Living with credit, Protecting yourself

Six states in 10 days = vacation credit card fraud alert

Connie Prater

Going on vacation? Better call the credit card company to let them know if you’ll be charging in multiple states. I inadvertently triggered a fraud alert and freeze on my Bank of America Visa card during my recent vacation.

I was on the road most of our spring break this year, driving through six states while visiting relatives near and far and cringing at the rising cost of gasoline.

Rather than be tied down to using one specific gas card — and limiting my fill-up choices — I used my Visa card whenever I filled the tank on my mid-sized SUV. I gassed up in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Georgia in a one-week time period. By the seventh day, when the gas meter danced just above “E,” I pulled into a BP/Amoco station off of I-75 in southern Georgia and whipped out the Visa.

Credit card denied
When I tried to pay at the pump, a “See Attendant” message flashed on the screen. I went inside, swiped the card on the countertop machine and an “ID required” message came up. I pulled out my driver’s license, gave it to the attendant and waited. “It’s denied,” he said. I frowned. I was far from my limit on the card. Without missing a beat, I pulled two $20 bills from my pocket, gave it to the guy behind the counter and walked back to my car to fill up.

I had left my cell phone in the car and just as I arrived to pump the gas, my daughter was handing me a ringing cell phone from inside the car. The caller ID showed an unfamiliar 302 area code number.

“Hello?” I answered. An automated voice answered with, “This is Bank of America’s Fraud Alert division calling. We have detected some unusual activity on your account. For your protection, please verify the following three transactions.”

The voice faded in and out. I was to press “one” if a charge was accurate, but I couldn’t hear the amount so another option directed me to press another number to speak to a fraud representative.

I pumped the gas while on hold and another automated voice repeatedly said: “Please wait while we access your account information.”

Multiple charges in multiple states
I had finished pumping the gas and got back on the interstate before a person came online.
“Karen” said that the activity on my account triggered a fraud alert and they had frozen the account “for my protection.”

She added: “There were multiple charges in multiple states. That’s usually what the fraudsters do — go for gas in multiple states.”

“It’s me,” I said. I explained that we were on vacation for spring break and it was a road trip. I rattled off the places where I had filled up the tank. She asked when I would be returning home, and I said I’d be going back the next day and there would be charges in the same states on the trip back. She put a note in the file and cleared the account for additional charges.

“Thank you for being a Bank of America customer,” Karen said, ending the call. When I checked my e-mail a few days later, there was an item from Bank of America in the inbox with the subject “Fraud Alert: irregular credit card activity.”

The message instructed me to call or visit the bank’s fraud alert Web site: “We detected irregular activity on your Bank of America credit card on 3/14/2008. For your protection, you must verify this activity before you can continue using your card.”

“Well, that’s good,” my mother said, when I told her the story. It’s true that the credit card could have been stolen and a gang of gas-guzzling marauders could have been filling up across the Gulf coast states at my expense. So I’m eternally grateful for BoA’s diligence. I held my breath as I used the card the next day in Florida on the return trip. It worked. No problems.

What if?
Still, the ‘what ifs’ of the situation are clearly there. What if I hadn’t had cash on me? What if I didn’t have my debit card on me as a back-up or if I didn’t have cash in that account? What if I needed the Visa to book a hotel room along my travel route or buy amusement park tickets? What if I used the card to make automatic monthly payments for subscriptions or utilities? I could have been spending the last of my vacation making calls to straighten out a very big mess.

Guess the next time I make travel plans, I may have to send the itinerary to Bank of America.

See related: “Drive for rewards pushes old-style gas credit cards in ditch,” “Compare gas station credit cards,” “Don’t let soaring gas prices drive you to make the wrong gas buying decisions,” “Credit card fraud monitoring can halt legitimate purchases

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  • TMiller

    At Christmas I visited 9 states and charged with Chevron (for some gas) and Citibank MasterCard for rooms and some gas. Never had a problem so I assume it is the policy of the bank rather than MasterCard vs. Visa. I do remember buying an Apple computer (or trying to)at Christmas with a Chase MasterCard and it was denied in the store simply because I don’t usually charge that much per week. I think there is a simple solution to this, that all credit cards require (like Debit cards) you to enter a PIN.

  • Connie Prater

    I think I had never used this particular card for buying that much gas and that could have been the trigger.

  • Pissed Off Consumer in Texas

    Typical: the banks make the customers do all the work,instead of providing an solution that would save everyone time: fingerprint scanners that verify the user is the REAL user of the card combined with a PIN number.The thieves would be stopped and there would be scans of their fingerprints for law enforcement. Best solution: carry cash!!!

  • Fellow BoA credit card user

    Thank you Connie for your article. Made me feel like I’m not the only one with the problem.
    Your article was fair and straight. You point out that it can be a bit of a nuisance (needing to call the bank while on vacation), but that it is a security we need in today’s world.
    The commenter “Pissed off Consumer in Texas” can’t look beyond it’s own discomfort. Bank of America didn’t make me do anything at first. They called me with that 302 number. I didn’t pick it up, but after reading your article I know it was BoA. After that I had an email from BoA to call them and sort it out. I was all set in minutes.
    I think Pissed off Texan would be even more pissed of when he/she would’ve lost the card unnoticed and skyhigh charges were made on the card to couldn’t be disputed.
    Fingerprint scanners might be the future, but they are currently expensive and still hackable. And I don’t think you would be able to pay with your card around the globe. A pin number would be a solution, but again not a global solution.
    Carrying cash? Hahahahaha. Welcome to the 21st century. You are probably also one of those holding-up-the-line-stuck-in-the-past-check-writing people?
    Thanks again Connie for an informative article that answered my questions.

  • Terry Bozio

    The reason the banks/credit card companies do this is for themselves. Under law, you are only responsible for the first $50 if your credit card gets stolen. It doesn’t matter if the thief charges $5000 dollars, you are only responsible for the first $50.
    Calling the bank to tell them of your travel plans to potentially save THEM money is ludicris. Of course my bank didn’t tell me to call before I left, so I was stuck without being able to make purchases on the card during my last vacation. Then, Bank of America’s automated system wouldn’t allow me to clear things up or talk to a live person when I called in. I spent a week and $1000 on vacation but had to do it with another card (thank goodness for my credit union account).
    This is automatic fraud alert/card freeze is was real hassle. I decided to call them to undo it for my future travel and they declined to. I am going to stop dealing with Bank of America and stick with the credit union.

  • I have taken several other road trips since this. I called Citi to tell them each time so that I wouldn’t be frozen. The point isn’t to minimize the bank’s fraud losses, but to keep my account open and available for use while I’m away from home travelling.