Why you should file a police report for card fraud
Will officers come running? No, but it helps to call anyway
Consumer finance expert, author and “Opening Credits” columnist.
When you discover that one of your card accounts has been hacked, part of the resolution process involves filing a police report. Will a special team of detectives be assigned to your case? Or will it just land in the circular file? Identity theft experts and police officers who have direct experience with these cases say it's little of both.
As large-scale data breaches put tens of millions of Americans account numbers on the auction block, odds are high you may have to file your own report one day. Read on for a behind-the-scenes peek into post-report procedures.
Cops (and experts) say call ...
Unauthorized credit card charges are a form of identity theft, so calling the police is one of the steps the FDIC recommends after discovering them. Along with notifying the credit card company (which should absolve you of liability), credit reporting agencies (to add a 90-day fraud alert) and the Federal Trade Commission (so it can track these crimes), contacting local law enforcement is an integral part of the process.
Rob Douglas, editor of IdentityTheftInfo.com, says anyone who spots an unauthorized charge on his or her credit card statement should call the police to file a report. "You may have to contest the charges or demonstrate to a credit card company that you are 100 percent innocent," says Douglas. "Having the report doesn't hurt. It's smart backup."
Adding a credit freeze on your files with the credit bureaus is also a good idea, say experts. The freeze will prevent any new accounts from being opened in your name. And in cases of identity theft and with a police report handy, you should be able to get the freeze in place for free.
Why go to the additional trouble of reporting a card theft when your card issuer absolves you of fraudulent card charges? In addition to having a formal police record on file in case the identity thief goes beyond just tapping your card's credit line, reporting fraudulent transactions is important for the police department.
Even minor thefts can indicate of a far larger problem, says Todd G. Shipley, a former financial crimes unit officer with the Reno, Nevada, police department and co-author of "Investigating Internet Crimes: An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyberspace."
"If law enforcement doesn't know the crime occurred, they have no idea of what's going on," says Shipley. "What always amazed me is that it's the small thing that's reported that turns into something big."
Peter DiDomenica, a former Massachusetts state police officer assigned to the state police financial crime unit specializing in credit card fraud cases, also encourages calls. Just stay off the 911 line. "Use the business number for your local police and tell them you need to report a financial crime," he says.
... but not all are eager to listen
That doesn't mean you won't encounter reluctance to take the report. "Unfortunately, some officers say it's a civil problem or it is between you and the credit card company," says Shipley.
However, DiDomenica says, any hesitation isn't because they're not doing their job. More often it is because the person answering the phone is unsure if it falls in their area of responsibility.
Another problem is that some officers, especially those working in areas of high violence, perceive card fraud to be somewhat victimless. "Banks and credit card providers usually cover the cost, so it moves back in priority," says DiDomenica, who rejects this mentality: "It's a violation of a person's integrity, and there is a psychological harm."
5 reasons to report card fraud to police
- It's cathartic. You're a crime victim and talking to the authorities can help you gain emotional resolution.
- You'll have proof. Some creditors may ask for the police report number, so it's wise to have that number on hand.
- Credit freezes will be free. You can take advantage of placing a freeze on your credit files from the credit bureaus at no cost.
- Your case may be solved. This is especially true if you can provide the name and contact information of the suspect.
- The data you provide can aid in bigger busts. If enough people report crimes of a specific nature, a trend might be spotted and the big-time criminals put out of business.
Douglas believes that the police department has become far more open to taking the reports lately, especially in light of huge busts, such as the one in Queens, New York, in which 111 people were indicted on a charge of bilking $13 million in a counterfeit credit card ring, to minuscule arrests such as that of Krisan Moss, of St. George, Utah, who used a stolen credit card at a nail salon for a mere $58. Results inspire action.
So if the first law enforcement officer you contact to file a report tells you that one is unnecessary, persist. "Say, 'Look, I'm not expecting you to conduct the investigation -- I just want to clear my name.' Then ask to speak to a supervisor. Calmly," says DiDomenica.
Expect neither sympathy nor sirens
While one of the first steps after discovering the crime is to call the police, what you're instructed to do after that depends on the department. "Sometimes they take a report over the phone, other times they will send an officer to you, other times they ask you to come in," says DiDomenica.
What you should not expect is a squad car with sirens blaring to screech up to your home. "Forget about it," says DiDomenica. "That's not going to happen. Ever."
Chances are you won't get the warm fuzzies from the law enforcement employee either, so prepare yourself for blasé formality.
Case in point: In 2014, Marie-Jo Dumoulin was living in San Francisco and went to her local precinct after detecting thousands of dollars' worth of false charges on her credit card. The reception desk officer was nice enough, she remembers, but helpful? "I would not say that, but he did give me a form to fill out," says Dumoulin.
The more you give, the more you'll get
While swift reporting is advised, so is presenting relevant documentation. "Be prepared with credit card statements and credit reports showing the fraud," says Shipley. If you know the perpetrator, speak up. If you can provide that person's contact information, all the better.
