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I was at a petrol station in rural New Zealand at the weekend which only accepted payment via the automated card reader on the forecourt. After I had filled up, a young woman approached me and asked if I would use my card to pay for her petrol, and she would pay me back in cash.

While I tried to work out if this was safe, she said it was OK if I didn't want to, and walked away.

Was this an attempted scam, or have I just refused help to someone who needed it?

10 Answers 10

204

Plenty of people don't have credit/debit cards, if they had cash in hand they were probably just one of those people. Cash first, fuel 2nd with you pumping, not much risk to you in that scenario.

Could it have been a ruse to get some free fuel from you or rob you while your guard was down? Sure, but seems less likely.

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    @void_ptr OP pointed out it was credit only so cash wasn't an option. – topshot Feb 11 at 21:26
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    @topshot Most gas stations in my area have quite a few security cameras around the pumps, so it feels like a risky place to rob someone, but who knows, people are crazy. – Hart CO Feb 11 at 21:35
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    FYI New Zealand has been a leader in electronic transactions since the 90s. We have been using eftpos for 30+ years, so its not unusual. I personally use cash 5-6 times a year at most. You just have to have a bank account to get an eftpos card (which is different to a debit card in that it has no CC-like number) Whether account has funds in it, is another matter completely. – Criggie Feb 11 at 23:35
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    My in-laws once needed fuel in NZ for their camper-van, only station was card-only and their German CC wasn't PIN-enabled, so it didn't work. They only got some fuel because someone came along and offered they could use his credit-card in exchange for cash. – piet.t Feb 12 at 9:25
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    Last year my only card was locked by the bank, I had to forgotten to refill the tank at a station which accepted cash and the only one I could reach only accepted card, so I had to ask a stranger that he'd use his card to pay for fuel and I reimbursed him in cash. – baudsp Feb 12 at 13:47
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In my experience scammers are actually trying to get cash, not goods, so it's possible, but I don't see an obvious play. Some possibilities that come to mind:

  • She takes off before giving you the cash
  • She gives you counterfeit cash (good enough to fool you but not trained merchants)
  • Some sort of short-change sleight-of-hand (I have actually been victim to this)
  • She somehow puts more on your card than just gas (not sure how that would work unless you gave her the card)
  • She parlays your kindness into another purchase (food, etc.)
  • She might try to give you cash for an incomplete fuel-service, which she will continue after you take your card back, leaving you with more cost than she has paid for. Maybe this kind of trick is possible when she doesn't put the nozzle back into the station.

If it were me, I probably would have tried to help, being very careful not to fall for one of the above schemes, but I certainly don't blame you for being skeptical.

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    That would not be money laundering, though. Money laundering is funneling cash from illegal activities through legal channels to hide its origin. – D Stanley Feb 11 at 22:58
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    One other risk to be aware of: credit card data skimmers installed on specific card readers at ATMs or gas stations. This is certainly less common than other issues mentioned, but it's something to be aware of in case there's suspicious pushiness about using a specific card reader. – cr0 Feb 11 at 22:59
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    @cr0 but I don't see how that's a play for this alleged scammer. If there's a skimmer, the OP is going to be harmed regardless; if not, there's no harm. – D Stanley Feb 11 at 23:01
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    @AndrewLeach Sounds like you're talking about "passing" (counterfeit money) rather than "laundering" per se (concealing the source of real money for nefarious means. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 12 at 0:11
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    @DStanley re: skimmer, it could have just been on one, and by asking op to use it on that pump, she was guaranteed her mark, and doesn't have to leave the skimmer (which have been used to track the people down before). – user73687 Feb 12 at 10:36
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There's a small chance this was a scam, or a distraction for some third person to come and steal things from your car. Could also have been an attempt to pass counterfeit notes to an unsuspecting person (like a tourist)


But here in New Zealand we do have a number of automated petrol stations that sell 91, 95, diesel, and perhaps a carwash. They cannot sell LPG without a qualified attendant on site, but they occasionally might have vending machines. These are also known as "truck stops"

These automated bowsers have a card reader and will pre-debit up to $150 NZD off your balance before the pump handle is raised. That's how the service station makes sure you have the wherewithall to cover the unknown total cost. If you have a credit card, that pre-charge is simply "unavailable" but you're not paying interest on it.

However if you have a debit card or an eftpos card that "reservation" can cause financial hardship.

