Most times, a trip to the ATM or the gas station is pretty routine. You stick your credit or bank card in the slot, maybe enter a PIN, and get $40 in cash or $25 in gas.

But if someone has placed a skimming device in the pump or on the ATM, that one swipe could lead the cardholder to financial disaster.

“They will go in and clean out every dollar in your account,” said John Gutsmiedl of the U.S. Secret Service.

It’s hard to gauge the pervasiveness of credit card skimming in the United States. Gutsmiedl estimated that the Omaha area has had a dozen cases in the past two years.

In October 2015, Casey’s General Stores found skimming devices in fuel pumps at six of its stores in Nebraska and one in eastern Iowa.

After the skimmers were discovered, the company said it had not determined whether any credit card information had been compromised. A Casey’s spokesman said last week that he was not aware of any arrests in the cases.

And in Sioux City, Iowa, last week, the police and FBI were investigating a number of skimmers attached to ATMs. A police official would not say how many cardholders were affected, only describing the number as “significant,” the Sioux City Journal reported.

Local and federal financial crimes investigators make a number of recommendations for people and businesses to help keep them from being victimized.

Skimmers generally work differently on ATMs and gas pumps. On ATMs, a fraudster places a plastic molding around the card slot with a reader inside that reads a bar code on the back of your card, getting your card number.

“Any time I go up to an ATM … I’ll just grab (the slot) myself and give it a tug. If you do that and it’s a solid piece, you are pretty safe,” said Sgt. John Bahle of the Omaha Police Department fraud squad.

“If you tug on that and all of a sudden you are holding a piece of the ATM in your hand or it’s wiggling around, there is a pretty good chance there could be a skimmer involved.”

Crooks can get your PIN number by placing a small camera where it can’t easily be seen and synchronizing it with the reader in the ATM. Therefore, another step you can take is to cover the keyboard as you enter the PIN.

“If you cover up the PIN when you put it in, they may get your card number, but it’s useless without your PIN,” said Gutsmiedl, resident agent in charge for the Secret Service in Omaha. The agency, mostly known for protecting the president, investigates financial crimes as well.

“If they see that you cover it, they are just going to move on, because there are plenty (of people) that aren’t going to do that,” Gutsmiedl said.

Skimmers in gas pumps are typically internal, inserted after removal of a panel. In recent years, some convenience store companies have placed red tape on pumps. If the tape is intact, it shows customers and the gas station workers that the pump hasn’t been illegally tampered with.

Customers should let the store know if they see broken tape, said Kristie Bell, spokeswoman for Kum & Go.

Store employees check the pumps, and the tape, at least once per day, she said. They also keep an eye out for people lurking around or messing with the pumps.

“If any of the stickers look like they have been tampered with … they shut the pump down until it can be inspected, to make sure there is nothing fraudulent going on,” Bell said.

Also, customers can prepay for their gas, which would keep their data from being stolen.

“We take all these security protocols to make our customers safe,” she said. “But if someone is really worried about it they can come in the store and prepay.”

Checking your bank statements each month for signs of unauthorized purchases or withdrawals can help you minimize the damage if your account information has been stolen.

Despite the measures Bahle takes to protect himself, he too was a victim of fraud. He doesn’t know how his bank card number was stolen. He just looked at his statement one day this past winter and saw a purchase from a grocery store in Mexico.

“That’s how most people find out their card is compromised,” Bahle said.

Bahle’s bank refunded the money and canceled his card. Not everyone is so lucky.

“It’s a huge disruption in some people’s lives,” he said. “You’re finding out that you don’t have any money in your bank account or your credit limit is tapped out. And you have to go back to your credit card company or your bank and prove ‘I didn’t make those purchases.’”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1310, andrew.nelson@owh.com, twitter.com/nelson_aj

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