A Cautionary Tale about Debit Cards and Fraud: A Former Debit Card User Tells Her Story

Submitted to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, October 2002

My first experience with "Debit Card Fraud" happened in August 1997. I get paid once a month, so I pay all my bills by the 5th of each month. This month, I had done that and paid out approximately $1,400, leaving me with about $400 for the rest of the month. Well, on August 6, 1997, I received approximately nine envelopes from Southwest Airlines, all addressed to me at my current address (I thought this was very weird because I had not had any type of contact or business with Southwest). I opened each envelope and found an itinerary for several individuals (unknown to me). These itineraries indicated these individuals "flew" all over the country (between 7-30-97 and 8-3-97) and I was billed for it. The total airlines tickets were $1,775; and, of course since my paycheck had just been deposited into my account, these itineraries were "paid."

I immediately contacted Southwest Airlines who confirmed that it was, in fact, my Visa debit card number used when making all airline reservations; and, that the same person made all the reservations. The Southwest representative refused to give me the name of that individual but indicated that if a police officer contacted her, she would provide them with detailed information.

I then contacted my bank and advised them of the fraudulent Visa debit card activity. The bank representative took a fraud affidavit and cancelled by debit card. He also advised that three of my "legitimately" issued checks (you know, the ones I wrote at the beginning of the month) had been returned NSF.

When speaking with the bank representative, he asked me if I had provided my card number to anyone recently. I advised him that I had just received this card and had it activated on July 9, 1997. I only used this card ONE TIME - to rent a UHaul! It also struck me odd that all itineraries had my new address on them (as I had just moved there in July). I reserved/rented a UHaul trailer in Oregon on July 15, 1997; and, returned it to a UHaul lot in another city on July 28, 1997. When I pulled my paperwork, I found my entire debit card number and new address listed!

I told the bank representative that it appeared that an employee of UHaul compromised my account.

I then contacted the Sacramento Sheriff's Office and filed a report. I brought copies of all documentation with me as well as the information regarding the UHaul. The representative (a volunteer) didn't seem too interested in the documentation and advised me to go to my bank.

I then went into the local bank branch, and the representative verified that my debit card had been cancelled; and, took another fraud affidavit. We then discussed the fact that my legitimately issued checks were now being received by the bank and being dishonored. I provided them with a list of my checks and requested that they be paid; and, any accumulated NSF charges be waived. They agreed to do this for me. They indicated that their Investigations Unit in would be conducting an investigation.

I also requested that their investigator contact Southwest Airlines to find out who made all the reservations in question. Additionally, the Department of Motor Vehicles had also assigned an investigator to investigate the possible issuance of fraudulent drivers licenses into the names of the individuals boarding the airplanes (because as you are aware, you have to present a photo ID at the ticket counter before you can get your tickets).

I then asked my bank representative if I could have a loan of $500 - as payment of the itineraries had depleted my account. I was told no, that my account was negative $3,700; and, it was their policy not to loan money to individuals who had a negative account balance. I asked them what I was supposed to do for food and gas? They had no answer for me.

Anyway, I never heard from the bank investigator or the sheriff's office. Now, here comes a surprise - the DMV investigator assigned to the case was friends with a local District Attorney, who was prosecuting individuals for identity theft. Just in passing one day, the investigator mentioned that I was having a problem and was there anything that could be done (mentioned lack of investigation from airlines, bank, or sheriff's office). I sat down with the DA and provided copies of all my documentation.

She noticed right away a "nickname" used to book several of the airline reservations. She was familiar with this individual whom she had just prosecuted for credit fraud. In her case, he had been sentenced to 7 years prison in June 1997 with a requirement to turn himself in the first of August 1997 to start his sentence. She said she would do some checking and get back with me. She told me that he went on a "dumpster diving spree" before he started his sentence and I was one of his last victims. She further stated that if she prosecuted him for my crime, the sentence would run concurrently - a waste of money.

So, I had a bit of satisfaction knowing that he was locked up anyway. But that still didn't ease my pain or help me out. I still had to make all kinds of phone calls, provide copies of documents, and for what? Three agencies who did nothing! I ended up "eating" $50 of the fraud because my bank had a policy in place that the first $50 in fraud would not be covered by the bank.

It's been 5 years - you know that no one from the Sheriff's Office or the bank investigator HAVE EVER CALLED ME?

I did not replace my Visa Debit Card until May of 2001.


