Few schemes for monetizing stolen credit cards are as bold as the fuel theft scam: Crooks embed skimming devices inside fuel station pumps to steal credit card data from customers. Thieves then clone the cards and use them to steal hundreds of gallons of gas at multiple filling stations. The gas is pumped into hollowed-out trucks and vans, which ferry the fuel to a giant tanker truck. The criminals then sell and deliver the gas at cut rate prices to shady and complicit fuel station owners.
Agent Steve Scarince of the U.S. Secret Service heads up a task force in Los Angeles that since 2009 has been combating fuel theft and fuel pump skimming rings. Scarince said the crooks who plant the skimmers and steal the cards from fuel stations usually are separate criminal groups from those who use the cards to steal and resell gas.
“Generally the way it works is the skimmer will sell the cards to a fuel theft cell or ring,” he said. “The head of the ring or the number two guy will go purchase the credit cards and bring them back to the drivers. More often than not, the drivers don’t know a whole lot about the business. They just show up for work, the boss hands them 25 cards and says, ‘Make the most of it, and bring me back the cards that don’t work.’ And the leader of the ring will go back to the card skimmer and say, ‘Okay out of 100 of those you sold me, 50 of them didn’t work.'”
Scarince said the skimmer gangs will gain access to the inside of the fuel pumps either secretly or by bribing station attendants. Once inside the pumps, the thieves hook up their skimmer to the gas pump’s card reader and PIN pad. The devices also are connected to the pump’s electric power — so they don’t need batteries and can operate indefinitely.
Most internal, modern pump skimmers are built to record the card data on a storage device that can transmit the data wirelessly via Bluetooth technology. This way, thieves can drive up with a laptop and fill their tank in the time it takes to suck down the card data that’s been freshly stolen since their last visit.
The Secret Service task force in Los Angels has even found pump skimming devices that send the stolen card data via SMS/text message to the thieves, meaning the crooks don’t ever have to return to the scene of the crime and can receive the stolen cards and PINs anywhere in the world that has mobile phone service.
Scarince said the fuel theft gangs use vans and trucks crudely modified and retrofitted with huge metal and/or plastic “bladders” capable of holding between 250 and 500 gallons of fuel.
“The fuel theft groups will drive a bladder truck from gas station to gas station, using counterfeit cards to fill up the bladder,” he said. “Then they’ll drive back to their compound and pump the fuel into a 4,000 or 5,000 [gallon] container truck.”
The fuel will be delivered to gas station owners with whom the fuel theft ring has previously brokered with on the price per gallon. And it’s always a cash transaction.
“The stations know they’re buying stolen gas,” Scarince said. “They’re fully aware the fuel is not coming from a legitimate source. There’s never any paperwork with the fuel driver, and these transactions are missing all the elements of a normal, legitimate transaction between what would be a refinery and a gas station.”
Needless to say, the bladder trucks aren’t exactly road-worthy when they’re filled to the brim with stolen and highly flammable fuel. From time to time, one of the dimmer bladder truck drivers will temporarily forget his cargo and light up a smoke.
“Two or three summers ago we had this one guy who I guess was just jonesing for a cigarette,” Scarince said. “He lit up and that was the last thing he did.”