Credit Cards' Hazards Abroad Using Them Has Its Advantages and Disadvantages

By Betsy Wade 1997, New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

Credit Cards' Hazards Abroad Using Them Has Its Advantages and Disadvantages


Betsy Wade 1997, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


ADVICE ON consumer protection often favors using a credit card for purchases: If things go wrong, conventional wisdom holds, there is an extra layer of protection because the buyer can protest if the goods are not received and ask that the charge be removed. But using a credit card overseas, which is helpful because it provides the bank-to-bank rate of exchange at the time the transaction is processed, also has its hazards, as two readers' experiences show.

Betty Keiser of Bala-Cynwyd, Pa., had the inconvenience and embarrassment of finding her credit card declared invalid while she was shopping in Italy. The security mechanisms established by her Mastercard issuer, CoreStates Bank of Delaware, caused a cutoff after she made "five or six" modest purchases within a few hours in Cernobbio on the shores of Lake Como. She knew she was far from her credit limit, but could not get the card validated again and had to adjust the rest of her trip to do without.

Mark Wolters of Hamilton Square, N.J., used his Citibank Mastercard to buy an expensive ring from a jewelry shop in St. Martin. While he was still on the island, in the summer of 1995, a stone fell out. He returned to the shop, which refused to take the ring back. He called Citibank from the jeweler's shop, and the bank told him to put his complaint in writing. When he wrote from home, he received letters from a Citibank office in Sioux Falls, S.D., saying "Because you are disputing a charge which originated in a foreign country, we have no means to assist you with this matter." The second response declared the case closed. First, the blocking of the card: Visa and Mastercard say the issuing banks adjust their security systems for what constitutes "out of pattern" buying. American Express sets its own system, but all three organizations say the computers are constantly being re-educated about each cardholder's patterns, adjusting levels that indicate a card may have been compromised. This means either the card has been stolen or an unauthorized person has learned the numbers and incorporated them into another card's magnetic strip or used them for a telephone purchase. All three companies, for security reasons, are wary of disclosing what triggers a shutdown of a card. The number of purchases, the timing and the types are factors, said John Newton, vice president for CoreStates bank card operations. A large number of charges from a casino, say, would be more suspicious than from a department store. One trigger involves gasoline purchases. "A thief will test a stolen card at a gas station to see if it has been reported stolen," said Susan Forman, senior vice president at Visa. At night he can put a card directly into the pump without being studied closely by the attendant. Big purchases, especially anything that can be resold quickly, like a computer, on a card not usually used for major undertakings may indicate an unauthorized user. …

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