Thieves are becoming increasingly more creative in ways to quietly part customers from their money.

A sudden spike in discovery of credit card "skimmers'' hidden in gas pumps has state officials warning Arizona consumers how to avoid becoming victims.

Mark Killian, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said Wednesday his inspectors found 11 of the hidden devices all of last year. Last month alone, however, they detected 31 of them.

One new device was found in Chandler.

Killian, whose agency absorbed the old Department of Weights and Measures, conceded some of that may be because staffers have been more actively looking inside the gas pumps—where consumers cannot see the skimmers—to try to stem the problem.

But he said that thieves are becoming increasingly more creative in ways to quietly part customers from their money.

More to the point, the agency has just 12 inspectors to check about 12,000 gas pumps statewide. And that, Killian said, means consumers cannot rely solely on the state to find and remove the devices but actively need to protect themselves.

The problem is not isolated. A list of where inspectors have found scanners includes not only the East Valley and the Phoenix metro area but Kingman, Yuma and Eloy.

And some places have more problems than other, with a gas station at West Ina Road and Interstate 10 on Tucson's northwest side turning up eight of the devices.

To the naked eye, the skimmers are undetectable.

Killian said those who know what they're doing can open a gas pump in seven seconds. Then it takes just a few more to piggy-back the scanner onto the pump's regular card reader and close all the access doors.

He said some devices can store up to 5,000 card numbers and PINs while waiting for the thieves to return. Others are more high tech, using Bluetooth wireless technology that instantly transmits the stolen information to someone parked nearby.

Given the invisibility of the devices to consumers, Ephram Cordova, an inspector in the Division of Weights and Measures said there's no sure-fire way for consumers to protect themselves.

"We have to be the ones out here checking on them,'' he said. But given just 12 inspectors, that means they can check out only so many of the 12,000 gas pumps on a regular basis.

There are things customers can do.

Cordova said the first-line of defense is security tape over keyholes and other places where the machine can be opened up. A torn tape or a tape that shows signs of tampering—often with the word "void" popping up—is a sure sign to go elsewhere or pay cash.

But Arizona law does not require the use of such tape by retailers.

"The public is unsuspecting and really doesn't have any good way whether the machine has been tampered with,'' Cordova said.

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