Sometimes nightmares happen during the day.
It was a complete fluke that I checked my personal mail as soon as it arrived. Often I don't have time to sort through it until the end of the week. Deep in the pile was an important notice from my bank. I tore the envelope as I multi-tasked, completing a phone call and keeping a plant from tipping when the phone cord pulled on it.
I nearly dropped the phone when I read the contents of the bank's computer printout. A savings account I use only for deposits was seriously overdrawn.
No way could it be overdrawn. The two overdrafts presented, although hefty, weren't anywhere near what the balance had been, and I hadn't used the account to pay for anything. I pulled out my bank statements and my checkbooks and studied everything quickly but carefully to make sure I hadn't purchased something I just didn't remember doing.
The search confirmed my deepest fear. I had not used the account for anything. And yet, all the money I'd saved apparently was gone.
I rushed immediately to the bank. Not knowing any better, I waited in line for a teller, and as luck would have it, I got a new one who wasn't as seasoned in the emotional aspects of potential fraud. She read off one transaction after another that had been logged against my account for the previous 72 hours, all of them originating in Seoul.
I was shaking my head as she read them off. "No! No! No!" I cried with a little more agitation with each ascending amount. "That's not mine! I didn't charge that!"
The teller finally jotted down a phone number she said I'd need to call to contest the charges. As she wrote, another transaction, this one in the amount of $800, posted.
Fortunately, the teller right next to us picked up on all my verbal and visual cues, reached over and tapped her co-worker on the shoulder.
"No," she softly but firmly ordered. "Have her talk to the vice president RIGHT AWAY."
Within seconds, I was at the vice president's desk, watching as he closed out the account in question and checked the status of my other accounts before freezing them. Fingers of darkness seemed to be enclosing upon me, and I struggled to stay in the light. All my savings were gone. Every last penny. What had taken me years to build up had evaporated nearly overnight.
You'd have to live in a cave in Siberia to not know how rampant credit card fraud has become. You've probably seen hundreds of forwarded e-mails about the horror stories and things you can do to prevent it from happening to you.
What if you do everything you can to prevent it, and it happens anyway? What do you do? I mean, besides cry, scream or sit in a stupor trying to figure out what in the heck just hit you.
One of the things I didn't think to do when this happened back in 2007 was pray. With all the experiences I've had in my life, you'd think that would have been my first instinct. But it wasn't. I believe that's the reason my world seemed so black for the first 18 hours or so. I allowed the fingers of darkness to gain a chokehold. If I had prayed first, perhaps I wouldn't have had to battle the debilitating depression and total absence of common sense that so steadfastly fought to roost within my soul.
That savings account initially was set aside to help pay for my son's church mission. He ended up taking his life elsewhere. So I converted my savings to the new goal of making sure I had enough money saved to get me through several months of unemployment, just in case. I still had a long way to go, but I was making progress.
In the blink of a computer screen, everything I'd saved was gone. The account I'd set aside for Just in Case was gone when Just in Case took center stage. Thankfully, two other accounts were just fine. I couldn't help but ponder what life would have been like had it been my checking account that got hit and if I'd had no savings.
When your bank account is compromised, the third thing the bank does (after freezing your account and notifying proper bank authority) is conduct an initial investigation. Yes, INITIAL. First of many. All the while requiring the victim to make a formal complaint to local law enforcement, which also entails THE interview.
"Has your purse or wallet been stolen?"
"Do you leave your purse out unattended where others, such as co-workers, may access it?"
"Are you sure this isn't your husband making these charges?"
"Have you allowed anyone else in your family to use your bank card?"
"Have you made purchases via the internet?"
"Have you recently discarded any bank statements, receipts, deposit slips or checks?"
"Are you sure you haven't purchased airline tickets from a travel agency in Seoul?"
I had indeed made many purchases via the internet, all behind a triple layer of protective firewalls and via secure servers. But never with this particular account.
