Need to Fill Up? Beware of Gas Station Scams

Many of us have a “bad” habit. We know we need to refuel the car, but because we have somewhere to drive, we want to spend as little time as possible at the gas station.

But this busyness can lead to overlooking frequent gas station rip-offs. Machine not working? Overpriced gas? Not a big deal; pay those extra dollars and keep driving.

Unfortunately, a careless behavior may cost you more than $20. Your credit card. Even your car, if you don’t pay attention to gas-station scams.

How Do Gas Station Scams Work?

You may not know they exist until you fall for one. You see these big brands and wonder: “How could they not know anything I don’t know?” In other words, if there’s something wrong, you expect them to be the first ones to know it.

That is not always the case. In gas stations, skilled scammers can install credit card skimmer devices and drive away within minutes. Sometimes, you’re getting scammed, but the scammer isn’t even on the station.

It’s about what they do when you’re not there, whether it’s manipulating ATMs, disabling cars, or setting password-free wifi networks (yes, some stations have these).

Check These Gas Scam Red Flags

Even the most popular brands have con men problems. Sometimes, the scammer is too skilled for the attendants to notice the con. In others, the attendants themselves may use sneaky tactics to overcharge and underdeliver.

a. Attendants fuel your car

Some stations have attendants refill your tank, so you don’t have to. It’s not an actual red flag, but something that requires attention. The easiest way to get scammed is to give control to someone else. You don’t want them to take advantage of you, even if they overcharge you by mistake.

One attendant requires alertness. Two attendants make a red flag. Often, the second one will distract you by talking about your car, so you can’t monitor other attendants using your credit card on the machine.

b. The attendant asks to repeat the transaction

“The machine didn’t work.” “The purchase failed. Try again.” “Let’s complete the purchase in the cashier building instead.”

Errors happen often, but would it surprise you to be double-charged? That’s what happens when they tell you about the error but don’t have a receipt to prove it.

You’d be trusting the word of someone who may be lying to you.

c. The ATM doesn’t work/ looks strange

When you’re about to use the station ATM, you find some loose parts, a few holes in the machine, and maybe a sign. You try to insert your card, but the slot is too tight to fit in.

When using credit cards, you open to skimming/shimming scammers. Ask the attendants to pay inside or use cash instead.

d. Unexpected card charges

What would happen if you ignored the ATM red flags? You’d insert the card, pay for gas, refuel, and keep driving.

Long after you left the station, you started getting account alerts. Your card is sending money to random businesses you can’t explain and you realize you’ve been exposed to an ATM scam.

Someone is using your card because they stole the data from the station. If you don’t update your security, conmen will continue to spend your money or sell your card number.

Types Of Gas Station Scams

#1 Gas swindling

Dishonest attendants will try to squeeze every penny, hoping you don’t notice.

For example, they may claim you short-changed them at the cashier. But when you weren’t paying attention, they used their quick fingers to remove/swap dollar bills as they were counting them. 

In a more unfair scenario, they may reconfigure the station gas calculations. They’d display the same price per gallon, but then pump less gasoline than shown.

#2 No Pump Reset

Here’s a simple display trick to charge drivers a few extra dollars:

Driver A enters the gas station, refuels for $30, and drives away. Driver B wants to refuel for $120 and uses the same machine Driver A used. 

The attendant comes to the machine and enters the $120 on top of the previous $30. It’s $30+$120, not $0+$120: they didn’t reset. The driver overpays $30.

Mind that the trick works if the added sum is only slightly higher. If it happened on the contrary ($120 and $30), the second client wouldn’t be able to justify paying five times more ($150).

#3 Machine Switching

Attendants may also trick you with the sales history the machine integrates. They don’t need to do the example we just mentioned: the machine just loads the last client charge that looks the closest to yours (overvalued, of course)! If you need to pay $100, they load a receipt where someone paid $115, for instance.

