Opinion

John Spevak: ‘Sawbucked’ by an identity thief

John.spevak@gmail.comAugust 1, 2014 

Identity thieves are getting sneakier. I learned from experience that people who get access to a credit card number can steal money – not only in large chunks but in bits and pieces.

It all started innocently enough. My wife, Sandy, received a Starbucks gift card from a friend. When she had used up the amount of the card, another friend told her she could reload the card electronically. Reusing the reloaded gift card would enable her to get free drinks.

Sandy reloaded by giving her gift card and credit card to a Starbucks barista.

Later, she indeed received a free drink. She also learned she could reload on her computer by typing in the Starbucks gift card number and the PIN on it, along with her credit card number. When the next credit card statement came to the Spevak home, I noticed a Starbucks re-load charge among the many other charges and recognized it as legitimate.

In the Spevak home, the job of family accountant over the years has somehow fallen to me. I take my home accounting seriously. I look carefully at our checking account and credit card statements. Both Sandy and I have been bilked in the past by unauthorized charges. I pride myself on going over each credit card statement with a virtual magnifying glass. I watch carefully for what might be any unauthorized use, looking for odd names of businesses, unusually high purchases, or odd locations.

I’m particularly wary after being previously burned by false charges like the $100 on my statement for gasoline in Lancaster, a town through which I have never passed.

The month following Sandy’s original Starbucks card reload, I noticed among our many charges some additional coffee reloading, one for $25 and two for $10.

That was reasonable; Sandy enjoys an occasional cappuccino and sometimes buys coffee mugs as gifts.

The following month, more reloads occurred, more frequently but in small amounts, never exceeding $10. Amid other larger charges for air fares, motel rooms, restaurant meals, and clothing, they seemed insignificant.

The next month, I noticed something odd. According to my statement, Sandy was reloading her card every other day, always for $10. Sandy doesn’t drink that much coffee. So I asked her to look carefully at the statement we had just received. Within a few seconds she said, “Those aren’t my charges. I don’t visit Starbucks that often, and I hardly ever reload my gift card.”

I went to my files and pulled out the previous month’s credit card statement and asked her to look at it carefully. She gave me the same response. Those weren’t her charges. We went back another month. Same result. And then one month further. Again, there were bogus charges, all small, all seemingly inconsequential, but recurring frequently.

Over the period of several months, with a few amounts of $25 and $15 and all the others at $10, the total of fraudulent Starbucks card reload charges came to $525! I felt first angry, and then embarrassed, for not catching on sooner. I called Starbucks. They understood the situation and recorded all the fraudulent charges I reported, a total of 39.

Then I called my charge card bank and did the same. It took awhile, but a helpful person in the fraud department, while looking at my charges for the past several months on her computer, recorded each bogus amount. She was quick to tell me I would get a complete refund, but I would need to cancel my old card to prevent future fraud. I did, and a new card with a new number was sent to me a few days later.

The bottom line (an apt metaphor here) was this: My bank account was not hurt, but my pride was. Although I thought I had practiced careful credit card accounting, I had been snookered by an identity thief who had nickled and dimed me. More accurately, using a term that in my younger days identified a $10 bill, I had been “sawbucked.”

So, dear reader, if you use a credit card, watch your statements for all charges, even the small, innocuous one. And encourage your significant other to examine each statement closely. Don’t get sawbucked like me.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a California Newspaper Publishers Association Blue Ribbon Finalist for 2013, are encouraged, and can be sent to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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