Protect yourself from credit card 'spam charges'
By Jeremy M. Simon | Published: November 14, 2006
Realizing that major charges will jump out when cardholders examine their credit card bills, many thieves now count on the fact that lesser amounts (particularly when they appear on lengthy statements) will sneak past the eyes of even watchful consumers. A thief may place these small unauthorized charges, which some people have labeled "spam charges," on the credit cards of thousands of different people every week. The thieves hope that consumers will simply write off a transaction for under $15 that they don’t recognize, perhaps assuming it was a purchase made by their spouse or teenager.
John Brewer, assistant district attorney in the major fraud division of the Harris County (Texas) District Attorney's office, has prosecuted many criminals for this form of fraud. "We recently investigated an operation where a guy had a connection to American Express in Mexico City, and he stole thousands of people’s credit card numbers every day," Brewer says. "He'd fax the numbers to his partner in the United States, who opened up several businesses and became registered with American Express. He then made charges to all of these different businesses with the card numbers, but only in very small amounts. Nobody cares about a $9.95 or $12.50 charge, especially if they’re married. But that really adds up for him."
To prevent such spam charges, consumers should take precautions such as shopping online only at secure websites that begin with "https" rather than "http." When using Internet Explorer, users should look for a small yellow lock icon in a shaded bar near the bottom of the screen. By double-clicking on the lock, surfers will bring up the site's security certificate, which they should look at to see if it is still current and if the name on the certificate matches the name of the merchant.
Some experts recommend using only one credit card for online shopping. By using just one card for Internet purchases, consumers will easily be able to keep track of spending and notice any unusual transactions. When shopping for a credit card for online use, consider the range of options available at CreditCards.com, such as low interest, reward and cash back credit cards.
It is important to be wary when using your credit card offline, as well, to guard against common fraud and its more damaging cousin, identity theft. “Nearly 88 percent of known-cause identity theft incidents occur offline — not via the Internet,” says Brad Stroh, Co-CEO of Bills.com. "Secure incoming and outgoing mail, particularly that containing credit card numbers. Limit your paper trail and safeguard your Social Security number." He also suggests shredding old documents with personal information, preapproved applications you receive in the mail, expired cards and ATM and credit card receipts. And remember, when making a purchase with your card in a retail store, don’t let the card out of your sight.
Credit card users who share cards, such as married couples or those with teenagers who use the card, should scrutinize the statement together to ensure that all charges are legitimate. Should an unauthorized charge be discovered, the card issuer should be contacted immediately. Cardholders are not responsible for unauthorized charges above $50 provided they are promptly brought to the attention of the credit card company.
While it may not be clear how thieves gained access to credit card information, it does not mean consumers should stop using their plastic when buying items online. Credit cards are often a better choice for Web purchases than other payment methods since they provide legal rights, including the ability to dispute payments. Certain credit cards also offer protection such as insurance or extended warranties.
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