In a striking example of what AdWeek calls "cautionary prankvertising," the trade group for Belgium's financial sector partnered with an award-winning ad agency to create a creepy public service announcement about the dangers of identity theft: an ad that dramatizes the hijacking of a real person's life.
As the spot begins, a mysterious man in a suit explains that we all lead two parallel lives: one in the world and the other online. To illustrate the inherent dangers of being careless in the latter one, the man proceeds to steal the identity of 35-year-old Bruges resident Tom Degroote. All it takes is a Facebook (FB) friend request -- foolishly accepted by Tom -- and a phishing attack, which Tom falls for, confirming the details of his bank account.
Then, the man explains, just "one fake call" can "empty his account." The man purports to make fraudulent purchases in Tom's name -- booking a hotel room in London, ordering an antique harp -- and uses facial prosthetics molded after Tom's Facebook photos to impersonate him.
Not to spoil the ad entirely, but Tom, increasingly bewildered and concerned, is eventually confronted by his doppelgänger, who shares some suitably admonitory messages while peeling off his second skin. Check out the spot below:
The agency that made the ad, Duval Guillaume Modem, is famous for its stunt campaigns, some of which might be impossible to pull off in this country: According to Creativity, "laws around shocking people tend to be less tight abroad, especially in continental Europe," which explains why Duval was able to present Tom with a heart-stoppingly expensive musical instrument right outside his door.
Creativity also suggests that the ad exaggerates the extent to which Tom's personal information was actually put to use:
As for the dubious point of actually stealing money from a bank account... the agency didn't actually pilfer thousands of Euros from the victim. Duval said in an email that it used actors to "sell" the harp -- so nothing was actually bought.
Why Your Bank Thinks Someone Stole Your Credit Card
Belgian Banks Pull Crazy Identity Theft Stunt for Phishing PSA
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.