By Frances Wang

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Credit card skimmers are a huge problem in South Florida, but there is a new device being used by some Florida police departments to help protect your money at gas pumps and ATMs.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department is the first South Florida law enforcement agency to start using the ‘Skim Reaper.

“Florida is known for beaches, oranges, Disney, but also fraud. We are the top state for scams, we can’t let that continue,” said Commissioner Nikki Fried of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. “Skimmers are a huge and growing part of that fraud, these devices are placed inside gas pumps and often undetectable by consumers, which is why awareness is so crucial.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services reported than 1,555 credit card skimmers were found in 2019. That is up from 1205 in 2018 and 657 in 2017 – the numbers steadily rising over the years.

(Courtesy: Florida Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Services)

Skimmers are small electric devices often installed in places like bank ATMs and gas station pumps to steal your credit card information.

“During the busy holiday travel season, criminals will be working hard to scam you at the gas pump,” said Commissioner Fried. “It’s crucial that people are aware of exactly what to look out for, because each skimmer can defraud consumers up to a million dollars.”

“[The Florida Keys] are a very tourist destination,” said Lt. Nancy Alvarez, who handles intelligence for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. “These criminals know that.”

Lt. Alvarez said often credit card information will be stolen in their jurisdiction, but used to make purchases in Miami-Dade County or vice versa.

“A lot of times, fraud goes out of the country,” said Lt Alvarez. “Virtually impossible to track.”

At the end of 2019, Lt. Alvarez attended a law enforcement conference for property recovery. While there, she discovered a technology new to her, developed by a University of Florida Professor and his students. The device is called the ‘Skim Reaper.’

Skim Reaper device identifies when a credit card is being read more than once. It’s inserted into a card reader, if it flashes red, there could be a skimmer inside. It’s safe if it turns blue. (CBS4)

The Skim Reaper identifies when a card is being read more than once. You insert it into a card reader, just like a credit card. If it flashes red, there could be a skimmer inside. If you’re safe, you’ll see blue.

“It’s easy to use,” noted Lt. Alvarez. “If you make it difficult, cops won’t want to use.”

So far, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office is the first South Florida agency to test out the Skim Reaper. They have purchased five so far to cover the 112 miles in their jurisdiction. Each device costs under $500.

“500 bucks in the scheme of things,” said Lt. Alvarez. “That could be one victim.”

The technology is not foolproof and sometimes a read will be false positive, but for the Monroe County deputies, it is better to be safe than sorry.

“That’s our job,” said Lt. Alvarez. “Better than it be nothing than something. And then you let other people be victimized.”

Miami Police say at this time, it’s not something they’re using but they’ll look into it to see if it would be beneficial to their department.

Here are some steps to protect yourself from card skimmers:

Take a close look at the pump: Avoid using pumps that are open or unlocked, have had the tamper-evident security tape cut or removed, or otherwise appear unusual. If anything seems cracked, loose, or tampered with, use a different pump. Some newer pumps may also have encrypted credit card readers — look for an illuminated green lock symbol near the credit card reader.

Pay with a credit card: If a credit card number is skimmed, you’re protected by the card issuer’s zero-liability policy — but a stolen debit card number could be far more damaging. If you must use a debit card, choose to use it as credit, instead of selecting debit and entering your PIN. Use a credit card chip reader if it is available.

Pay inside, not at the pump: It takes just seconds for criminals to place a skimmer in a gas pump — but it’s far less likely that a skimmer has been placed on the payment terminal in front of the clerk inside the gas station or convenience store.

Choose gas pumps closest to the physical building: Don’t use gas pumps out of the attendant’s line of sight, such as those around a corner or behind a building. Thieves placing skimmers are less likely to put them in pumps where the store attendant may catch them in the act.

Check your card statements and sign up for fraud alerts: Nearly every credit card issuer offers fraud alerts, and many will email or text you when your card is used at a gas station. Check your credit card and debit card transactions regularly to make sure no fraudulent activity has occurred.

Consumers who suspect their credit card number has been compromised should report it immediately to authorities and their credit card company.

Frances Wang