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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Caught out by the call centre carousel: a fraud victim's story

Nick March had Dh18,500 stolen from his credit card but resolving the issue with his bank was even more stressful

Illustration by Alvaro Sanmarti
Illustration by Alvaro Sanmarti

One in four of us have been affected by credit card fraud, according to a 2016 survey conducted by ACI Worldwide Survey. Most of us, I suspect, believe this is a statistic that happens to someone else. I used to think that too, until earlier this year when I was targeted by fraudsters.

The criminals came calling one Friday afternoon. When they did, they didn’t just push the door ajar to see if anyone was at home, rather they blew it away, shattering the peace of my family’s daily lives.

The fraud happened at tea time. When the text message came in, I ignored it as I was busy with something else. It was half an hour or so later that I picked up my phone and saw the SMS from the bank that someone had used our family credit card to purchase Dh18,500 worth of goods at a major department store in London. I was in Abu Dhabi at the time.

Worse still, no doubt emboldened by their good fortune, the fraudsters tried to repeat the trick a few minutes later, attempting another purchase of around Dh15,000 at the same store. That transaction was blocked, but only because their purchase exceeded the card’s limit. This type of crime is called “card-not-present fraud” and is becoming increasingly common.

I called the bank to block the card. I was told it would take several weeks to investigate the disputed transaction. After that, nothing.

I began speaking to the bank to seek their advice on what to do about the outstanding balance while the investigation was underway. I also sought counsel from an expert. Our personal finance editor, Alice Haine, cautioned me that I had stepped onto what she refers to as the “call centre carousel” and that there was no easy way to step off.

Any time I spoke to the bank I would get conflicting advice or occasional consoling words but no concrete action. There was no incident number attached to the fraud, which meant whenever I called, and I did so frequently, I had to explain the whole scenario over again. It was like repeatedly replaying the same argument.

Worse still, there was no communication between departments: the call centre didn’t talk to the fraud team, who in turn hadn’t told the collection centre that the large outstanding amount on my credit card was under investigation. This led to the bank taking a Dh18,500 payment from my current account on the credit card due date.

That left me doubly out of pocket: once for the fraud and twice for the money that I had to pay to settle the criminal’s spending spree. That money was, fortunately, returned to me three days after it was taken, but not before I had kicked up a stink with the bank.

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Read more:

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The fact that the balance was still there also raised other problems: despite it being a disputed amount, the bank applied Dh1,300 worth of charges to the outstanding balance, made up of credit protection payments (more of that later), VAT charges and interest.

I paid off the minimum balance to ensure further trouble did not come knocking at the door, but is it really fair for the bank to apply those additional charges to fraudulent activity?

A request has been made for a reversal of those charges, but the net result is that the outstanding amount - the initial fraudulent transaction minus the minimum payment plus the finance charges - mushroomed.

And, because I now had a large outstanding balance on my credit card, the bank marketed me with offers to convert the debt into a loan, which only added insult to injury. It also turns out that the “shield” payments I make each month on my credit card only cover me in the event of redundancy and not for cyber attacks.

The call centre carousel, meanwhile, kept spinning. Inaction on their side was met with frustration on my side.

There was also another grinding and troubling issue. More than a year ago, the bank had sent new credit cards to me and my wife. We had not requested them, so they have sat locked in a strongbox at home ever since they were delivered.

In the middle of last month, a few days after the initial fraud, I started receiving text messages notifying me of small attempted payments that had been blocked: four transactions for $11.99 each to Netflix and two more $1 transactions to other vendors. All the transactions were attempted on one of the unregistered credit cards that had been, and still were, sat in our safe. How had fraudsters got hold of the information?

This fed my anxiety, which is a perfectly natural emotion in such circumstances.

Experian, the global consumer credit reporting agency, examined the emotional impact of identity theft in the US in a recent survey and found that the majority of respondents feel a sense of powerlessness or helplessness if they have fallen victim to this kind of crime. Seven per cent even reported feeling suicidal. Many who fall prey to criminals are likely to take short absences from work as stress debilitates their mental health, affects their mood and their ability to concentrate. Certainly the “call centre carousel” had not helped me feel in control. It is a nausea-inducing and unpleasant ride.

I managed to get off the carousel late last week when, unannounced, the bank returned the original amount, the Dh18,500, back to our credit card. Now all I have to do is to press for the return of the wrongly applied interest, shield payments, VAT and the minimum payment I made last month.

If I had one recommendation for banks it is to let your customer service staff do just that: serve customers. Don’t condemn them to be stuck going round and round in circles for weeks on end.

I would also tell my bank this: understand that credit card fraud feels like a curse. Be mindful that this is criminal activity and for every crime there is a victim. You have a duty to treat that victim with care.

Understand too that customers want answers. Tell them what the process for investigating these types of crime is, tell them what to expect and when. Be mindful that your customer’s distress has been caused by another customer transacting with your institution. For sure, the fraudster is the “customer” no bank wants, but it is up to you to confront that fraud quickly and decisively.

And finally, make sure all your departments talk to each other. Being a victim of fraud is stressful. Institutional inefficiency should never be allowed to compound that heartache.

Nick March is an assistant editor in chief at The National