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Fortuna Police Warn of Skimming Scam, Seek Public's Help Cracking Case 

click to enlarge If you recognize the suspect in this picture, the Fortuna Police Department would like to speak with you.


If you recognize the suspect in this picture, the Fortuna Police Department would like to speak with you.

Fortuna police are warning of a potential skimming scam aimed at accessing credit and debit card information. They are also seeking help identifying a suspect in the case.

The case's roots stretch back to October of 2021, according to Lt. Matt Eberhardt, when the department got a cluster of debit or credit card fraud reports from people who said their last legitimate transaction had been at a gas station in the 3600 block of Rohnerville Road. An initial investigation ruled out employees of the business and found that someone had installed a skimming device — or a digital device used to mine customers' credit or debit information from an electric card reader — on one of the pumps.

Over the ensuing 17 months, Fortuna police detectives have discovered the installation of three additional such skimming devices and tried covert operations — "everything from personnel to technology," Eberhardt says — but have been unable to identify suspects in the case or determine a pattern to their behavior.

"It seems random," says detective Ryan Richardson, who has been working the case.

With only a couple of fuzzy surveillance photos of a possible suspect and associated vehicles, no obvious pattern and proactive enforcement efforts having come up empty, Eberhardt says the department decided to make the public aware of the case hoping it leads to a break. "We figure it's time to put it out to the public, see if someone recognizes these individuals."

When the department discovered the first installation of a card skimmer, Richardson took the information to a regular meeting he has with other investigators from law enforcement agencies throughout Humboldt County to see if any of them had encountered similar cases. Eureka had encountered an isolated case some years back, he said, but no one else had run into anything similar.

"At the time, no other agencies were seeing this or receiving reports of it," Richardson said.

Elsewhere, though, such cases are fairly widespread, according to news accounts. Most commonly, thieves purchase protruding magnetic card readers that slide over the readers at gas pumps. They then install them when no one is looking, and the readers then record the card information of anyone who uses a card to pay at that pump. Such scams have become a real problem in some urban areas, and Richardson said the thieves will then either sell the stolen credit and debit card data on the "dark web" or will purchase machines that allow them to make duplicate cards at home.

The Fortuna cases appear a bit atypical — and more sophisticated — though, as the thieves in this case installed the skimming apparatus inside the pump itself, so there would be no way to know anything was suspicious looking at the outside of the pump, whereas a trained eye can spot the skimmers installed externally. At first, Richardson said a key question the investigation had to answer was how the suspects had gained access to the internal workings of the pumps.

The answer did not narrow down the suspect pool as detectives may have hoped, though, as Richardson said he found that the pump manufacturer simply makes one master key per year, meaning that all pumps manufactured in the same year accommodate the same key.

While it's unknown how long the first skimming device police found in Fortuna was in place and just how many credit and debit accounts it may have compromised — Eberhardt said he suspects it may haven a "significant" amount of time — Eberhardt and Richardson said the other three were discovered fairly quickly, as the station has implemented a regular inspection schedule to look for them.

Nonetheless, Eberhardt and Richardson expect the scheme has impacted far more people than have come forward to report their accounts being compromised. Generally, they said, one someone sees fraudulent charges they report them directly to their financial institutions, which simply write them off unless the amounts pass a certain dollar threshold that requires a police report.

Richardson say the department has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Weights and Measures Division, which has jurisdiction over gas pumps, but the agency hasn't been able to bring many investigative resources to the table.

Moving forward, in addition to solving the immediate case, they say they also want to make the public more aware of skimming efforts, which are reportedly on the rise.

"It's a growing trend, it really is," says Eberhardt.

To protect themselves, Richardson recommends people use chip cards, paying with the swipe technology where possible, saying skimmers have yet to become technologically advanced enough to read these. Alternatively, he suggests just paying in cash. And when it comes to gas stations, they suggest visually inspecting the pumps to see if there's anything suspicious — pry marks, broken seals, anything unusual about the card reader — before paying. And they urge businesses to invest in modernizing their equipment and to report any illicit activity they find to their local law enforcement agency.

If anyone recognizes any of the suspect photos or has information about the case, they ask them to call Richardson at (707) 725-1436. Or if they need to contact someone urgently, they can try the main line at (707) 725-2550.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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