Friday, March 25, 2011

Worst spending spree I've ever not had

The other day there was a message on the answering machine that was left by a speed talker. I was able to make out enough words to get the general idea that the call was in regards to confirming a purchase from Sears that my husband was thought to have made, and that the item wouldn't ship until he called them at a number that was not understandable regarding an order number that could've had nine or twenty-seven digits. The call sounded so odd that I thought it was phony. When we were all settled back into our house that evening, I told my husband about the message. He asked what order I was talking about, and with all of the patience I could muster up for him at that hour, (read...none) I grumbled that I didn't know what order they meant. He informed me that he had not ordered anything at all, and grabbed the phone to call the number (that I had to write down off the caller id).

The way the conversation was going from the end in our kitchen, it certainly sounded like something was amiss. I headed for the computer where I found our account to be $838 overdrawn. Now even on my worst retail therapy bender, I knew this could not have been my mistake. The actual page for our checking account still showed all of the money I thought was in there, as they do not show pending transactions in detail apparently. The $110 charge to Hot Topic online really caught my eye, as I worried briefly about exactly what I might find in my Easter basket, but then realized this was the beginnings of somebody else's shopping spree. (Somebody who had a desperate need for South Park and Hello Kitty shirts, or general goth apparel.)

I called the 800 number listed next to the charge and got in touch with a very helpful agent who guided me through what my next steps should be (and I had no choice but to believe him, as I certainly had no idea what to do). He could not do anything with regards to canceling the order as it had been overnighted and delivered already. He couldn't give me the information as to where it went, which I understood completely, even though I knew I was not going to take off my slippers and set out to take matters into my own hands with the imaginary pointy stick I pretend to threaten my children with.

My husband and I both put our bank cards for the account on the counter, realizing that nobody was wandering about town with our plastic. I called the bank and blocked the cards, since I couldn't get through to an actual human being to give me any different instructions. Of course, this action then prohibited me from viewing any account information on the computer (which was extremely helpful when the police officer showed up).

I had some trouble conjuring up an image of the hoodlum who was treating himself (of course it was a guy) on our dime. The police officer who took my phonecall asked if I knew who was making the charges...interesting, as I had not considered this option (nor was I going to). The officer who arrived began his questions along the same lines. It is a curious position to feel as though you are basically being asked "Have you pissed someone off enough that they'd do this to you?" or "Is the company you keep so deviant?" I was relieved that the officer took our word for the integrity of our friends and relations. He then moved on to where my husband had used his card recently. There had only been the place where the car was inspected and a pair of new pants at a department store. Eyebrows were raised about the service station, and I was instantly uncomfortable about the profiling of mechanics. My husband had not handed over his card there though, so we moved on to the young check out girl.

I understand the general concept of how one could get the information needed to use someone else's credit card for their own gain. (Not because I have studied such possibilities, but because I am a rocket scientist in my spare time!) The officer was describing the scene in more detail as to how they could watch a password being entered, and the number being in the system, and the security code on the back of the card being glanced at. I was pretty much just standing speechless like an idiot. I told the officer that I completely understood what he was saying, but that I imagined the whole thing being far more sinister, and not involving some young girl at the mall. Then I tried to create some story line in my mind that made me feel charitable or something, as if our bank account had helped some single mom make ends meet and care for her children. (Um, yeah, maybe that looking like an idiot pose was more true to life than I initially realized.)

Both Hot Topic and Sears were going to release the shipping information to the police once he faxed them from his office. He left our house just before 11:00 that night. As stressed as I tend to be, it was good for me to see that I was handling this occurrence well, in complete recognition that there was no element of actual danger to my family seemingly associated with it. Nuisance-yes...peril-no. I also needed to stay calm because I had inadvertently freaked out our daughter by shuffling her off to bed and quickly making phone calls that she could overhear. A five minute explanation paired with my unusual calmness relieved her very quickly, and I kicked myself for not arranging my plan in a slightly different order.

By morning, pieces of my typical defense mechanisms had started to kick in and I was angry. I also needed somewhere to put the blame, and decided it would rest with our bank. It seemed like most stories about fraudulent charges I had ever heard ended with folks being contacted by their banks with regard to suspicious account activity. I was also aggravated when I realized that my husband had walked (across the hall) to cash a check at the credit union the day before, and was not told of the insufficient funds account status. This wasn't a regular credit card that was approaching some ridiculous credit limit, but rather a bank card that was just sending our money right off. Plus, this target for my anger helped me keep my visions of the single mother safe, as I waited to hear what absolute essentials were on the pending charges list (yes, I was forgiving her the Hot Topic treats).

The bank credited all of the pending charges back to our account, and explained to my husband that they do not actually view the account to cash a check and instead have a code they enter. This is not an explanation that I am willing to accept for future business practices. My husband tried to help me understand that they see him there all the time, and probably didn't feel a real need to do any further checking as to whether he could cover the $28 check to begin with. I feel like the credit union should know them enough to put some policies in place to help protect them. There are still some charges hanging out there (including the one to Sears for the order that was cancelled, and allegedly not going to take place until authorized), but we are at least out of the negative balance range.

My husband suggested I just accept that it was the vendors' problem at this point. There was supposedly a charge to the Children's Place and QVC, which further supported my vision of the culprit. There was no one large purchase that tilted things in a crazy direction. They were all more modest charges that added up very quickly over three days. As I realized that the person still stood a chance of collecting her goods, I became agitated and pondered whether I should be trying to call each place in hopes of catching any shipments before they were en route.. I knew he was right on one level, but on another I REALLY didn't want anybody receiving things they were not entitled to. My anger started to shift, and I wanted desperately for the person to be cut off, and know that we were on to them. In a saner moment I did realize that the people who commit this type of crime do not intend to go on forever using the same person's bank account, and know eventually the money train will stop (and they probably hop on a new train).

When my husband spoke to the officer last night, some further investigation had been done. The shipping addresses were in New Hampshire and California. The case looked more like someone had hacked into the account, than physically getting the information first hand. I do not care for this scenario, as it makes me feel less safe. I do not feel as equipped to protect myself, because I do not have even a basic understanding of the methods of a hacker.

I was just speaking to a friend who has had her account compromised twice and she pointed out something that I am embarrassed to admit I would not have thought of. I share this information with you (and hope it is novel to at least two of you). Do not make purchases online with bank/debit cards. Restrict online purchasing to one credit (old school make a charge, get a bill) card. Obviously this keeps one's bank account from being touched during the actual charging. Yes, I realize that there are probably evil geniuses who know how to get right into an online bank account, but I have to keep some shred of sanity that will allow me to function in the real world today. (I am already trying to not fret over the online shoe purchase I made ten minutes before I got this golden nugget of a suggestion.)


  1. Just one more reason FOR ME not to join the new age and do my banking on line. I still use paper checks & a silver credit card.

  2. I agree.

    NEVER use debit cards for online shopping.

    My account was used 3 times last year till I finally figured it out.

    AMazon. I always forgot to log out. There is some kind of software that catches when someone has not logged out of shopping sites, and they jump in then.

    Now I LOG OUT of everything. EVERYTHING.

  3. I am usually hyper aware of logging out on the computer (maybe that it why it wasn't MY card)...I even twit on occasion about signing out of blogger...take the money, but don't be out there posting crazy stuff in my name!!!