Stop Thief: Lessons From Fraud

Man Pickpocketing A Purse From Womans Bag

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I was robbed today. I wasn’t mugged, it wasn’t anything like that but my checking account was invaded (ok, more like embezzled). I’m not smart enough to know how they did it although through the miracle of a Google search I now know there are a number of different ways it can happen–creating a fake card and electronic check withdrawals are two potential means and then I stopped reading…

What was incredible to me was how easily I could have missed it. I was making a deposit into my checking account using the ATM and, of course, I asked for a receipt. I don’t always look at the receipt. Sometimes I just throw it into my bag. Today for some reason I decided to look at it before I left and something looked very wrong with my resulting balance. So I walked right into the branch and up to the teller. He produced a list of all my debit card charges and there plain as day was a charge that was absolutely not mine–it was very sizable and, because of the amount I could see right away I did not make it.

I hear I am lucky to have had such a glaring smoking gun. Many times people who are trying to rob you in this way do it in inches–a few dollars here and there–so you don’t really know that it’s happening until you turn around a few months or years later, even, and you are many, many thousands in the hole and it becomes harder to track the perpetrator. I must confess, I don’t always check my statements, when my balance looks off by a few dollars I don’t necessarily probe–I tend to chalk it up to poor accounting on my part–and obviously I should.
Suffice it to say I went from the bank to my computer and checked my account online for the last three months of statements. Luckily there was no other foul play (other than a pair of boots I shouldn’t have ordered in September, but that’s my own fault). I have learned my lesson though. I will check every statement that comes to my house and my balance every week online.
Why share this with you, GW readers? Beware, especially during this shopping season when fraud is on the rise. While Googling, I came across a few stories highlighting credit and debit card fraud like this one from a localCBS news station in Pittsburg and this one from another local station, NBC Omaha.
What are some helpful tips to protect yourself? They all said pretty much the same thing, and a lot of it is common sense, but here are the biggies:
  • Keep a watchful eye on your account online (but only use your own device to do so, and log-out after you do).
  • Protect your mail (snail mail AND email if you get financial statements electronically)
  • Don’t write down your digits
  • Never give someone your financial or personally identifiable info over the phone if YOU DID NOT INITIATE THE CALL
  • Run a credit report for yourself at least 1x a year
  • Shred, void or destroy debit and credit card receipts or anything with the card number on it.
  • Make sure when you shop online, it is a secure website
  • Open bills and statements promptly and make sure there are no bogus charges–report charges you do not recognize immediately.
  • Never sign a blank credit card receipt. Carefully draw a line through blank portions of the receipt where additional charges could be fraudulently added.
  • If you move, notify your credit card issuers in advance of your change of address.
  • Never lend your credit card to anyone else.
  • Know your financial institution’s fraud policy…trust me you DO NOT want to find out when it’s happening.
Of course you should shop, buy gifts and enjoy the holidays. I’m totally going to as soon as I get my replacement card (ok, maybe I will take out some cash tomorrow and do a little bit then). But also be proactive in your financial protection. If fraud happens to you, rest assure pretty much every financial institution will get your money back somehow (again check their policy), but it’s a HUGE pain in the ass and it can be very traumatic to get cleaned out, I was lucky I wasn’t, but one guy in that NBC piece sounds like he was and it did not sound fun.
I may be looking over my shoulder for a while and cautious about what ATMs I use, where I take out my card and I may amass a pile of receipts for a bit too. I think that’s OK. This has also tested the relationship between my bank and me, we may part after this whole thing is over. I think that’s OK too. I will reserve final judgement until I am in a better state of mind and I have to wait until the investigation is over anyway. For today, I am going to go and enjoy a weekend with my family, hug them and kiss them and watch some movies on our Roku. They are healthy and unscathed and at the end of the day, that is all that really matters.

A Happier Update: As I was coming home tonight on the train, I saw a woman on a crowded platform of commuters with a baby strapped to her front and bags on either side. In front of her was a hassled looking male commuter anxiously waiting for the train–let’s face it, Friday night we all want to get home–and as the train finally pulled into the station people pushed and positioned themselves to get on board prepared to pack themselves like sardines. For a brief moment, as the doors were opening, this man turned his head around and saw the woman with the baby behind him and in a split second made the decision to let her go in front of him and in-so-doing, did not get a place on the train. There were a few of us left on the platform as it pulled away from the station. I said to him: that was a kind thing you did. His reply: it’s the right thing to do. I didn’t tell him this part but he did me a great service too, he reminded me there is more good in the world than not. I needed that. With that I went home to my family.

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