Now, here’s the meanest switching scam:

  1. A fraudulent driver parks on one side of an empty double station.
  2. He takes both gas pumps and exchanges them, or he reprograms both machines. The first machine controls the second pump; the second machine controls the first one.
  3. He waits for a victim to drive in and use the machine
  4. Once the driver has paid for gas on the other side, the scammer uses that pump to fill his vehicle. The driver will be using the scammer’s pump from a machine he didn’t use/pay.
  5. The scammer refills his car and drivers away. The other driver is left pumping air into his car.

If that driver paid with a card, he might think the payment didn’t process, so he pays again (double-charged, still no gas) until he finds out the switch.

#4 Credit Card Skimming

You pay on the gas machine, as usual, drive away, but later find unrelated expenses. ATM scams are identity theft tricks to steal your card data using a reading device.

For a scammer, it’s as easy as installing a skimmer within a few minutes. If the con succeeds, this guy could be stealing dozens of cards a day. 

You may wonder: “How can’t he get caught if he needs to take out the chip later?” If the conman uses Bluetooth skimmers, he can download the data remotely. He still needs to approach the gas station, but he may never need to touch the skimmed ATM again. 

The scammer comes back to the station and checks the stolen data on his phone, not looking suspicious at all. If you find a skimmer, you know the con man is near. But who is it? 

#5 Parking Lot Scams

Scammers like gas station parking lots: everybody leaves their cars, and it’s easy to drive away after stealing cash. Here are examples:

  • After shopping in the station building, you turn on your car, but it doesn’t work. “But how? It worked perfectly ten minutes ago!” Just when you’re thinking about talking to the cashier, a friendly mechanic offers to revise the vehicle. You pay him some cash because he fixed it in no time. What you don’t know is, he disabled your car when you weren’t there.
  • As you fuel your car, a man approaches you asking for cash to fuel his car. Why? Because if you don’t, they won’t get on time to drive their kids to school, drive to their daughter’s wedding, or some other sob story. You pay them $20-$50, and they drive away. It seems they had fuel after all!

Confidence Tricks Scammers Use To Win Your Trust

How To Prevent Gas Station Scams

You can avoid many rip-offs by following simple steps.

#1 Choose a convenient gas station

Choosing a well-known station brings more security than using a remote, unknown one. Start your trip with the tank full, so you don’t need to stop at far locations later.

  • If you plan to drive for hours and need to refill, choose a popular station in the city. It becomes harder for scammers to install skimmers in a busy gas station. 
  • If you need to refuel immediately, choose the closest machine to the convenience store. To avoid getting caught, con men manipulate the furthest machine from the building.
  • Scammers can’t skim the cashier’s card reader. Paying inside will always protect you from credit card fraud; just make sure your vehicle is safe before you leave it.

#2 Keep your car safe

When you need to leave the car, keep your valuables with you or hidden in the car, doors locked. Park on the closest lot of the building so you can supervise your car even inside the store.

If there are too many drivers in the station, have a passenger in the car while you’re refueling. 

#3 Protect your credit card

ATM scams appear as skimmers, hidden cameras, and fake machines. If you absolutely need to use them, take a few seconds to inspect the machine. Here in our ATM Fraud guide, you can find how to recognize a manipulated machine and prevent the scam.

If it doesn’t look reliable, move onto the next one. Ideally, avoid electronic payments and choose cash.

#4 Manage the attendants

Some gas stations require attendants to fill the gas for you. Drivers see it as convenient customer service, but it should be seen as a red flag.

When the attendant comes up, get out of the car and check how they refuel the car, as if you were doing it yourself. It may feel awkward at times to observe so closely, but not as much as finding the scam after leaving the station.

  • Does the price go up before they even put the nozzle in your car?
  • Do they click all the buttons and print the receipt?

The Bottom Line

Most drivers would be shocked to know how often gas station scams happen. In some locations, scammers managed to con every single driver without ever raising suspicion. 

One day, the fraudster may arrive at your local station. Do NOT assume the gas brand has everything under control. They’re not responsible for the inappropriate actions that other consumers perform.

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