Credit-card skimming devices at Florida gas stations and stores are on a dramatic rise this year.
State figures show 315 skimmers had been discovered at Florida gas pumps through July 18, compared to 120 skimmers discovered through the first seven months of 2016.
That represents a 160 percent increase in the illegal devices used to collect consumers' credit- or debit-card information.
This year's seven-month total already far exceeds the 219 reported devices in all of 2016 and the 169 skimmers found in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
At a press conference in Orlando this month highlighting the problem, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam noted that his inspectors and law-enforcement officers have documented a continued rise since 2015 in the devices, which are typically placed inside gas-pump cabinets.
“Since that time, we have seen a steady trend upward, an increase in the number of skimmers being found around the state on these gas pumps,” Putnam said.
If undetected, each skimmer is capable of collecting credit- or debit-card data from 100 consumers, with each losing an average of $1,000 to electronic theft, according to Putnam's agency., which is responsible for gas-station inspections.
Palm Beach County has the most reported skimmer locations this year with 58, followed by Broward County with 57, Miami-Dade County with 26 and Pinellas and Volusia counties, each reporting 12 devices.
Although there appeared to be a correlation between larger counties, with more cars and gas stations, and the detection of skimmers, that isn't always the case. Brevard County, with 11 skimmer locations, had more than the combined totals of Duval County, with five, and Hillsborough County, with four.
In the majority of cases, one skimmer device was reported at each location. But some had multiple skimmers, including a New Smyrna Beach gas station where four skimmers were found on July 11, records show.
Putnam has been working with the Legislature, the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association the past few years to curb the illegal activity.
In 2016, the Legislature passed a law that toughened penalties for credit-card fraud and required security devices on gas pumps, including the use of security tape to alert store employees and consumers about pump tampering.
This year, the Legislature passed another law making it illegal to possess skimmer-device equipment.
“As the third-largest state with 10,000 convenience stores and more than 100 million tourists visiting each year, Florida presents significantly more opportunities for skimming devices to be used,” said Scott Shalley, president of the Florida Retail Federation, after Gov. Rick Scott signed the latest anti-skimming legislation (HB 343) last month.
Putnam said the industry has taken steps to protect gas pumps from tampering, including moving away from a universal key system that allowed access to pumps in different locations. He said the newest stores and gas stations are deploying technology that will shut down pumps if they are opened without authorization.
But Putnam said skimmer criminals are growing more sophisticated, with some now using devices where credit-card data can be downloaded remotely, eliminating the need to retrieve skimmers from inside the pumps.
“Unfortunately, like many forms of criminal activities, the bad guys continue to evolve just like the laws continue to evolve,” Putnam said.
But Putnam also said “there are some very simple things that the traveling public can do during this summer traveling season to protect themselves.”
Among the recommendations are using cash to pay for gas; using credit cards, which typically have more consumer protections than debit cards if fraud occurs; using pumps closer to the stores, as skimmer criminals are more likely to target remote pumps; and avoiding pumps if the cabinets are open or if security tape is broken or appears altered.
“This is not a crime limited to Florida, but unfortunately it is a crime that we are seeing growth in and an increasing number of these devices are being found,” Putnam said.