On June 25, 2001, I received a telephone call from my current bank's representative. He stated that he wanted to confirm some charges for Tower Books in Torrance, CA. He advised me that an individual (he gave me a name) made five transactions within 15 minutes totaling in excess of $1,100. I advised the representative that I did not authorize any charges; nor, had I attempted to purchase anything from Tower Books. In fact, I live in another part of the state.

He told me that he had answered the bank's 800 number and an individual wanted to verify funds and account holder information. The individual provided an account number (mine) but another name (not mine). He advised the individual that the name provided did not match the account holder information (he did not give them any of my personal information). He further advised they "decline" the purchase.

The bank representative then asked me if I had placed a catalog order with JC Whitney in Chicago, Illinois. Again, I told him that I did not authorize any charges; nor, had I attempted to purchase anything from JC Whitney. The bank representative asked me if I had lost or had my Visa Debit Card stolen. I told him no, I was in possession of the card. I requested that the card be cancelled immediately. I cut up the card while I was on the phone with the bank. I was then transferred to another bank employee to complete some additional paperwork. This representative told me that no card was used to make any of the purchases, it was a "number only" transaction. I was advised to contact my local law enforcement agency to make a report.

I immediately went to the Sacramento Police Department and explained my situation with a request to make a report. They told me that since the charges were made in Torrance, CA, that I would have to file my report with that agency.

I then contacted the Torrance PD Watch Commander and explained my situation to him. He said that I would have to come into their office to make a report, he could do nothing over the phone. I explained to him that I lived and worked in northern California; and, that I was not coming to Torrance in southern California! I demanded that he take the information over the phone. He then transferred me to a detective, who took a statement from me with a request for a detailed written statement to be faxed as soon as possible. He also advised me to recontact the Sacramento Police Department, make a report and have them send it to him immediately.

I returned to the Sacramento Police Department and told them what I needed to do. I gave them special instructions on mailing the report to the Torrance Police Department. The desk clerk seemed very confused on what to do. Again, I gave her specific instructions. Guess what? About five days later, I received the report with original documentation in my mailbox. On the last page, it has specific instructions on sending the information to Torrance. IT WAS NEVER FORWARDED TO TORRANCE PD.

I called the detective who I had spoken to on the 25th of June. I explained the mix-up with the report (luckily though I had prepared and faxed a detailed statement to him on June 25). Anyway, he told me that he contacted Tower Books in Torrance regarding my complaint. The store manager advised him that since the bank did not confirm the account number and account holder information, the charges were never processed (although my bank "withheld" funds equal to the amount of the "pending" charges). Since the charges were never authorized, there was nothing else they could do.

I then asked the detective about the JC Whitney charges (JC Whitney advised me they had a name and address of where to ship the merchandise). He indicated he would contact them.

The detective called me back and confirmed what I already knew: JC Whitney received a telephone order and attempted to obtain a credit authorization in the amount of $589 (using my number - but not my name). When they processed the order, there was a "hard decline" on file (meaning the card was lost, stolen or the number had been compromised). The merchandise was not released and the charges would not be submitted to my bank (although my bank "withheld" funds equal to the amount of the "pending" charge).

Again, since the charge was not authorized, there was nothing else they could do (what about knocking on their door and seeing what else these individuals were up to?????)

So, I have given up on having a Visa Debit Card. Even with careful usage, my information has been compromised twice - causing me undue hardship, frustration and a whole lotta work! The Torrance PD detective was a bit put off that I was so demanding! Too bad. I learned the first time, the hard way. This time I was determined to get answers, to have someone do something! The first time, I got nothing from everyone involved; the second time, I got a half-baked investigative effort, from both PDs involved; I got more information because I wouldn't let it go and because I knew the kind of questions to ask. I got limited information from the companies involved because I wasn't a peace officer; but, the peace officers didn't get any more than I did when they called.

I do have to say this - in both situations - I knew the kind of questions to ask these companies because I work for a state law enforcement agency, and have been exposed to and assisted in investigations of credit fraud and identity theft. In my opinion, I did a better job at getting information (although very limited) than anyone could have imagined. I was able to provide the PD in each case with a lot of specific stuff. Yet, no one was prosecuted in either of my cases!

Identity theft and credit fraud continue because it is easy to do; and, the prosecution rate is very low - making this crime "fashionable." How else can you get a lot of stuff without having to pay for it? How else can you live a good lifestyle without having to pay for it? Only when ALL these people are held accountable for these crimes, will it not be as lucrative as it is today.