Boomers grew up in the midst of the plastic money world

One thing that happened during the younger era of most boomers’ lives was the ubiquitous introduction of credit cards into our wallets and purses. But as BoomerCafé co-founder and publisher David Henderson writes, it has propelled all of us into a very risky plastic money world.

Credit cards. They arrived in our youth and ever since, have long been both a blessing and curse to the boomer generation.

David Henderson

David Henderson

Not long after I had graduated from college, I received an envelope in the mail with a letter, and a piece of plastic glued to it. I was excited to open it because I was not yet established enough in post-college life to receive real-looking business letters. The single piece of paper inside began with the word “Congratulations” in large letters across the top. Whew! At least it wasn’t a draft notice!

What I remember from the letter was that it indicated that I had been chosen to receive the piece of plastic with my name embossed on it, seemingly for free. It seemed to be offering me money in exchange for using the piece of plastic. The word “VISA” was stamped across the top.

I remember asking my mother because I knew she would know something about this VISA thing. “Cut it up, throw it away,” she said. My mother had grown up in the Great Depression and didn’t believe in the idea of something for nothing. And, as I recall, that’s what I did.

Thinking back over the decades to that time of innocence, I had no idea what VISA meant or why some bank had chosen me. I didn’t have a clue about a credit card or what to do with it. Maybe that was the point.

I remember wondering why I would want a piece of plastic when I had a checking account and even a few dollars in my pocket. Well, that was then.

air_travel_card_green

A few years later would find me covering a war for CBS News in the Middle East and using a green so-called “Air Travel Card” the network had issued to me to hire a charter plane for a lot of money. Most of us were familiar by then with using cards as currency but the man at the remote airport just looked at my card and asked in his thick accent, “What is this? A piece of plastic?”

Not only has society become awash with credits cards in the intervening years, but we are also sinking under credit card fraud of massive proportions.

According to Forbes, there is approximately $200-Billion lost each year to credit card fraud, much of it through bogus online transactions and devious digital “skimming devices.”

I try to be careful and have a habit of regularly monitoring my bank accounts online, including the one for my personal VISA card. Heck, it’s even got a chip on it to make it more secure … or at least that’s what we are told.

A credit card "skimmer" is nearly impossible to detect at a gas pump.

A credit card “skimmer” is nearly impossible to detect at a gas pump.

It was during one of those regular online checks I make nowadays that I spotted a problem — a $782 charge on the website of a large department store that I thought was no longer even in business. How was that possible, I thought? I had not made such a purchase. Despite the chip on my VISA, the three-digit pin on the reverse side, and all the other supposed precautions, my card had been compromised by someone to make a sizable online purchase.

Right away I called my bank. My credit card was cancelled immediately, and I was told that another would be on its way to me. But … the charge had cleared. Staring at my iMac computer, I realized that none of us is immune to such fraud.

So, having studied the problem with new enthusiasm, here are steps you can take to try to protect your own credit card:

  1. Monitor your credit card statement regularly online. If you see something suspicious, call your bank immediately.
  2. Watch for strange small charges. For example, if you see a $7 or similar small charge to a merchant you never use, alert your bank. It could be a test by thieves before they slam you with a big charge.
  3. Alert your bank when you travel, whether domestically or abroad. It will help their fraud teams spot possible trouble.
  4. Be diligent but don’t panic. If you are targeted by credit card thieves, work with your bank’s fraud department. Who knows … you might just help them catch a thief.

My own bank’s fraud department was helpful. I would not be liable for the fraudulent charge. All I needed was to follow some online steps in my bank account to report the fraud and indicate that I knew nothing of it.

I then asked the bank fraud representative, How do such things happen? Who’s behind it? What steps can I take to better protect my credit card charges? What I learned was, no one really knows.

Credit-Cards

Despite banks, credit unions, and merchants pouring increasing resources of people and technology into fighting credit card fraud, they are not making much of a dent toward stopping it.

Why not? Because the thieves sometimes stay a step ahead of us. For example, when you swipe a credit card at the gas pump, there might be a tiny so-called “skimmer” device hidden on the pump to steal your credit card details and send them via Bluetooth to a thief. It’s easy to buy skimmers online for criminal use. Heck, even ebay and amazon.com sells them without restriction along with blank credit cards.

Thief (on the right) attaches a credit card skimmer in a convenience store.

Thief (on the right) attaches a credit card skimmer in a convenience store.

Now think about those plastic, credit card-sized hotel keys we are given to enter our hotel rooms. Believe it or not, my bank told me that they can contain all of our credit card information and can even be used as credit cards themselves by clever thieves.

Convenience stores see a lot of credit card fraud. Phony card skimmers or readers can be placed in two seconds over a regular credit card reader to capture our card details and wirelessly send them to places unknown. Check out the video below and the guy with a strap over his shoulder. Watch what he does.

Banks are compelled to absorb customer losses, primarily for competitive reasons. If they refuse, they’ll lose customers. Yet in the end, it costs all of us. And, despite all the efforts to stop it, the problem of credit card fraud is skyrocketing without any signs of ending.

4 Comments

  1. Informative. Thanks. I’ve only got one credit card and it hasn’t been hijacked. (Yet.) My sister recently discovered that hers had been compromised when she noticed a small charge on it for a Chinese company she’d never heard of.

  2. Thanks much, David; there was definitely stuff here that I was unaware of. My wife and I decided a few years ago to get rid of most of our credit cards; we each have one debit card, and I keep a traditional Visa card around for emergencies. If we do buy something on credit, we make every effort to pay it off without incurring an additional charge. Great piece.

    1. Thanks, Alan.
      I once banked at a local credit union that outsourced its credit card services. While I trusted the credit union, I never felt assured that the third party credit card outfit was on the level. So I moved to a larger financial institution.
      David

  3. Roz,
    It’s the small charges that can lead to something larger, I am told. I am still puzzled how credit card thieves can get so much gritty detail.
    Thanks for your comment.
    David

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