SCAM ALERT Don't get hooked by credit-card 'phishing' schemes
Never disclose personal information during unsolicited calls.
By DON OLDENBURG
The caller identifies himself by name and says he's "from the security and fraud department at Visa." He provides a badge number as proof.
"Your card has been flagged for an unusual purchase pattern, and I'm calling to verify," he says with authority, mentioning the name of the bank that issued your card to confirm which credit card he's investigating. "Did you purchase an anti-telemarketing device for $497.99 from a marketing company based in Arizona?"
When you answer no, he says Visa has been watching that company for these kinds of fraudulent charges. And Visa is going to "issue a credit to your account," he says, stating your mailing address and asking if it's correct. Relieved that Visa is on top of the case, you confirm.
Next he says he's going to launch a fraud investigation. He gives you a "control number" and advises you to call the toll-free security telephone number on your credit card if you have questions.
When he asks you to read him the three-digit purchase code from the back of your card so he can "verify you are in possession of your card" and make sure it hasn't been lost or stolen, you cooperate. After all, he's not asking for your credit-card number -- which you know better than to give to a stranger.
Before hanging up, he again urges you to call Visa's security department if you have questions.
Don't be fooled
This is the latest credit-card phone scam, warned an e-mail last week from someone urging recipients to beware of callers impersonating Visa and MasterCard fraud investigators. Because several readers received the e-mail in the form of a spam, they wanted to know if the warning was legitimate.
Both Visa and MasterCard know about the warning e-mails. Visa is monitoring the situation. MasterCard says yes, the calls are a scam.
Although a MasterCard spokesman wasn't able to say how many customers had been swindled, she says the phone script is designed to filch security code numbers. That code enables cardholders -- or con artists -- to make purchases over the phone, through mail order or online. Many merchants won't accept charges not made in person without the code.
Susan Grant, who directs the National Consumer League's National Fraud Information Center, says this is characteristic of the kind of con artistry the league began tracking in late 2003 called "phishing" -- "fishing around for people's personal information for ID theft purposes ... by phone or e-mail."
Grant and other consumer experts recommend never giving out personal financial information to unsolicited callers, including verifying information -- even if they say they represent your credit-card company.
Verification and protection
But credit-card agents do occasionally call and ask to confirm information. To verify who the caller is, consumers should ask for their name, department and phone extension, then call the toll-free number on the credit card or account statement and ask whether the call was legitimate.
Other steps consumers should take: Shred sales receipts, airline tickets, old invoices and anything else that displays your card numbers. Use your credit card for online purchases only on secure Web sites (the URL will begin with "https," not "http"). Check your cards periodically to make sure none is missing and go over credit-card invoices for charges you didn't make.
For the 10th anniversary of its quarterly consumer newsletter, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. last week published a collection of its best advice from past editions called "Tips You Can Bank On: An FDIC Guide to Being a Smarter, Safer Financial Consumer." FDIC Chairman Don Powell says the guide contains "simple, practical ideas on everything from understanding deposit insurance to shopping for financial services, avoiding scams and teaching children the value of money."
It's available free by calling (888) 878-3256 and asking for "Tips You Can Bank On" (item No. 653L) or going online at www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnfall03/index.html.
XTo report suspicious telemarketing calls and e-mail offers, call the National Fraud Information Center Hotline: (800) 876-7060.