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Travelers, Credit Cards Are Watching You

(July 2002)

Last year, after returning home from a week in French Polynesia, I had a startling message on my answering machine: "This is Bank of America inquiring about charges made in Bora Bora on July 17. Please call as soon as possible regarding your account." I was worried. Did someone steal my card number in Bora Bora and go on a not so "bora boring" shopping spree? What I discovered surprised me. My card wasnít stolen. Instead, the credit card company was monitoring my spending.

Abnormal use

Because I had never before used my credit card in Bora Bora, the bank put a hold on my account, deeming the charges questionable. Credit card companies often do this when their computers detect an abnormal use pattern. As I found out, this normally useful service can pose problems for travelers.

As credit card scams have grown worldwide, so too has the process to ferret out illegitimate charges in those abnormal use patterns. Credit card companies have invested heavily in sophisticated anti-fraud computer software, which uses a complex system of information that analyzes the pattern of transactions, including dollar amount, time of day, day of week, and types of merchants and countries.

Sometimes large purchases, such as buying an expensive piece of jewelry in a foreign country, will raise a red flag. Recently, this was the case for me after purchasing an emerald stone in Cartegena, Colombia. Again, the bank called my home to make sure I was the one using the card. Thankfully, a family member was there to let them know that I was indeed in Colombia, thus preventing my card from being put on hold again.

Passport for your card

Do you need a visa for your Visa? Maybe. A stamp of approval in advance will make charging much easier. 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 bank that issues your card and inform them of specific destinations and times regarding your travels. This goes for ATM cards as well.

  • All major credit card companies have special toll-free numbers that can be called from overseas, but make sure you get them before leaving. Regular 800 numbers donít work outside the U.S. and Canada
Keep in mind that these tips arenít a guarantee to prevent your card from getting shut down. Always carry a second credit card just in case.

Your rights

Remember that under federal law, you arenít responsible for unauthorized charges over $50. However, you must report the card stolen or lost immediately to be covered. If unauthorized charges do occur, you will need to document them in writing to the credit card company. Not all credit cards are created equal, so check with your card company for its policies.

Keep in mind that debit cards pose unique problems because payments are directly deducted from your checking account. As always, it pays to know before you go so that your travels are hassle free.

For more information

Visit the Federal Trade Commissionís website for details on your rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act.

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