As much as it might inconvenience us, there’s simply no good way to purchase gas anymore other than to actually walk into the store and pay for it in cash.
We suggested in this space a little more than a year ago that “the most prudent thing a customer can do when purchasing gas is to walk inside and pay at the register (although the only truly fool-proof way is to pay for the transaction in cash).” That was in response to the rash of credit and debit card pump skimmers that have plagued the Lufkin area for several years now.
Thanks to an incident in July in which the Lufkin Police Department recovered skimmer devices from checkout counter card readers next to the register at two different stores, it seems the latter half of that advice is the only part that still holds true.
Skimmers alone should be reason enough to walk inside and pay in cash. If you haven’t already had to cancel a debit or credit card because it’s been potentially compromised, you definitely know someone who has.
But complaints have surfaced recently about gas stations pre-authorizing transactions for amounts ranging from $1 to $100 or more. Stations sometimes do this because they don’t know how much the customer will actually pump in advance of the transaction.
Most pumps feature a disclosure somewhere; it may say a pre-authorization could be placed on your card up to a certain dollar amount, or it may simply say that a pre-authorization could stay on your card for a certain number of days (with no dollar amount mentioned).
When complaints about this practice arise, stations typically blame the banks, and the banks typically blame the gas stations. Both, however, are responsible for pre-authorizations on cards, with the station determining the amount of the hold and the bank determining the length of time that hold remains on your account.
Pilot spokeswoman Stephanie Myers provided the following statement in a March article in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer: “Pilot Flying J adheres to all credit provider authorization procedures, including VISA’s Real Time Clearing program designed specifically for automated fuel dispensers. Any holds applied to a guest’s account is the choice of the credit card issuer and guests should contact their credit card company for terms and conditions.”
Well that’s clear as mud.
In a recent thread on the What’s Happening Angelina County Facebook page, local citizens have complained about pre-authorizations in amounts ranging from $1 all the way up to $225 at stations including Brookshire Brothers, Homer Mini-Mart, Kroger, Loves, Lucky’s, Murphy USA and Pilot Flying J.
For those fortunate enough to have plenty of money in the bank, these “blocks” or “holds” aren’t a problem. But for those of us who barely have enough to cover the gas we’re pumping or who might be traveling and have these holds eat up our credit-card limits, it can create a nightmare. And these holds can be placed on all manner of purchases at all manner of businesses — not just when you’re pumping gas.
With that in mind, here are a couple of tricks to use, as suggested in a July article in the Chicago Sun-Times.
■ When you stop at a gas station, pay the cashier inside rather than swiping at the pump. Otherwise, you could get hit with a hold of up to $100 — even though your gas might have cost only $20.
■ At a restaurant, you can tell the server you intend to tip in cash. That way, the card will be swiped only for the exact total of the bill.
■ With a rental car or hotel, consumers usually are stuck because the business will insist on blocking an extra amount to cover extras or damages, according to Nessa Feddis, senior vice president of the American Bankers Association. It’s worth calling your credit card issuers before a trip to see if they’ll be nice and bump up your limit.
■ Opt in for texts from your bank offering updates on your debit card’s balance.
■ Travel with more than one credit card, and spread the charges around to avoid too many holds piling up at a time, says Steve Bernas, president of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago & Northern Illinois, who has heard complaints from consumers of 20-day holds.
“It’s to protect the merchant,” he reminds us. “It’s not to protect the consumer.”