Arrest made in Bellingham card skimming case, but are you now safe paying at the pump?

How to spot a skimmer at a gas pump or ATM

Eric Vitale, fraud investigation specialist with the San Luis Obispo Police Department, demonstrates how to spot a card skimmer on an ATM, gas pump or other card reader. He also offers advice for keeping your PIN and card information safe.
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Eric Vitale, fraud investigation specialist with the San Luis Obispo Police Department, demonstrates how to spot a card skimmer on an ATM, gas pump or other card reader. He also offers advice for keeping your PIN and card information safe.

Surveillance video led Bellingham Police to arrest a man suspected of putting a card skimmer found in late May at a gas station on Guide Meridian.

Despite the arrest last weekend, the investigation remains open and police advise area consumers to remain vigilant to other potential pump skimmers and to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity in their bank statements.

Lynden Police also are investigating card skimmers that were discovered June 18 on eight pumps at a 76 Station on 19th Street and Front Street.

"This case is still under investigation, with further arrests possibly being made," Bellingham Lt. Claudia Murphy said. "The big thing is even though this device has been recovered, we don't know how many have been placed."

Oscar Riveron Ballester, 31, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of eight counts of second-degree theft and eight counts of identity theft. He was released from Whatcom County Jail on $10,000 bail Monday.

An employee at Starvin Sam's Mini Mart on Guide Meridian at West North Street first noticed what appeared to be a card skimmer on one of the convenience store's gas pumps and called police on May 30.

Detectives examined surveillance video from the station, Murphy said, and identified a suspect vehicle and a potential suspect who was believed to have placed the card skimmer.

"In this instance, the device was placed on (May 28) at about 11:30 p.m., and it was found on (May 30) at 7 a.m.," Murphy said.

Police stopped a vehicle on Saturday that matched the description of one they saw on the surveillance video, Murphy said. Riveron Ballester, whom Murphy said matched the description of the person seen placing the skimmer, was in the car and was arrested.

The device at the Guide Meridian station was attached inside the pump, Murphy said, making it extremely difficult for consumers to see.

Similar devices intercept the stream of the transaction, collecting card data and pin pad key strikes and storing the information until it is downloaded, either by retrieving the device or via Bluetooth. In this case, Murphy said, the card skimmer still had user information on it, and it didn't appear it had been downloaded.

"The card processes as normal and the payment goes through as normal, and there is no indication to the user that your data has been collected," Murphy said.

Once the compromised information is collected, Murphy said, the 16-digit card number and pin information often are used to make large online purchases or pay for items.

"There may be more people that are involved and other pumps and other gas stations that have been compromised," Murphy said. "Further arrests may be coming, so we need people to continue to watch their accounts closely and let us know if they see any suspicious activity.

"Perpetrators of this type of fraud typically utilize stolen account access data to manufacture fraudulent credit or debit cards for fraudulent cash transactions."

If you do notice potential fraudulent charges or withdrawals from your account, Bellingham Police ask you to contact Detective Darla Wagner at 360-778-8767.

In Lynden, Police Chief John Billester said it is the first card skimming case he is aware of in the city, and photos indicate the skimmers appeared to be located inside the pump - much like the skimmer found in Bellingham.

"I don't know how a customer could know, no matter how cautious they were," Billester said. "It was the repair man that spotted something when he opened up the pump."

Billester said one community member has reported possible fraudulent activity on their bank account.

"They saw several charges that they didn't make down in Seattle at several locations," Billester said. "We're hoping there might be video that might give us some information about who illegally gained their information."

Billester said Lynden detectives have been in touch with Bellingham Police to help determine if the two skimming cases are connected.

How to protect yourself from card skimmers?

Check things out: Give the pump a quick once over to see that everything looks like it should. Look for cracks or loose pieces or anything that seems out of place and could indicate the pump has been tampered with. "Look at the gas pump and make sure all the seals are intact. If something seems off, move to another pump," Murphy said.

The newer the better: Newer ATMs have advanced technology making it more difficult for scammers to steal card information, and gas pumps continue to evolve and improve as well. Newer pumps, such as those with video displays, often utilize the latest technology.

Consider paying inside: "I know it's more convenient to pay at the pump, and heck, I like to do it, but it's definitely safer to take the time to go inside when you can," Murphy said.

Pay with credit: "This type of scam is more specific to cash or debit cards than credit cards," Murphy said. "They're looking for a specific 16-digit cash or debit card number along with the pin number that goes with that account. If that's compromised, they can go anywhere. When you use a credit card, they don't get the CVV number that goes with the card number."

Check your statements: Even if you haven't visited one of the stations where skimmers have been found, continue to watch your account balances and statements. There may be more skimmers in the area, Murphy said.

"Be as cautious as you can," Billester said. "Be careful and check your credit card bill and bank statement as frequently as you can and report, right away, any disparity you see to the jurisdiction you see the disparity in."

Bellingham Police are asking reports of suspicious charge activity in Bellingham be made to Detective Darla Wagner at 360-778-8767.

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