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Your credit card is watching you

After returning home from a cruise in French Polynesia, I found a startling message on my answering machine: “This is Bank of America inquiring about charges made in Huahine on July 17. Please call as soon as possible regarding your account.”

I was worried. Had someone stolen my card number and gone on a shopping spree? I called the credit card company right away, and what I learned surprised me. My card wasn’t stolen. Instead, the credit card company was monitoring my spending.

I had never before used my credit card in French Polynesia, so when I bought black pearl earrings in Tahiti, the bank deemed the charges questionable and put a hold on my account — both for my protection and, presumably, to limit their own losses if the card had been compromised. Credit card companies often do this when their computers detect an abnormal pattern of use. As I found out, this normally helpful service can pose problems for travelers.

Take Hank Allyn, for example. While traveling in Belize earlier this year, the Pittsburgh resident stopped for gas along a remote road deep in the jungle. He gave the attendant his Visa card and waited in the car. A few minutes later, the attendant returned to tell him the credit card had been rejected. Allyn was confused since he had used the card to rent the vehicle only a few days earlier. Fortunately, he had enough cash on hand to pay for the gas, and he had another credit card he could use for the rest of the trip. Only after Allyn returned home and found a message from his credit card company on the answering machine did he understand what had happened.

As credit card fraud has become more global and more sophisticated, so have efforts to ferret out illegitimate charges. Credit card companies have invested heavily in sophisticated anti-fraud computer software, which uses a complex algorithm to analyze the pattern of transactions, weighing such variables as dollar amount, time of day, day of the week, merchant category and the country in which the charges are made.

Sometimes large purchases will raise a red flag, as I found out when I purchased an emerald in Cartagena, Colombia. Again, the bank called my home to make sure I was the one using the card. Fortunately, a family member was there to let the bank know that I was indeed in Colombia, thus preventing my card from being put on hold.

Passport for your card

Do you need a visa for your Visa? Maybe. A stamp of approval in advance of departure will make charging much easier overseas. If you are planning to travel to far-flung destinations, here are some tips to make sure your credit card keeps on charging:

  • Call your credit card company or the bank that issues your card and let them know your travel itinerary — both dates and destinations.

  • Make sure you have the issuer’s special toll-free number for overseas customer service. The regular 800 number, which is usually listed on the back of the card, will not work outside the United States and Canada.

  • Make a note of your card number and the overseas customer service number, and keep them in a safe place separate from the card. That way, if the card is stolen, you will have the necessary information to make a report.

Even with advance notification, you may not be able to spend as you please while you are abroad. Certain charge patterns will still arouse suspicion, and your card may be subject to spending limits, so you should always carry a second credit card.

Your rights

Under federal law, you are not responsible for unauthorized charges over $50. However, you must report the card stolen or lost immediately to be covered under this law. If unauthorized charges do occur, you will need to document them in writing to the credit card company within 60 days. Not all credit cards have the same rules, so check with your card company for its policies.

For more information about your rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site.


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