Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
podcast_1400-MiddayEdition.jpg
KPBS Midday Edition Segments

UC San Diego Develops App To Curb Card Skimmers At Gas Stations

 August 15, 2019 at 10:37 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 High gas prices have, San Diego is losing enough money at the pump without being scammed. So UC San Diego researchers have introduced a new device that can detect credit card skimmers at gas stations. The new skimmers use wireless Bluetooth technology. So researchers are using a smartphone app to locate them. Joining me is KPBS science and technology reporter Shalina, Chad Lani and Shalina welcome. Hey, thanks for having me. Give us the skimmer one oh one introduction. How do they work to pick up credit card numbers at the pump? Sure. So skimmers have been around for a while since uh, around the two thousands. And criminals used to basically use these really clunky physical overlays that would be put on top of card readers at ATM and they would copy your credit card information and sometimes there would even be a little micro cameras installed around them to see what pin information that you were putting in. Speaker 1: 00:58 And now that's evolved to be these, uh, soldered devices that involved just around eight to 10 parts that you can buy on the dark web illicitly or by commercially that has this Bluetooth capability. So you no longer have to go back to the gas pump to retrieve that information that you've collected physically. You can actually just sit in your car and get that information wirelessly transmitted to your iPhone in a very short amount of time. And what do thieves do with these numbers? Well, of course they're taking your money. Uh, the secret service says one of these skimmers with a basic card chip inside of it can hold anywhere between 10 to 2000 card numbers and transmit that back to a thief. So in a short time frame, multiply that by the 500 skimmers that the secret service said it found last year and you have potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud. Speaker 1: 02:01 So you're telling this once these skimmers have been attached to the gas station, all the swiping transactions can be monitored and the credit numbers stolen if one of these skimmers is on it. Yeah, that, I mean, essentially that's what the criminals want to do in a nutshell. And what's interesting about these Bluetooth skimmers is that they are even more difficult to find. So a criminal will drive up in a big van to a gas station, pump, open up the doors so that it attendant doesn't see quickly, take out the gas station, pump a actual interface, and stick this skimmer into the actual circuitry of the pump. So as a consumer, there's nothing physical that you can actually see to show you that this exists. And that's the point. They just want to be able to wirelessly get as many card numbers as they can in a short amount of time before it's detected. Speaker 1: 02:55 Now what does this new UC San Diego app do to stop that? Sure. So Lou tooth is essentially a radio wave frequency. And that's the reason why when you open up your iPhone and you're looking for your Bluetooth speaker for example, your phone detects that frequency. So what these researchers did, um, when they were having conversations with the secret service about what types of problems they were facing, the Secret Service said this Bluetooth skimmer is a problem. And so they said, well, why don't we do a massive study of thousands of gas stations and figure out what frequencies the skimmers have? And what they discovered is that the skimmers tend to have a particular pattern of frequency and so the application detects those. It Scans for all of the Bluetooth devices in the area, but then narrows it down and highlights those specific frequencies which are suspect and are likely to be that Bluetooth skimmer who will actually be using this UC San Diego app to uncover skimmers, not the secret service. Speaker 1: 03:56 Right now the secret service will not be using the application and it will not be using the data. The app will actually just be pushed out to local law enforcement like so gas station inspectors locally that would like to use the tool and then the researchers at UC San Diego are keeping the data and if they want to they can give leads to the secret service as to where they might need to look where skimming activities happening. So both the old, the physical skimmers and the new Bluetooth skimmers can steal credit card numbers when customers swipe their cards at the gas station. What about chip card readers? So chip card readers are a more secure form of technology. And as far as the UC San Diego researchers know, the skimmers are not able to pick up information from a chip. Why don't gas stations switch to chip credit card readers? Speaker 1: 04:45 Gas stations are kind of slow to switching to the chip card readers simply because it's expensive to upgrade your technology. Uh, the secret service agent that I spoke to said it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade one pump with the, uh, with a new chip reader and for a mom and pop gas station that might be financially disastrous and very difficult for them for a chain that might be a little bit easier, but there's new legislation that might make it more cost effective for them to consider putting chip readers in. Well, so the legislation is actually a push from the credit card industry because the fraudulent activity comes back on them. They have to figure out how to give that money back to the consumer or cancel the debt of the consumer. So they would rather that burden be on the retailer. So this new law, which goes into effect in October, 2020 doesn't require gas stations to get these chip readers. Speaker 1: 05:43 But it essentially says that if you don't have a chip reader and there's fraudulent activity at your gas station that is on you, so you have to figure out how to pay that money back. So it's kind of, you know, a lot of gas stations, especially the smaller ones, are kind of between a rock and a hard place here. Because let's say there's a skimmer that ends up costing you tens of thousands of dollars because he didn't put in a chip reader. It's, you know, w what do you end up having to spend your money on and how are you going to maintain your, your bottom line? I've been speaking with KPBS science and technology reporters, Shalina, Chet, Lonnie and Shalina. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MiddayEd_generic-new_pHZ6pWM.jpg
A new application can help local law enforcement stop crime at gas stations across the country.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments