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Published:Thursday | December 11, 2014 | 1:19 PMRyon Jones

Cardholders being cheated out of $millions at gas pumps

Ryon Jones
Staff Reporter

PULL QUOTE:  ‘We have had high court judges whose credit cards have been scammed’

Local motorists who use debit and credit cards at gas stations were fleeced more than $9 million in the first six months of this year.

But president of the Jamaica Gasolene Retailers Association (JGRA) Leonard Green, is arguing that the kind of fraud at gas station is not unique.

“It is a plague that is affecting the retail sector,” argued Green after the information, provided to The Sunday Gleaner by the police, was presented to him.

“The gas industry is one of the main targets because of the nature of our product and the nature of our business where somebody drives up outside; you actually conduct the business outside on a pump. There is less control and the risk of your image being captured is less,” said Green.

Police investigators told The Sunday Gleaner that the main method used to carry out credit and debit card fraud at gas stations is the cloning of these cards.

This is done when a motorist drives into the gas station and hands a dishonest pump attendant their debit card or credit card. The dishonest attendant then swipes the card through a machine called a grabber which copies the information and allows the crooks to create a new card.

“So what motorists see happening is that they are in possession of their credit card and they are getting a call from the bank that their card is being used at a hotel, at a gift shop; it is all over the place,” said Inspector Pilmar Powell, head of the Special Investigation Unit, Organised Crime Investigation Division (OCID).

“It is a syndicate, a group of them, because the thief who owns the grabber will have to approach the pump attendant and say, ‘Look here, for every credit card that you get for me, you will get a 10 grand ($10,000)’, and the cashier is also in on it, because by right the customer is supposed to come in, present their ID, present the card, the card is run and then they sign,” said Powell.

“We are saying to the motorist, park your vehicle, go inside and do your transaction yourself,” added Powell.

She noted that the fraudulent activities at gas stations do not stop with the cloning of these cards as the cloned cards are also used to get cash from service stations.

“The cloned card will be taken to a gas station where a syndicate is run in there and that cloned card will be run there purportedly for gas, but is not gas they get, is cash,” Powell revealed.

“The fraud unit has a whole lot of cases before the court, but we have six of the main players who deal with the card cloning before the courts - three have been sentenced and three others are awaiting sentencing.”

Powell revealed that her unit happened upon gas station fraud purely by chance while probing other ills of an industry which she described as being like a “soap opera”.

“It’s a soap opera that can escalate to murder. It is a moneymaking venture and not just for the common man or robbers, but for the power brokers as well, because nothing can be facilitated without inside work, inside information,” said Powell.

“We started looking at the oil industry after a myriad of robberies. During our investigations, we realised that there is another type of racketeering that is running in the oil industry … the scamming of credit cards,” said Powell.

“We have had high court judges whose credit cards have been scammed. It is cloning of the cards involving a group of men and this racket cannot be run without the cashiers and the pump attendants. “

Powell said lack of a proper database to record service station employees who have been dismissed from their jobs for wrongdoing helps these persons to move from station to station committing the same offences.

“We have also asked (the JGRA) about setting up a database, because what we are also seeing from an investigative point of view is that we have personnel who are gas station hopping. They are fired from one gas station and another hires them, so we proposed to the JGRA to start a database,” said Powell.

But the JGRA has responded with a claim that recording all service station workers across the island would prove challenging.

“It is a job that has extremely high turnover. The demand for a database would require significant consideration as to how this is going to be managed and operated and how we are going to share information,” said Green.

“All of those details have not been worked out. There is a discussion of saying let us have a central registry of people who are found guilty of these particular criminal activities and we have asked that that information be passed to us from the police if they have any claims at all anywhere. Just tell us that you suspect these people to be involved and we will take action and we will register it.”
But Powell argues that with OCID having taken the initiative to call and meet with the marketing companies and the JGRA, it is now up to the two groups to come back to the table to chart the way forward.

“OCID took the initiative after the large number of reports that were coming in about credit-card scams at gas stations. We took the initiative and met with both the marketers and the JGRA and asked for both entities to meet back with us and we haven’t heard anything,” said Powell.

However Green rejected the suggestion that the JGRA has been dragging its feet in tackling the issues.

“I am getting the impression that here is a problem, she has brought it to the attention of the JGRA and the JGRA has not addressed it adequately and, therefore, customers remain exposed.

“The processing of credit cards; we had dialogue with the banks and the major bank NCB started a series of training in different regions with dealers going through the process of accepting a credit card and what the requirements are.

“Also large transactions require secondary scrutiny, for example, transactions exceeding $10,000, and there is a check off at the end of the shift to see if any one card was repeated in any shift. All of that were basic recommendations made by the OCID team that we pretty much adopted,” declared Green.

He said gas station operators have also acted on a suggestion from the police to have portable card readers near the pumps so that customers can be fully aware of whatever transaction is taking place, rather than giving their card to someone to enter the service station and conduct the transaction.