If it was me I'd totally make a spot judgement call about the person and decide whether to help or not. If it were a spanky new car and the person had smokes then I might decide no, but a frazzled mum driving a beat-up old 90s car is unlikely to be scamming you out of some dollars. I might even hit the bowser with "dispense $20 worth" on my card rather than "fill" and then just leave without taking cash, because its nice to do something for someone.

Source - I'm a kiwi.

Further info on card charge at robo-stations: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/05/08/petrol-stations-introduce-new-99-charge-pay-pump/ and https://gull.nz/faq/


Here's an automated fuel station. Has around 6 bowsers and sells liquid fuel only. There is nobody in attendance. Own photo, taken at Allied, Weedons Ross Road, in Rolleston, Canterbury, New Zealand.

And here's the payment device at a different site. Notice that the fuel pump will not start unless the card has authorised, so if you don't have a card, or your balance is below a preset minimum, then the pump will not start.

So OP would HAVE to enter his own PIN - can't just hand over a card and share the PIN.

Own photo, taken at NPD truckstop in Jones Road, Rolleston, Canterbury, New Zealand

The reader will use the card's chip, and it may read the magstripe for confirmation but some simply ignore it. Then you MUST input your PIN. Once that validates the unit will pre-authorise $150 and signal the pump that it is allowed to start when the trigger is pressed.

So no card, no fuel. Insufficient funds and you can't even get $5 of petrol out of these things.

If its a scam, its a lot of work for a little bit of fuel.

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    Here's where I'll be cynical. Wouldn't a scammer TRY to look like a "frazzled mom" to produce exactly that effect? – Patrice Feb 12 at 0:08
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    Scammers aren't normally that smart about it. Making legitimate money is generally easier. – meh-uk Feb 12 at 6:43
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    @Patrice make judgement call at the time. Not everyone is a criminal - sometimes people do get caught out. I've added some pictures to show the gotcha. – Criggie Feb 12 at 9:06
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    @Criggie LPG is still liquid fuel, though, right? Isn't that what the 'L' stands for? – reirab Feb 13 at 19:37
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    Sign: "Dial 111 - ask for Fire"...Me: "But Fire is the LAST thing I want here!" – bvoyelr Feb 14 at 19:56
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Since the cash option wasn't available at that time, I think Occam's Razor probably applies. Sure a scam is possible, but IMHO that would more likely have involved someone with no money and no wallet begging you to not leave them stranded at the gas station.

A similar scenario happened to me once. I was getting gas late at night at a station that only accepts credit/debit cards during unstaffed hours. There was one other car trying to get gas and I heard the guy swearing at the pump. I looked over at him and he kind of threw his hands up in desperation so I asked him if he needed help. He said his card was being declined. I suggested he try another card and he didn't have one, so I asked him if he had any cash. He offered me $8 in cash for $5 of gas. I told him no need, just $5 is fine. As I swiped my card it occurred to me that I had no way of limiting the sale to $5, so I said I'd pump it myself. He agreed while thanking me a thousand times. I wasn't perfect and he actually got $5.01 in gas. As I got back in my car I realized that I still profited 9 cents due to my 2% credit card points. (And then chuckled at the ridiculousness that my brain automatically calculated that.)

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    Get that cash into an interest-bearing bank account quick and you'll also have a time-value-of-money gain to enjoy!! – andrewb Feb 14 at 21:49
  • @andrewb - I'll get right on that... ;) – TTT Feb 15 at 15:04
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If she never touches your card it is really just you selling her a gallon of fuel, not that big a deal. If she wants to buy a full tank then check the security features on the currency.

If there is an alternate petrol station nearby suggest they try there for cash transaction or just donate her the fuel to get there if her car is on fumes. I would ask them to pay it forward rather than accept a small amount. If you feel victimised ask to check her fuel gauge first to verify the need.

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Some people don't have or carry credit cards, for various reasons... so this could be legit. But there are ways of using this situation to take advantage of someone.

One way it could be a scam is that she does this all day hoping someone hands her their card for her to go swipe at the machine, during which time she can photograph it and use it for online purchases later or sell the card's info.

Another way this could be a scam is if she is trying to use this as a distraction, either to mug you or to pickpocket you, possibly with the help of someone else. (Less likely due to all the security cameras at gas stations, but criminals aren't always the brightest minds).

One way to protect yourself is to take her $20 cash, pre-approve to pump up to $20 on your card, swipe the card yourself and walk away. It's quick and you don't have to stand there and pump it yourself.

