Under my byline

Out of your hands

Posted in Living by Rrishi on 10 June 2008

Take a deep breath before you open your monthly credit card bill — it may hold a surprise not of your making

If the gates of your liquidity are little plastic rectangles, you’ll be intimately familiar with that law of modern consumer economics: great convenience opens the way to great inconvenience. Nobody with a credit card lacks amusing or appalling customer service stories to retail in sympathetic company.

The most frightening tales involve persons known or unknown getting hold of the keys and making off with the fruits of your private reserve. If it’s easy for you to access your money, it’s also easy for others. Some bad experiences, however, are the outcome of mistakes or carelessness, of merchant or cardholder. Here are a few cautionary credit card tales — most of them, fortunately, with a happy ending.

DOUBLE-SWIPING

“I bought Reebok shoes for Rs 6,000,” says Rachna Gupta, an entrepreneur and financial consultant, “and the merchant trader swiped my card twice.” Gupta discovered the mistake when she saw the bill for Rs 12,000 later. But she was resourceful: “One way is to get a cheque for the difference from the merchant trader. Second is to contact the credit card company. They check details and then refund. It sounds simple technically, but actually doing it…”

Fixing this kind of problem can take ages. Gupta and her sister visited the well-known hair salon Habib’s for a trim. “It was Rs 1,500 each, so the total should have been Rs 3,000, but they swiped twice and charged Rs 6,000. It took [the credit card company] four to six months to clear it off,” she says. “Even after reporting it and getting a complaint number, they continued to add interest and penalty.”

“Duplicate billing is very common,” says Vibhu Sarkar (name changed), senior employee of a major credit card services company. “There’s a redressal process. First of all, you call up our call centre. They will open up an investigation. Some companies give a temporary credit, then investigate.”

IN-HOUSE FRAUD

In February this year, a Delhi-based petromarketing executive was asked to visit Parliament Street police station. “Somebody has used your Visa card for fraudulent purposes,” he was told. The crook, the cop said, was “an employee in a customer call centre — a fairly senior associate”, who had located 40-50 high-limit accounts which were never used and “would keep rotating debits between the cards” while preventing the cardholders finding out by “logging an incoming call to say that I do not want any statement”.

A fairly sophisticated operation, the crook avoided triggering internal alarms until, as the victim speculates, “the amount became large enough that he couldn’t handle it, or more controls were imposed”. In January, the card company discovered the fraud and filed an FIR against “persons unknown”.

“Technically the card was not activated since I have not entered into any transaction,” the victim says. But the police gave no further information, nor did the card company respond to his letter, call or e-mail asking for a copy of the statements. “It just shows that their controls are lax. They’re just brushing it under the carpet.”

“Fortunately for me,” says the victim, “the fraudulent character had done the right thing before he vanished. He wrote off all the amounts, made zero balance on those accounts.”

“Employees are a critical source” for fraudsters, says Vibhu Sarkar. “They have every information. That’s why hiring has become so stringent. We have background checks and verification. There are a couple of people just surveying employee access to accounts. There are cameras everywhere where the calls are taken…” But they cannot stop every crook.

FRAUD IN THE HOUSE

It’s not easy to keep track of several credit cards. “One of my employees stole my card,” says Rachna Gupta. “It was a card I was not using. Suddenly three months back I received a bill for Rs 65,000.” She realised the card was missing and called the company. They told her, she says: “Nothing doing. You should have reported the loss of the card.”

So she asked for the charge slips. To her surprise, she saw that “a guy has signed. Nobody ever cares to check the signature at the back of the card! He was signing his own name and it has no resemblance to mine.” The company compromised, and settled for Rs 40,000. The police went in search of the thief, who had left Gupta’s employ, “and I recovered the Rs 40,000 from him”.

Why not stick with a debit card? “Debit is even worse!” Gupta exclaims, “It will be straightaway debited from my saving account. That way, a credit card is much safer.”

LE FRAUD

“Some cheeky bastard by the name of Gaitan Bayiha used my credit card number,” says Mahesh Menon, a psychology researcher in Montreal, Canada, “to pay for a first-class ticket from Paris to Montreal (via Dallas) and returned on it two weeks later. It cost a princely US$7,000 or thereabouts.”

“I was freaking out,” he says. “So I called the good folks at Visa, and they said they’d credit the amount back to me (after I signed a form saying ‘This is a fraudulent transaction and I did not authorise the payment on my card.’) and look into the matter. I didn’t hear back from them after that.”

“Online fraud is happening at a much higher level now,” says Sarkar. “If you have my card number and CVV number,” it’s easy. “We advise customers as soon as you get your card to destroy the CVV number. There are ample instructions which nobody bothers to read.”

EASTERN FRAUD

“I had gone to Phuket [Thailand] for a conference two years ago,” says Shyamala Shiveshwarkar, journalist and AIDS campaigner, “and I bought a fake watch. I think that’s how it happened.” Back home in Delhi, Citibank called to ask whether she had purchased jewellery worth $85,000 in Malaysia. “They came, looked at my passport, made me sign a form and then I haven’t heard from them.” Since she travels frequently in East Asia, to be safe her company keeps changing her card number.

“Now I’m more careful,” she says. “Whenever I’m in small shops I just pay in cash instead. It’s a nuisance and you lose out very often [in exchange rate] but that’s the best way to do it.”

BIG ZERO

“I wanted to buy a strolly,” says Sushmita Choudhury, who works for the India Today group. “When I asked for the price I heard ‘25 hundred’ for ‘25 grand’. So I bought it and when I got the receipt I didn’t look at it and just signed. Two days later I realised.” She tried returning the Rs 25,000 suitcase, but “like all showrooms they can only replace it with stuff they have there. So I just kept the strolly. To be fair to myself I went to Samsonite, not Louis Vuitton!”

“I’m learning to love it,” she says, ruefully.

MIND IT

Morals of the stories? Apart from your regular security precautions: keep an eagle eye on your cards, even when they’re in a cashier’s hands, don’t accept more cards than you need, and please — look at what you’re signing.

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