By Robb Jeffries, Forum News Service

State officials have pledged to ramp up security efforts against an “emerging threat” -- credit card skimming at gas pumps.

The state’s pump inspectors began sweeping the state this week for devices attached to pumps to gain credit and debit card information, Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said. Skimmers are used to collect credit/debit card information for use in fraudulent purchases on the Internet and in identity theft.

“The commerce department is determined to prevent and halt this emerging threat to Minnesota consumers,” he said.

Rothman said two skimmers were found on the first day of the sweep in pumps at a Twin Cities suburban gas station, although he declined to identify the specific station as a criminal investigation is ongoing.

The announcement of the sweep came from a Bobby and Steve’s Auto World station in Bloomington, where attentive gas station employees were able to identify three men who were installing a skimming device in January.

Kip Studaker, operations leader for the gas station company, said safety measures the station had in place -- namely software that sends an alert to registers inside the store when someone tampers with a pump -- were key in protecting customers from fraudulent attacks.

“We take our customers’ privacy very seriously,” he said, noting it was the first skimming attempt at that location of which the company was aware.

Skimmers at gas pumps come in two varieties: external skimmers that plug in the existing card reader, and internal skimmers that need to be hooked up to electronics inside the casing of the pump.

“Criminals have gone high-tech now,” Rothman said. “It used to be crowbars, but now it’s through the Internet and with electronics.”

Motorists filling up at a pump can detect external skimmers by taking a close look at the credit card reader.

“Sometimes they can be loose, so giving the card reader a jiggle can help you notice if anything is off,” Rothman said.

Internal skimmers can be harder to detect. The Department of Commerce is partnering with gas stations to help install security tape over access panels to help employees notice signs of tampering.

Rothman did not have hard numbers on how much money has been stolen or how many skimming attempts have been successful. He did say reports of skimming at gas stations have been contained to Twin Cities so far.

Commerce department officials did stress that the sweep is statewide, as skimming attempts across the country typically occur along high-traffic routes like interstate highways.

Minnesota has 12 pump inspectors that regularly check the state’s 52,000 gas pumps for quality control purposes, Rothman said. Those inspectors went through training to identify skimmers with the help of the FBI in January, and skimmer checks will now be a standard part of every inspection.