I had indeed disposed of old bank statements, receipts, deposit slips and checks, but all had been shredded.
I had always abided by a lesson my grandmother taught long, long before the technology explosion, long before I was old enough to have a credit card. She had taught all of us to cut checks, statements, invoices, credit cards and any other item containing personal information into teensy, tiny pieces before disposing and distribute the pieces to different locations, different states if possible. (We lived very close to a state border.)
While I was still in high school, a notebook of poems was stolen from my locker. I remember going through trash cans in search of my poetry drafts and multi-color doodles. If I'd come up with anything at all, I'd have worked through the night, many nights if necessary, to reconstruct my poems, at the time, my most treasured possession.
If I'm willing to go to that effort for teeny bopper poems, how much more willing would a potential criminal be to reconstruct bank records that might yield thousands of dollars?
Federally insured bank accounts don't hurt, but how much longer can the FDIC continue to cover this kind of fraud if it keeps growing and spreading like a wind-driven wildfire in a drought-parched forest?
Last month I read in a tech journal I subscribe to that debit cards should never be used to pay for internet purchases. Oops. Credit cards are insured to cover fraudulent use (although I'm sure the investigation process would be just as... vigorous, tedious and thorough), but also, real bank accounts aren't at as high a risk if credit cards are used to pay for purchases instead of debit cards. No worrying about how you will pay next month's rent if your credit card is hacked. One of my bosses adds, "You get points for using your credit card." Whatever...
I have been in "pay off everything" mode for more than ten years now in an attempt to be free of debt, except for our home. I never would have dreamed it could be wiser to use a credit card than a debit card. I am taking that into consideration now, given my most recent experience.
The trade journal also recommended using gift cards for internet purchases. Doing so eliminates impulse spending and can be inconvenient, but if the gift card number is used fraudulently, financial risk is so much lower than an actual account with overdraft availability.
I did eventually get all my savings back in 2007, and I changed banks. My current banks don't notify me via snail mail when something suspicious transpires. They call. They don't wait for an account to be emptied to shut it down.
How do I know this???
It happened again in 2009. And again last year. Then again last three-day weekend.
We were headed up the Grand Mesa to cross country ski after church on Sunday. The phone rang. My first thought was, "We have signal???"
Yep, we had signal, and it was my bank. On a Sunday of a three-day weekend. !!! Some bogus travel agency in a country I've never been to charged less than a dollar to my card. The 24-hour fraud department of my bank watched, waiting. After the charge went through, a shower of escalating charges careened like rocks down a steep canyon wall.
The bank immediately closed my account and called to inform me. My money was safe once again. I'll even get my 64 cents back.
Nevertheless, I had to sit in the car and stew for half an hour, even though five feet of snow tranquilly waited. Everything would be okay, yet my stomach once again was in knots.
Three of my four instances have theoretically been the product of computer programs randomly selecting numbers, then "pinging" to see if a contrived number works. The fourth instance was thanks to the theft of a laptop computer owned by an agency I had to file monthly reports with while fostering abused children. Because just enough personal information about each family ever served by this agency may have been stored on the computer, they believed preventative measures were warranted.
To my knowledge, none of the hits on my bank accounts were caused by any of the transactions I have ever conducted. My first occurrence was the only time fraud against one of my credit cards came with a hefty price tag, even though I got my money back. The money returned to me came from somewhere; it didn't grow on a tree. It cost someone, somewhere.
After writing this post last Tuesday, I learned Wednesday morning many, many, many people have been similar victims of credit card fraud due potentially to a security breach via one of two companies I too have done business with in the past three months. Wednesday afternoon, I learned some of the victims of the fraud had their addresses fraudulently changed, and their new credit cards may be going to fake addresses. Victimized twice in one fell swoop.
Even when you take precautions and try to be safe, you can still be the unwitting victim of crime. Or crimes.
Sometimes, not even a beautiful blanket of fresh, sparkly snow can take away all the sting.