Living with credit, Protecting yourself

Real-time security alerts bring peace of mind

Sienna Kossman

While out holiday shopping recently, I learned there’s nothing like a little extra reassurance by your credit card issuer to give you instant peace of mind in this era of data breaches and identity theft.

During a visit to Austin, Texas, last week, I decided to finish up my Christmas shopping, armed with my fairly new EMV-chipped Discover It cash-back card. I was particularly excited to get money back on some pricey Sephora beauty products that I usually steer clear of, but that make great gifts.

So one evening, after rounding up some perfect Sephora presents, I hurried to the register, eager to pay and get out of the crowded store.

I swiped the card (the terminal wasn’t ready for chip card dips yet) and waited. The transaction was taking an awfully long time to process.

“Uh, it’s been declined,” the cashier told me.

I told her there’s no way that’s possible. The card came with a very high credit limit, and I knew my purchases that week had barely put a dent in it. Sure, I was traveling, but I’d used the card just an hour before with no problem. What could possibly be wrong?

The cashier suggested I tried swiping again. Maybe it was a system error. No dice.

Confused and embarrassed that my card got declined twice with a line of shoppers standing behind me, I decided to use a different card and forfeit the cash back I could have earned.

However, when I reached into my wallet for a different card, I noticed my smartphone’s screen glowing with a text message and email notification from Discover.

I opened the text message which read; “We have detected unusual activity. Did you authorize this transaction? 12/15/15 AMT: $106.63 WHERE: Sephora Reply: Y or N.” I chuckled. It seemed even Discover knew spending more than $100 at Sephora wasn’t normal for me.

I responded “Y” and within seconds I got another text: “Thank you for validating this transaction. Your Discover card is now available for immediate use.” Whoa, that was fast.

I asked the cashier if I could swipe my Discover card again. Sure enough, the transaction was approved almost immediately.

With a confused look on her face, the cashier asked what happened. I explained the quick exchange that took place. She said, “Wow, that’s really cool.” I agreed.

With the transaction complete, I stepped out of the checkout area to read the three emails I’d since received from Discover. One was the same security alert I got via text, the second was thanking me for approving the transaction and the third was a Web page link and phone number to call for more information if I had questions about the security alert process.

It was all very thorough. I was impressed.

The entire transaction took about five minutes, thanks to the initial confusion about the declined card, but all the Discover alerts and transaction confirmation messages came through within seconds of my second card swipe and that part of the situation was resolved in under a minute.

This was my first instant security alert scenario. I’ve had cards declined while traveling before, as I failed to alert issuers of my travel plans, and had to use a different card until I could call the issuer to figure out what was wrong and have the card unfrozen. Not exactly the epitome of convenience.

Even though a poll published in early 2o15 found fraud alert false alarms are common, I still think such security features are a good idea. My recent Discover security alert was a false alarm spurred by “out of the ordinary” spending behavior, but I can only imagine how useful this fast security alert system would be in the case of actual fraud. Sure, a blocked transaction might be annoying, but a few minutes of worry might be worth the peace of mind an alert and freeze provides. I’d rather my card issuer be proactive and give me an opportunity to control my card if something looks fishy — especially during the busy shopping season.

I think my instant fraud alert experience was also reassurance that I’m not on my own when it comes to preventing fraud. We hear a lot of chatter about what issuers are doing to protect our accounts and sensitive information– such as adopting EMV payment technology and implementing two-step online account login processes — but rarely do cardholders really get to see protections in action.

If you plan on opening a new credit card in 2016, I’d recommend looking for one that boasts real-time security alert features, such as text message alerts. And if you have a card you’d like to further protect, see if there is a security alert feature you can “opt in” to use. You may even have an option to sign up for checking account alerts. Better to be safe than sorry.

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