Do not, under any circumstances, conduct your own whodunit hunt, experts stress. It might put you, your friends and family members in danger.
"You don't know who you're dealing with," says DiDomenica. People who break the law in this way could be capable of even worse crimes. "Yes, keep emails and forward them to make it easy for the investigators, but don't go beyond that. No vigilantism."
Your case is reviewed, ranked and prioritized
Department processes vary, but in general, the case will be routed to a detective who will review the facts and materials. At that stage, he or she will make a decision about what to do about it -- if anything.
"Is it something we can actively investigate and probably solve? If it is, then we will begin to pursue it, though how aggressively is also based on caseload," says DiDomenica.
What most civilians don't know: Cases are numerically scored based on how much data is provided, and the highest ranking ones will garner the most attention. "Is the suspect known, do we have anything to work with? If so, the higher points it gets," says Shipley. "If not, the case gets a low score and will get thrown to the side. Fraud cases are all about the numbers."
The work starts (or stalls)
Even high-scoring fraud cases will not always be aggressively investigated. If more serious offenses are taking place in your area, back down to the bottom of the pile it goes.
"The realities are, especially in big cities, that not much will happen," says DiDomenica. "It's the nature of the crime. The majority of these fraud crimes cross state lines or international borders. In most law enforcements, they deal at the local level. It always seems it's someone else's problem."
Smart criminals also tend to keep the charges under grand larceny limits in a state, which can range from a few hundred dollars to around $1,000. Theft in excess of that is a felony, which is punishable by state prison time. Lower value thefts are misdemeanors, and the punishment is local jail or a fine.
So what happens? "Local guys [police officers] will throw up their arms because they don't know where to begin," says DiDomenica. "There is a gaping hole. Most card fraud cases are too big for the little guys and too little for the big guys."
Still, if there are multiple reports from one area, local law enforcement may determine a pattern, causing work to begin or resume. DiDomenica cites a case in which a college security guard targeted students, stealing their credit card information. He invited friends to shop from catalogs and placed the orders with the stolen numbers.
"The amount stolen per person wasn't enough to raise a red flag, but enough students reported the crime that the police were able to trace it back to the source," says DiDomenica. "When the police raided his home, they discovered so much merchandise it looked like a showroom. He was making a fortune in fraud."
"Data does add up," says Douglas. "The smallest of police departments will take the report and that information gets transmitted upstream and helps with statistics. It will determine allocation of resources that get dedicated to solving the crimes.
"The FTC is a good example. I testified before Congress over these issues in 1998. No one was paying attention at that point. But I've watched how the FTC and FBI acknowledge it more every year."
If you know the criminal
The good news is that if you can identify the thief, it's a local matter. "We contact the suspect," says DiDomenica. "It will clearly increase the likelihood of us following through."
However, victims are often reluctant to identify the criminal, especially if the perpetrator is a loved one. "They may not give all the background details of the case or decide to not report," says DiDomenica.
In fact, he says, occasionally a police department may say it's a family matter. They may encourage the victim to just cancel the card, and if addiction is the reason for the crime (card fraud and opioid addiction often go together), to get that person to rehab.
Shipley believes that it's important for people to overcome that initial hesitation to call the police. "Psychologically, telling someone about it is part of the process and will make you feel in control. If they make the decision to report, that person may be prosecuted. Most of the time in fraud cases people confess. There's either evidence or there's not."
But will they spend time behind bars? Unlikely, says Shipley: "If the person is arrested and goes to court, he usually pleads to a lesser crime to prevent him from going to jail. The person will probably get probation and may be forced to repay."
It's up to you to follow up
As the weeks and months drag on, you may wonder what is happening with your case. Why haven't you received an update? Because that's not how it works, as Dumoulin discovered: "They never got back to me after, not a peep." And that's normal.
Nor will you get an ascribed contact person. "That's for rapes and homicides," says DiDomenica. "Not for financial crimes involving no violence. There may be an investigator, but they won't be checking in with you."
Both Shipley and DiDomenica urge victims to be proactive in the face of silence. Don't be shy -- contact the department. Provide your report number and ask if there is any progress with the investigation. Call weekly, becoming the squeaky (but ever polite) wheel. Doing so can change the order of your case's ranking.
Safeguard your credit simultaneously
Shipley admits that there is only so much the consumer can do to stop crimes from occurring, especially internet-based credit card fraud. "We have to use them every place we go." Even with EMV chip cards, experts say card theft hasn't and won't automatically come to a screeching halt.
What you can do is offset damage with early awareness. "Take advantage of the free credit report system," says DiDomenica. "Get one every quarter, examine it closely. Check your card statements online. Monitor them." Treat online transactions separately rather than keeping cards on file with merchants and don't publish real birthdates on social media sites. It gives fraudsters an important piece of your identity puzzle, making you an easier target.
Above all, don't get complacent about reporting credit card fraud to the police, says Douglas: "These people who are caught? It's because you filed the report. It may be not your individual case, but you helped. Listen to the news. Crooks get caught all the time. You can feel good that they are behind bars because people like you reported the crime."
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