of Convenience Stores estimates that station operators will spend approximately $30,000 per store to accommodate chip readers, and that the total cost to the fuel industry could exceed $4 billion.
“Some of them you can just replace the payment module inside the pump, but the older pumps will need to be completely removed and replaced,” Litan said. “Gas stations and their unattended pumps have always been an easy target for thieves. The fraud usually migrates to the point of least resistance, and we’re seeing now the fraudsters really moving to targeting unattended stations that haven’t been upgraded.”
The delay comes as some states — particularly in the southern United States — are grappling with major increases in fuel station skimming attacks. In September, KrebsOnSecurity published a detailed look at nine months’ worth of fuel pump skimming incident reports filed by police and regulators in Arizona, which said it saw more fuel station skimming attacks in the month of August 2016 than in all of 2015 combined.
That report about Arizona’s skimmer scourge found that thieves tend to target pumps that are furthest from the pump station and closest to the street. They also favored stations that did not employ basic security measures such as tamper-evident security tape and security cameras.
Crooks involved in fuel pump skimming generally are tied to organized crime gangs, as evidenced by this Nov. 2015 investigation into fuel theft gangs operating in Southern California . The thieves most often use stolen master keys or bribery to gain access to the pumps. Once inside the pumps, the thieves hook up their skimmer to the pump’s card reader and PIN pad. The devices also are connected to the pump’s electric power — so they don’t need batteries and can operate indefinitely. Increasingly, these thieves are installing Bluetooth-based skimmers that can transmit stolen data wirelessly, allowing thieves to avoid taking the risky step of retrieving their skimmer gear.
Some pump skimming devices are capable of stealing debit card PINs as well, so it’s good idea to avoid paying with a debit card at the pump. Armed with your PIN and debit card data, thieves can clone the card and pull money out of your account at an ATM. Having your checking account emptied of cash while your bank sorts out the situation can be a huge hassle and create secondary problems (bounced checks, for instance).
“That’s exactly the sort of advice fuel station owners don’t want given to consumers,” Litan said. “For filling stations, credit is their least favorite form of payment because it’s the most expensive for them, which is why some stations offer lower prices for debit card transactions. But consumers should never use a debit card at a gas station.”
Want to learn more about skimming devices? Check out my series, All About Skimmers.