Washington

Credit and Debit Card Scams

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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What is a Credit Card Scam?

A credit card or debit card "scam" or fraud happens when someone uses your credit or debit card information without your permission. It may be as complicated as someone posing as a representative of your bank in order to get your credit card information, or someone posing as an employee of a company offering fabulous prizes in a sweepstakes who "only" needs your credit card number to cover shipping costs. It might also be as simple as someone looking over your shoulder and writing down your card number and password for their personal use.

Do I Have a Debit Card or a Credit Card?

Credit cards and debit cards are both kinds of "electronic money" that you can give retailers instead of cash. You should know which kind of card you have. There are different procedures to follow for each type of card when your card is used without your permission.

  • A debit card (or a "check card") combines the functions of an ATM card and a check. You can use a debit card to both get money from an ATM machine or to pay for items at a store. The money you spend is automatically deducted from your bank account. There are never any loans or interest charges.

  • A credit cardis like an expensive short term loan. You can "charge" items up to your "credit limit" (the maximum amount of the loan). When your bill comes, you pay the amount of the loan back. If you cannot pay the bill in full each time it arrives, you will also need to pay interest to the credit card company. Some credit cards also charge "annual fees." They might also charge different rates for cash advances than for purchases.

How Could I Be "Scammed?"

Most debit/credit card fraud involves lost or stolen credit cards. It can also occur when you do not properly dispose of documents, like credit card bills, debit card statements, or receipts showing your personal account information.

You might also be "scammed" when someone sees or hears your account or card number and copies it down for personal use, or when you willingly give it out to someone, like a telemarketer, who then uses it improperly.

How Can I Avoid Being Scammed?

You have the right to dispute charges made to your debit and credit cards without permission. But protesting these charges can be frustrating and take time. You can make many easy changes in your everyday routine to avoid being scammed.

  • Do not carry more debit or credit cards with you than you plan to use.  Keep the cards you do not regularly use in a safe place OR cancel the cards that you do not need. (You may not notice they are missing as soon as those you use regularly.)

  • Do not write your PIN numbers on your cards or keep them in your wallet or purse. Memorize your PIN (personal identification number). Do not give it out to anyone else.

  • Do not tell others your debit card or credit card number. All thieves need is your number to rack up charges by Internet shopping or telephone and mail order charges.

  • Do not give your Social Security number, mother's maiden name or account numbers to strangers who contact you, especially by phone, Internet or mail. Scammers sometimes pose as business, bank or government representatives to get you to give them personal information. Real financial or government organizations that do business with you already have this information. They will not ask for it by calling or e-mailing you.

  • Check billing statements, receipts, and other documents carefully. Make sure they are accurate. After you have checked your documents, either put them in a safe place or tear them up into tiny pieces. Thieves might try to take advantage of information on them.

  • Make sure all blank spaces are filled in or crossed off. When filling out a charge slip to pay a bill, always figure the total. Leave no blank spaces. This way, extra charges cannot be added without your knowledge. Only sign charge slips that are completely filled in and totaled.

  • Call your bank company or credit card company if you have not gotten a new card or a monthly bill that you know should be arriving.

  • Do not write your card number, account number or any other personal identifying information (like your Social Security number) on a postcard or outside of an envelope.

  • Tear or shred charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail.

  • Keep a record of your card numbers, their expiration dates, and the phone number and address of each card company in a secure place. This way you can report missing or stolen cards as soon as you notice the loss/theft.

I Think I am a Victim of a Scam. What should I do?

There are federal laws to protect victims of credit card or debit card scams. These laws outline strict procedures that you, the credit card companies and banks must all follow in order to resolve the fraud. Make sure you understand the procedures that the credit card companies must follow. You may be entitled to financial benefits if the companies do not exactly follow the procedures.

A. Debit Card Fraud – The Electronic Fund Transfer Act

This federal law outlines what you should do if someone commits fraud against you in an electronic transfer. Example: using your debit card. The law limits the amount you are responsible for on charges made to your card without your permission.

  1. What If my debit card is lost or stolen? REPORT the loss or theft AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Usually companies have a 24-hour customer service line.
  • If you report the missing card before any charges are made, you are not liable for unauthorized charges on the card.

  • If you report the missing card within two days, the law limits liability for charges to $50 for charges made after you discover the loss or theft, but before you report the missing card.

  • If you report the missing card more than two days after discovering it missing, but within 60 days of the transmission of the statement showing the charges you did not make, you are liable for up to $500 of unauthorized charges.

  • If you do not report your loss within 60 days of the date of the statement showing the charges you did not make, your liability is unlimited. You have to pay for all charges made on the card without permission.

You may notify the bank of the lost card by phone. If the thief has not used your card yet, the bank will simply cancel your debit card and issue you a new one, with no charges to you. Follow your call up with a letter.

