Whether I’m shuffling through my mail or surfing the net, ads and slogans for quick and easy credit cards often distort my view. Each one has its own cheerful pitch, such as, “Visa. It’s everywhere you want to be.” Maybe they should add the phrase “and hopefully, you’re here with it.”
As a consumer, I have fallen into the simple pleasures of a debit card. I no longer get upset by grimly pressing the “agree” button for the transaction fee at a money machine, and I never have to wait for someone to scratch their lottery tickets at the gas station. I have technology at my fingertips and, with it, access to my entire bank account.
Unfortunately, this kind of technology has a downside.
As a college student, I worked for the fraud department at a major bank. Basically, my job was to review statements on a computer system and search for “fraud trends,” which are spending sequences a thief may follow when using a stolen credit card.
You may have received a call from me after making multiple charges on your credit card in a short period of time, or if you bought $4,000 in stereo equipment all in one shot.
Each year banks lose millions of dollars to credit-card fraud. What’s really disturbing are the people committing the crimes. Every time you lose sight of your credit card, you’re in danger of having it stolen. We called them “perpetrators” at work, but you would know them as servers, nurses, sales reps, tellers, sons, mechanics, granddaughters, in-laws and neighbors, just to name a few.
For some people, credit-card theft and fraud are a way of life. Banks are not worried about someone picking up your wallet and making a few charges. They are worried about people who use magnetic-strip machines to swipe the information off your credit card, hand it back to you, duplicate it and then sell it in bulk. Just because you have your credit card in your possession doesn’t mean that you’re safe.
I learned it is normal for a “perpetrator” to hold onto your credit-card information for a few months before using it. You may open your statement next month to find hundreds of dollars in long-distance phone calls or thousands spent in online casinos. All they need, in many cases, is your card number and expiration date.
Do you ever wonder what servers do with your credit card when they pick it up from the table, or how easy it would be to grab your wallet after you change into that drafty gown at the hospital? Of course, not all of these workers are dishonest, but after talking to as many victims as I have, I keep a close eye on my plastic.
Always sign the back of your card with your normal signature. Don’t make the mistake that many people make, which is to write “See I.D.” on the back and then never sign it. Remember how easy it was to get a fake I.D. in college? Anyone can pick up your card, get a fake I.D. and max out your credit.
If your bank offers it, get a card with your photo on it. Send a recent photo.
Keep track of your receipts and statements. You would be surprised how many people just send in their payments and never look at the statement. Each bank has a different policy, but most of them will only allow you to dispute charges for a certain amount of time.
Call your bank, and ask about efforts to prevent fraud. It might have literature to send you concerning its policy. Keep in contact with your bank and inform it when you travel, which will help fraud departments to screen unusual activity.
Some banks will systematically apply a temporary “freeze” on your card if they see unusual activity in or out of the country. If a bank knows you’re in England, it may be less likely to block your card when it sees all of the activity there. It may take you 10 minutes before you leave, but it could also save you time and embarrassment down the road.
It is upsetting to know that there are people sitting at home right now thinking of new ways to steal their way through life while the rest of us work hard to earn a living.
In this new age of technology, it is hard to keep up with all the new fraud trends. What’s important is not to forget all the old ones. Although it is impossible to completely protect yourself, at least you can make them work for it.
Richard Christoff was recently hired as the staff photographer for the Central Penn Business Journal. He went to school at the University of North Florida, where he graduated in December 2001.