While traveling recently, I had a rude shock at the ATM. Due to insufficient funds, the bank wouldn’t allow me to withdraw money. I walked to another bank and tried my ATM card again. Again it was rejected. Now I was worried. Some ATMs seemed to have trouble with my bank card, but I had never been rejected by two banks in a row. And when a third ATM wouldn’t disperse money, I knew something was seriously wrong.
I returned to the hotel where I was staying and used their computer to log on to my bank’s website. From there I could access my accounts, and I discovered that my checking account had been siphoned dry. I sat there, almost dazed looking at the screen. I was in the middle of Patagonia, and I had been the victim of fraud. I still had several weeks of vacation left – how would I get by? And how would I get back to the United States? How did it happen?
After I had gotten my breath back, I started to think. I reviewed my account history and put some pieces together. I soon understood how my account information had been stolen. Several weeks before, I had made a transaction via PayPal. I had done this in an internet cafÃ?Â©, on a computer that must have had a keystroke recorder program installed on it. My passwords had been stolen and my PayPal account had been accessed by a third party. Worst of all, my PayPal account was directly linked to my bank account, and the perpetrator had simply drained my bank account into my own PayPal account and then sent the money to himself.
The first thing I did was to notify my bank that there had been an unauthorized withdrawal from my checking account. Again from the hotel’s computer I looked up my bank’s website. The site had a toll free number to call regarding account services, and more importantly, a list of dialing instructions pertaining to every country in the world. I quickly looked up the instructions for Argentina and with that, called my bank’s 24 hour fraud hotline. Although the money had already been directly withdrawn from my account, this allowed me to place a stop payment order on all future transactions. I also received a confirmation number for my situation, so that in the future, I had proof that I had taken prompt action.
The second step that I took was to notify PayPal that an unauthorized transaction had gone through my account. This I did through their website. After I notified the company by email, I called their hotline to talk with a representative of the company. They flagged my account and also gave me a case number, so that I could refer them to my situation quickly. I received promises from both PayPal and my bank that the matter would be investigated, but I had a sinking feeling that my case would disappear into the depths of a fraud file.
Thirdly, I changed the passwords on every account I had accessed while I was traveling. I did this hoping that the hotel computer was less likely to be infected with spyware that could steal my passwords. From there an employees of my hotel agreed to act as a translator and the two of us went to the local police station to make a report. While the local police rarely deal with internet crime, I felt it was important to make a statement and to get an official copy from the authorities.
After I had notified both my bank and PayPal, changed all my passwords, and gotten a statement from the authorities, I felt that I had done everything I could while abroad. While the remainder of my trip was crimped, with the generosity of my fellow travelers, I managed to eat and keep a roof over my head until I could fly back to the States. And when I arrived home, I discovered that PayPal had kept their word and reversed the transactions that had taken place through my account. I was incredibly fortunate. Over a thousand dollars vanished, and then returned.
In reviewing this case of fraud, I realized many things. First of all, it’s not a good idea to directly link your financial accounts to other websites. Secondly, if you do online transactions, it is vital that the computer you use is secure. Most internet cafÃ?Â©s are not secure and the administrators often don’t keep their computers spyware free. A simple test is to see if you can download and install a program on your computer at an internet cafÃ?Â©. If the installation is successful and the administrator doesn’t raise an eyebrow, then the computer is not secure. Best of all is to avoid transactions that involve passwords, bank accounts or credit card numbers, especially when you are at an internet cafÃ?Â©. And if you are the victim of fraud, then be sure to set the alarm bells ringing as soon as possible. If everything does go wrong, be sure to carry a backup bank card linked to a separate account as an emergency fund.
While I was traveling, I often broke all of these rules. I checked my bank account numerous times, tracking my money spent and the exchange rates I was getting. I naively never thought that that information could be easily used in a scam. I learned that fraud can happen anywhere in the world, even when you’re on vacation. Caution and common sense when using public computers can prevent online theft from occurring in the first place, and prompt action can limit the damage in case you are defrauded.