Why Your Bank Thinks Someone Stole Your Credit Card

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outside a Citigroup Inc. Citibank branch in New York, U.S.,  Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
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Erin Marquis of AOL Autos is a resident of Detroit, and she regularly fills up her car's tank at gas stations in the Motor City. On multiple occasions, the simple act of getting gas in her hometown has led to her debit card being frozen by her credit union, which suspected that someone had stolen her card.

After the third time this happened, she called up the credit union and asked them to knock it off.

"I finally told them if my card is stolen in Detroit, I'd call them, but they should stop blocking my card every time I paid for something in a new part of the city," she says.
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Credit card issuers regularly issue fraud alerts and freeze accounts when they suspect that someone has stolen your credit card or card number. And while those systems regularly catch fraudsters before they can do too much damage, they also occasionally trip up law-abiding cardholders, who are left to wonder why their attempt to buy a TV, or just 10 gallons of regular, has sent their bank into panic mode.

Credit card banks are understandably reluctant to disclose the precise criteria they use to detect fraud, but we were able to find out what sorts of purchases tend to set off your bank's alarm bells. Here are a few of the warning signs they look for.

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Why Your Bank Thinks Someone Stole Your Credit Card

One reason why Marquis' gas purchases might have triggered a fraud lockdown? Filling their tank is a common first move for credit card thieves.

"Some of the things they look at are small-dollar transactions at gas stations, followed by an attempt to make a larger purchase," explains Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911.

The idea is that thieves want to confirm that the card actually works before going on a buying spree, so they'll make a small purchase that wouldn't catch the attention of the cardholder. Popular methods include buying gas or making a small donation to charity, so banks have started scrutinizing those transactions.

Of course, it's not a simple matter of buying gas or giving to charity -- if those tasks triggered alerts constantly, no one would do either with a credit card. But Levin points to another possible explanation: Purchases made in a high-crime area are going to be held to a higher standard by the bank.

"It's almost a form of redlining," he says. "If there are certain [neighborhoods] where they've experienced an enormous amount of fraud, then anytime they see a transaction in the neighborhood, it sends an alert."

(Indeed, Erin tells me that one of the gas purchases that triggered an alert took place in a rough part of Detroit, which she visited specifically for the cheap gas.)

People who steal credit cards and credit card numbers usually aren't doing it so they can outfit their home with electronics and appliances. They don't want the actual products they're fraudulently buying; they're just in it to make money. So banks are always on the lookout for purchases of items that can easily be re-sold.

"Anytime a product can be turned around quickly for cash value, those are going to be the items that you would probably assume that, if you were a thief, you would want to get to first," says Karisse Hendrick of the Merchant Risk Council, which helps online merchants cut down on fraud. Levin says electronics are common choices for fraudsters, as are precious metals and jewelry.

Many thieves don't want to go through the rigmarole of buying laptops and jewelry, then selling them online or at pawnshops. They'd much prefer to just turn your stolen card directly into cold, hard cash.

There are a few ways that they can do that, and all of them will raise red flags at your bank or credit union. Using a credit card to buy a pricey gift card or load a bunch of money on a prepaid debit card is a fast way to attract the suspicions of your credit card issuer. Levin adds that some identity thieves also use stolen or cloned credit cards to buy chips at a casino, which they can then cash out (or, if they're feeling lucky, gamble away).
 

When assessing whether a purchase might be fraudulent, banks aren't just looking at what you bought and where you bought it. They're also asking if it's something you usually buy.

"The issuers know the buying patterns of a cardholder," says Hendrick. "They know the typical dollar amount of transaction and the type of purchase they put on a credit card."

Your bank sees a fairly high percentage of your purchases, so it knows if one is out of character for you. A thrifty individual who suddenly drops $500 on designer clothes should expect to get a call -- or have to make one when the bank flags the transaction. If you rarely travel and your card is suddenly used to purchase a flight to Europe, that's going to raise some red flags.

Speaking of Europe, the other big factor in banks' risk equations is whether you're making a purchase in a new area. I bought a computer just days after moving from Boston to New York, and had to confirm to the bank that I was indeed trying to make the purchase. Levin likewise says that making purchases in two different cities over a short period of time raises suspicions.

"I go from New York to California a lot, and invariably someone will call me [from the bank], " he says. Since one person can't go shopping in New York and California at the same time, any time a bank sees multiple purchases in multiple locations in a short period, it's going to be suspicious.

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Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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