What Do You and a Credit Card Thief Have in Common?
I've always considered myself to be an educated credit card user. I keep my balances low, pay on time, and don't do anything that could potentially come back to haunt me.. Little did I know, that by playing it cool, I was putting myself at risk for being treated like a criminal.
Remember my recent Kmart Double Coupon excursion that left me more than a little irritated? Part of my frustration stemmed from the outcome of my purchase – or rather my NON purchase. I never got to buy all the goods in my overflowing cart that day, and the major cause of my headache was the decline of my credit card. For real.
I don't play games with my credit. I kept this card in my wallet, but barely used it for in-store purchases. I think I had used it to reserve hotel rooms from time to time, but almost always ended up paying with cash or a debit card when it came time to check out. The card was a little worn from carrying it around all that time, but really didn't get much swipeage (if you know what I mean.)
“Your money is no good here.” Upon entering the checkout line, I tried to swipe the card. Apparently, the reader machine was having a hard time making sense of my card. The Kmart cashier suggested that I put a plastic bag over the card and try again. No go. So I suggested that she type in the numbers manually.... after some discussion with a manager, she did. My card was declined. I was flabbergasted.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to use other methods of payment, but due to the code that was coming up for why my card was declined... I couldn't get any other method (including check) to work. I left fuming, and received precious advice from the Kmart cashier. “That's why I always carry cash.” Thanks, lady, but we're talking over $350 cash, and with all the muggings going on in my area this time of year, I think I'll pass.
I hang my head in shame... and confusion. I felt like a loser, but I wasn't sure why. I got home and immediately noticed an email from my credit card company, alerting me to “problems” with my account. I called, and I was told the following:
This time of year is ripe for credit card fraud, so my card (along with every one else's) was being monitored especially well
My account was showing “suspicious” activity, specifically, a $16 Subway charge and a $30 gas charge – all in one week.
Because of the shocking nature of the recent flurry in activity, my card was flagged as suspect for fraud. (I.e., they thought that the two charges in one month was a little shady, so they froze my account... hours before I headed to Kmart.)
They were very sorry, but they have to think of the safety of their customers. Big purchases (like that monster charge of $200+ at Kmart) was unspeakably high. It could only mean theft.
OK.... so I argued (politely, of course) with the rep. How can I possibly use my card if small charges like this could be flagged as fraud? What if I was traveling out of town and needed to crash in a hotel slightly nicer than the Wagon Wheel Inn? Would the $80 charge throw my account into a meltdown? How could I be sure I could count on my card?
After a long letter to the executive office and a phone call later, I got everything straightened out (and a nice compensation of award points, to boot.) Basically, there was no surefire way any one of us could guarantee the same thing wouldn't happen. Here's what was recommended, however:
If you plan on using your card after a period of long inactivity (sitting in your freezer, perhaps) start slow, make many small purchases, and work your way up to larger purchases. Be prepared for it to cause an alert to be placed on your card, and carry a backup method of payment, if you can.
Be aware of your spending patterns. In my case, my credit card had only two charges each month for over a year. They were recurring charges for Netflix and my newspaper, so they were very predictable. When my spending went OUTSIDE of this pattern, it alerted my credit card company. It might help to call ahead and let them know if you plan on making large purchase outside of your pattern, or if you are going to be out of town with a need for easy access to funds.
Monitor your card carefully. Just because they caught my intentional purchase, doesn't mean they'll catch everything. Small fraudulent purchases are more likely to go under the radar and cause financial damage than large ones. Read your statements every month.