Debit Card Fraud

credit-card-imageWe had one of our debit cards compromised this past week.

Because debit card transactions directly hit your bank account (versus credit card transactions where you have a chance to review your charges before actually paying for them) we’ve always been judicious in the use of them. Our basic policy is that we only use the debit card when we’re actually taking possession of the goods or services we’re buying on the spot… for example, grocery stores and other established retail businesses where we’re exchanging goods directly for cash.

We never use the debit card when buying online, any advanced purchase (like airline tickets, concert tickets, etc), or anytime we’re not sure of the complete integrity of a seller. A credit card gives you an added layer of review, approval, and protection.

About a month ago I was reviewing our bank checking account activity online and found a “pending charge” to something listed cryptically as M*Telkom. I immediately called the bank’s customer service line and disputed the charge. They told me at that time that being a “pending” charge it could be a mistake and might correct itself in the next day or so. Also, because the transaction was “pending”, they couldn’t do anything until the transaction was complete and the funds had been taken out of the account. Taking this information at face value, I checked the account activity again a day or two later and found the transaction had indeed dropped off. Problem solved… I thought.

But when looking into our account online again one day last week, I found a completed transaction to the same M*Telkom for about $177 that had been paid just the day before. I won’t get into a rant here about customer service reps. in India, only to say we had a frustrating hour or so on the phone before I finally got a guy named Dan in Columbus Ohio who was quick and efficient at solving the immediate problem. The funds were back in our account, with interest (a whopping 2 cents.. woo hoo!), the next day.

The business that originated the charge, Dan told me, is a “direct marketer” in South Africa. It sounded like he too was questioning the veracity of this business. How they got ahold of the debit card number that was used for this transaction is a mystery to me.

Needless to say, the debit card was cancelled and a new one with a new number was sent.

I can only speculate that this “business” hits random accounts with charges (however they get valid card numbers) and hopes the account owner fails to discover the fraud by not checking each transaction carefully.

It’s clearly very important to check the activity in your accounts often and with care. I know I’m planning to check mine more often in the future. I’m also using our bank’s “email alerts” capability to have an email sent to my cellphone for every debit card transaction. This works extremely well… I often hear the text message arriving on the phone before I get home from the grocery store… a great use of technology.

Hmmm. $58 to a spa in Portland??? Dar?, You got some ‘splainin’ to do!


*addendum: After publishing this entry, I realized I missed another rule we try to follow if using a debit card: Never surrender possession of the card to anyone else for any reason. The most common situation like this would be paying for a meal in a restaurant… where the waitperson takes your card to complete the transaction. Whenever we have a situation where we have to give up possession of the debit card, we always use the credit card instead.


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