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DALLAS -- Just when dropping gas prices were beginning to give drivers some relief, North Texans face a new threat at the pump: identity thieves.
High-tech crooks have begun stealing account numbers and PINs from drivers who pay at automated gas pumps. It's part of a national crime trend that probably originated on the West Coast this year and recently appeared locally.
"We started seeing cases in late September and early October," said Plano police Detective Jerry Minton, who noted that other local cities are having similar problems.
In Plano alone, police have recorded about 50 cases of ID theft and fraudulent use of debit card information probably connected to purchases at gas pumps.
The skimmers can steal credit card numbers, too, but thieves prefer debit cards because they mean quick cash at automated teller machines. They use the information to make fake cards and have hit ATMs - some as far away as the northeastern U.S. - for $200 to $800 a pop.
The money is often gone before the debit card holder knows it, and it can take time to correct the problem.
Detective Minton declined to identify merchants whose pumps were compromised because, he said, it could happen anywhere.
Thieves have long used devices called "skimmers" to copy information from the magnetic strips of debit and credit cards. They can look like an extension of the legitimate card reader slot and often don't stand up to close scrutiny.
But new matchbox-size versions of the gadgets fit onto gas pump card readers without being noticeable and copy the numbers without compromising the transaction. New skimmers sometimes even contain tiny cameras that record drivers entering personal identification numbers.
Besides the dozens of cases in Plano, many more thefts have occurred in other cities surrounding Dallas, said Detective Minton, who has cooperated with bank security departments and the Dallas field office of the Secret Service on ID theft investigations.
Federal officials are participating in the Plano investigation but declined to discuss the situation in detail.
"The investigation is at the beginning stage," said Robert Caltabiano, assistant special agent in charge of the Dallas office of the U.S. Secret Service. "We are assisting the Plano Police Department."
Tips to protect yourself
-If possible, use a credit card at automated gas pumps and kiosks. They typically provide better fraud protection than debit cards, which offer direct access to your cash.
-If you must use a debit card, don't punch in your personal identification number at the pump. Pay at a cash register and keep your PIN secret.
-Keep a close eye on your bank accounts and immediately report questionable transactions. Clearing up fraudulent bank charges can be a time-consuming process.
-If your card number is stolen, report the crime to police immediately and get a copy of the police report so your bank or credit card company can verify it.
-Report stolen card numbers to your bank or credit card issuer immediately and get replacement cards with new account numbers. Safeguard your credit record by requesting that the old account be processed as "closed at consumer's request."