2. What If I notice strange charges on my bank statement?  NOTIFY the bank WITHIN 60 DAYS after you get the statement.

  • Your bank has ten business days from the date it gets your notification of a problem with your account to investigate and report its findings to you. The bank may ask you to give them more written notification.

  • If the bank needs more than ten days for its investigation, it may take up to 45 business days. If it does, it must deposit the amount of money in dispute into your account for the remainder of the investigation. The bank can take this money out of your account at the end of its investigation if it finds that the charges are correct. Do not spend this money until the investigation is done.

  • If the bank finds a mistake, it must fix it within one business day of finishing its investigation. If it finds no errors, the bank must notify you in writing of its determination within three days after the investigation ends.

  • The bank must give you copies of all documents it relied upon to make its decision if you ask for them.

  • You can notify your bank of the error on your statement over the phone.

3. What Should My Notice to the Bank Say?

In any phone call or letter to your bank to report an error on your statement, say:

  • your name and address

  • the date

  • your account number

  • you believe an error has been made on your statement (your statement does not accurately reflect charges that you have made on your card)

  • the amount of the error, and

  • the reason you believe there is an error. (Example:  "My card has been missing since (date) and I did not make the following charge(s) on this account.")

You should include copies (not originals) of relevant documents, like sales slips or receipts that support your position. Send your letter by registered or certified mail so you can later prove that your bank got it. Keep a copy of the dispute letter and all documents you get from the bank in return. Log any calls by writing notes about any conversations you have with the bank about this matter. Follow up these calls with a letter that confirms what you and the bank said.

4. What If my bank does not follow the rules for disputes?

If your bank does not follow the rules for settling disputes, you are entitled to an award of damages that is three times the actual amount of money you lost due to the bank's failure to act properly.

B. Credit Card Fraud – The Fair Credit Billing Act

Here too there are very specific procedures that both you and the credit card company must follow when dealing with possible cases of fraud.

1. What If my credit card is lost or stolen?  REPORT the loss or theft AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

  • If you report your card missing in writing before any new charges are made, you are not liable.

  • If you notify your credit card company in writing of an unauthorized charge within 60 days of the date on the incorrect statement, your liability will be no more than $50.

If you do not notify your credit card company in writing, or you notify the company more than 60 days after receiving the statement with the unauthorized charge(s), the company does not have to investigate the matter and your liability is unlimited. YOU have to pay for all charges made on the card without permission.

  • Your credit card company must let you know it got your letter within 30 days unless the error in your report is fixed within that time.

  • When the company identifies an error in your billing statement, it has two billing periods (no more than 90 days total), to either fix the error, or explain to you in writing why it believes the amount on the statement is correct.

You must notify your credit card company IN WRITING if you want to dispute any unauthorized charges to your account. If you only call your credit card company, it does not have to investigate your account. You will be liable for all charges on the credit card statement.

2. What should my written notice to my credit card company say?

It should say:

  • your name and address,

  • your account number,

  • you believe an error has been made on your statement,

  • the amount of the error, and

  • the reason you believe it is an error. (Example: "My card has been missing since (date). I did not make the following charge(s) on this account.")

Send your letter by certified mail, so that you can verify the date the credit card company gets it. Include copies (not originals) of documents like receipts or sales slips that support your position. Send the letter to the address for "billing inquiries" on your credit card statement, not to the address where you send your checks to pay your bills.

Keep copies of the notice you send, any letters or documents the credit card company sends you back, and a log of all calls you have with the credit card company about the fraud. You will need these later if the credit card company disputes any part of your claim.

3. What If my credit card company does not fix the error?

  • During the two-billing cycle/90-day period for investigation, the credit card company cannot report or threaten to report the disputed amount to credit reporting agencies or other creditors. Also, the credit card company cannot limit or close your account because you do not pay the disputed amount. However, it can apply the disputed amount towards your credit limit and charge you interest on the disputed amount. If the credit card company later agrees with you that there was an error on your statement, it must subtract the interest already charged on the amount found to be in error.

  • If your credit card company sends you an explanation of its findings stating that it will not fix the error on your statement, you can challenge its decision by writing another letter to the credit card company within ten days of getting the decision.

  • The letter should have all of the same information as your first letter reporting the error on your billing statement. Explain that you still believe you do not owe the amount in question, and you refuse to pay it.

  • The credit card company can now report your account to a credit reporting agency, but it must also include a statement to the effect that you do not believe you owe the money.

4. My credit card company does not abide by the rules for disputes. What can I do?

If the credit card company does not comply with the above time limits, it must credit you the disputed balance or $50, whichever is less. You will get to keep this even if it is later found that the amount billed to your statement was correct.

 

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This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of the date of its printing,
June 2012.

© 2012 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)