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
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
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
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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