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    Is it possible to limit the pump to $20 at the start? I thought it pre-approved a high amount on your card so that it wouldn't limit you. – acestar Feb 12 at 0:50
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    @acestar depends on the pump but it’s more and more common to see pumps that offer the ability to limit the amount of fuel dispensed, especially on ones that take card. – Notts90 Feb 12 at 7:59
  • @acestar where I go I have the choice to pre-approve $200 (the large amount you mentioned so you don't run out) or enter another (lesser) amount. That way I can choose to spend only up to $20 if that's what I want and it won't let me go over. It may be dependent on location (both geographical and which retailer you go with) but I think it's becoming more common. – Alexandre Aubrey Feb 15 at 16:21
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To offer a different perspective here.

We had an issue here in the states where someone would do something similar. They get you to run your card, or they prevent the pump from properly hanging up and completing a transaction after someone has finished.

Then, once they have access to an active pump, they come through with like 5 cars and fill them all up, and also some gas cans.

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    Certainly possible, so just hang up the pump when its done. – Criggie Feb 13 at 0:07
  • It's not necessarily something that's easy to do -once we were trying to fill two cars on one transaction (a legitimate transaction, just family-style plotting), but the transaction timed itself out in the minute or so it took to swap the cars - probably to avoid that very scam. It'd be really easy to be physically there long enough to overrun that time out, even accidentally, with such small tasks one does before driving off (from gas cap to seatbelt to plugging a phone charger or setting up gps, etc). – Megha Feb 16 at 7:07
  • @Megha assuming every pump has this feature. However, most don't – Anthony Russell Feb 16 at 14:01
  • @AnthonyRussell - not assuming every pump has this, assuming some do. I'm assuming, in the end, that specific circumstances will overrule generalities, and so it's best to find out the actual specifics involved. Some places it is not possible, some places it is. different situations will have different vulnerabilities and defenses - so that scam wouldn't work in our gas station, but there probably is something that will, and possibly it will work because of what's preventing that scam. And thinking about the not-possible-scam might let me miss the actually-possible scam that happens. – Megha Feb 17 at 3:11
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    if you can mark it to spend 20 bucks, that can't happen. depends on the machine of course. – Lassi Kinnunen Feb 19 at 15:05
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I'm hopefully not too opinion-based here.

If someone hands you $XYZ to fill up the same exact amount in their vehicle, with you there during the entire transaction, I cannot understand how that could be fraud*. Either they don't have a card on them, they don't have the funds available in their card, or there are strange requirements that they can't enter (in the US some older card stations require a zip code which, if international, you can't enter one).

Simply accept the cash, fill their tank if you have the funds in your card, like the kind person you are, and you're finished.

*- Keep in mind we're all wondering if you're trying to see if there are ways for you to scam people this way :p

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    Money.SE: where scammers come to learn new techniques. :P Frankly, I feel the same way about many StackExchange questions. Especially ones like WorldBuilding.SE ("How could someone blow up this tower without leaving any evidence?") or Security.SE ("What are the risks with this encryption method?"). – Kapten-N Feb 14 at 8:14
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    @Kapten-N: Relevant: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/199353/… – ruakh Feb 17 at 5:36
  • Best answer: get cash, fill tank, done. – chux - Reinstate Monica Feb 18 at 3:24
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I would be wary of giving someone my credit card in hands in this ocasion, since she might write down (or take a picture of, or memorize(!)) my card number and CVV and later make a fraudulent online purchase which might go unnoticed by some. But one can take simple precautions around this.

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    So don't hand over your card. Go swipe it yourself and enter your PIN yourself (remember its a breach of your contract with the bank if you share your PIN with anyone else.) – Criggie Feb 19 at 23:52
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    @Criggie exactly what I had in mind when I said "simple precautions". – Marc.2377 Feb 20 at 0:30
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The cash could have been counterfeit. It very well could have been a scam.

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    You could say that about pretty much every cash transaction ever... – colmde Feb 12 at 13:11
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    But would that attendant in Wal mart intentionally hand you a counterfeit note? Very unlikely. – vikingsteve Feb 15 at 9:00
  • @colmde money laundering does require you to remain mostly anonymous, like this situation allows so there is a small amount of statistical shift in that direction. However people are reasonably good at detecting counterfeit currency if they are on the look out for it. – KalleMP Feb 21 at 8:27

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