Expert on fraud gets firsthand lesson

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Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 12:00 am

Recently, I listened to the message nobody wants to hear: “Mr. Hegarty, this is the fraud prevention department with your debit card account. Please call us back at your earliest convenience.”

Concerned my account had been compromised, I quickly dialed the number provided to get the news. I remembered, though, that the BBB has been receiving reports from consumers all over the country who have gotten similar calls from scammers pretending to be with fraud prevention departments for various credit card issuers.

The scammers leave messages about how they’ve detected unusual activity on a consumer’s account. But when people return these calls the thieves ask for verification of card numbers, PIN numbers or other sensitive data. Sometimes, they already have almost all the information and are trying to get that valuable three-digit security code on the back of a card.

Just to be on the safe side, I hung up and dialed the number listed on the back of my debit card, so that I knew I was dealing with my bank card’s fraud department.

I hoped to hear that the call was just a scam, but there was no such luck for me this time. My card had been presented at a retailer in France earlier in the day. France — the one in Europe. The purchase was for $197 at a French bookstore with a French name that sells books printed, I assume, in French. Such books aren’t too useful to me, since I parle only English.

The kind lady from fraud prevention explained to me that the purchase was flagged because I bought two buckets of golf balls at a driving range in Omaha on Sunday afternoon and on Monday morning it seemed unlikely I’d already be on another continent buying, you know, all those French words. Isn’t that impressive that my bank would notice that? I certainly felt good about that, at least, that my bank watches out for me so effectively. Unfortunately, there’s a lot going on I don’t feel good about, too, and I’m the scam alert guy, for goodness’ sake, so this hit awfully close to home.

This was no Internet theft. This purchase was made in person and “my” card had been used. A fake was created and someone presented it in person and boldly signed my name. How did the thief get my information? The woman from the fraud department gave me a straightforward and honest answer, which I appreciated, but at the same time found terribly unsettling: “We have no idea.”

My wife mentioned the situation to a friend, who said her card had just been used in France, too. That was an odd coincidence, surely, but then I attended a luncheon at the BBB the following day and shared my story with the group of 25, three of whom shared stories of receiving similar calls recently. Their cards had been shut down because of fraudulent purchases, too. That’s a small group of people and a lot of cards compromised. Yikes.

I am extraordinarily impressed with my bank’s vigilance and with its crackerjack fraud detection department, but we are our own best line of defense from credit card fraud.

What can we do?

First of all, know with whom you speak. Be aware that card issuers will never, ever call you to “verify” account information. They already have it. Don’t engage such a caller. Hang up and call the number on your credit or debit card. Joey, who left the message for me, was a legitimate representative from my bank, but not all such messages are real.

Be especially suspicious if the caller threatens to deactivate your account if you don’t verify your account information. That’s a lie, and the caller just wants your numbers.

Some additional tips from the BBB to help our banks keep our information secure:

» Sign your card the moment you receive it in the mail and keep cards you don’t regularly use in a secure place at home.

» Check your statement for accuracy.

» Keep a list (both at home and at work) of account numbers in case your cards are lost or stolen.

» Notify your card issuer(s) in advance if you plan to travel and use the credit card. Vigilant fraud departments sometimes freeze accounts for our own protection, which can be inconvenient when away from home.

» Be cautious about giving anyone your account number and don’t give anyone your cards.

» Keep your pass code and PIN number secure. Do not put them in writing … and do not share them with anyone.

» Use only reputable companies with secure websites for online shopping. Look for the letters “https” in the address for the purchasing section of websites.

» Shred all paper documents containing your personal identifiers (account number, name, address) before disposing. The Better Business Bureau hosts two shred events every year to help individuals and small businesses dispose of sensitive information safely.

Should you discover unauthorized charges to your account or an account opened in your name, contact your lender immediately. If an unauthorized account has been opened in your name, notify the credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) and ask for a fraud alert to be placed on your account, which requires potential lenders to contact you before opening any new credit in your name. You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each bureau every 12 months via www.annualcreditreport.com. If you stagger your requests, you receive a free copy from one bureau every four months.

As always, be careful and good luck to you. Or perhaps I should say, “Soyez prudent et bonne chance a vous,” which I learned from those books I didn’t buy in that country I didn’t visit.

I’m sure the food in France is delicious, but, thanks to an attentive fraud investigator, I’m not paying for any French fries in France today.

Jim Hegarty is president of the Better Business Bureau representing Nebraska and southwest Iowa. To contact him, email jhegarty@bbbnebraska.org or call 402-898-8520.

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