Mike, a college senior, recently discovered that someone had been using his debit card number to make several online purchases. Although he took steps right away to protect his bank account, it’s taken many phone calls and considerable time to get the mess straightened out. Mike’s also had some anxious moments wondering how the thieves got his card number and what he can do to prevent similar problems in the future.
Mike carries very little cash and uses his debit card for almost all of his purchases. When his statement comes each month, he glances at it to verify that he recognizes the charges that have been made.
Last month, however, Mike had to go into his account between statements to verify some payments. He was shocked to see that there were some charges on his account—totaling more than $200—that he knew he hadn’t made. They were companies that he had never dealt with.
He knew his card hadn’t been stolen—he had it with him and guards it carefully. The only explanation was that someone had gotten his card number.
What Mike did right: He immediately called his bank card company and explained the situation and asked that the charges be removed.
Mike was surprised when the bank told him not to cancel his card unless the charges went through; there was a possibility, since he had caught it early, that they would drop those charges off account. They advised him to wait 24 hours.
Unfortunately, the charges made by the thief did go through. Mike called 24 hours later and cancelled his card. It would take him more than a week to receive a replacement card. (That seemed a long time since this took place during a time when he was trying to purchase books and other supplies for school.)
The bank officials told Mike he would have to wait another few days to see if any other charges went through before he could dispute them and have them removed from his account.
Because Mike acted quickly, his liability was limited. If he had waited 60 days to report the problem, however, he could have been out all his money.
Mike decided to be proactive. He called the merchants involved in the fraudulent transactions and alerted them to what was happening. (He hoped to prevent the charges from going through his account, although this didn’t happen.) He found that the merchandise had been sent to an address in Massachusetts, although the merchant would not give him the exact address.
One merchant required a police report for Mike to file a fraud report, so he contacted his local police and an officer came out to take the report. Unfortunately, the officer told him there wasn’t much that could be done on an individual case. Because this kind of theft is so widespread, law enforcement officials generally have to build a pattern of fraud against individuals before they’re able to take action.
The police officer did tell Mike that the numbers could have been stolen anywhere. Thieves place hidden cameras or number detectors inside legitimate ATM and payment machines, capturing numbers without the store or the customer knowing about it. These cameras are very difficult to detect.
The officer advised Mike that the best protection is to be alert and keep a close eye on the purchases made on his account.
From his discussions with the merchants, Mike discovered that the thieves also had his home address and had set up a fake email account with a variation of his name. Since he was concerned about identity theft, he immediately checked his credit report and found, to his relief, that there were no problem with it. (No one had tried to open credit accounts in his name.)
To be on the safe side, Mike placed a three-month fraud alert on his account with one of the credit bureaus; they’ll forward the information to the other two credit bureaus.
Mike says he’ll check his accounts every day. While that may not be practical—or even likely –it would be a good idea for him to log into his account online at least on a weekly basis to make sure there are no unauthorized charges.