Sometimes, it seems like Texas lawmakers’ go-to solution for a vexing problem is to hide information about it.
Consider credit-card skimmers. The use of computer equipment to steal consumers’ information at gas pumps has been on the rise for years. The Legislature decided this year to take a comprehensive approach, creating a “payment fraud fusion center” run by the attorney general to ensure collaboration among law enforcement and other agencies.
That’s a solid step. But here’s the problem: For years, the Department of Agriculture has released information about where skimmers have been found so customers can make informed decisions about where to buy gas. Under the new law, that information can no longer be released.
And the change was made with no deliberation. At no point in committee hearings in the House and Senate did anyone object to exempting this information from public-disclosure laws. The bill passed both houses unanimously with little debate.
Poof. The information is gone. Just like the money in your checking account if a skimmer grabs your debit card number.
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As they always do, lawmakers contend that keeping the information confidential is meant to aid investigations. But police departments balance releasing information that allows people to protect themselves with maintaining the integrity of investigations all the time. It takes a little more work, though, so why not just get the Legislature to throw down a blanket of total confidentiality?
Lawmakers should revisit this in their 2021 session. They can surely find a way for public warnings about problematic stations or chains without compromising investigations to take down high-tech thieves.
The job of evaluating gas pumps will move to the Department of Licensing and Regulation, a change that’s more about dissatisfaction with Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller than anything. The change makes sense — let the Agriculture Department concentrate on, you know, agriculture.
Miller is vowing to continue releasing information until the shift in departments is complete. But the licensing department isn’t led by a statewide elected official, so applying public pressure on skimmer risks will be harder.
The agency shift, executed in a law that Republican Rep. Craig Goldman of Fort Worth sponsored, was pushed by the Texas Food and Fuel Association, the industry group for gas stations and convenience stores.
Let’s hope the group prods its members to step up their monitoring of gas pumps for skimmers, since their customers now have one fewer tool with which to protect their bank accounts.