“It’s a scam, honey. I didn’t buy anyone $22,000 in jewels”

It was a scene out of a Steve Carell movie or, better yet, something Mel Brooks put together. Or how about Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm?

You’re in a nice restaurant on Michigan’s West Coast enjoying the annual family vacation amidst the dunes on Sleeping Bear Bay. You’re picking up the tab for the 5 adult kids, spouses, 12 grandchildren, and one great grandchild. (All right, they’ve got to pay you back, but in front of the waitress you’re playing the role of Big Spender).

Then the pretty young thing comes back to the table and informs you discreetly that your credit card didn’t go through. Yes, they tried it several times with no luck. The picture freezes and you sit there transfixed by the pitying stares of your flock. Even the three year olds seem to have arched eyebrows.

It does not help that when you whipped out your plastic you had jokingly boasted that your credit rating was somewhere in the stratosphere—950 or something. It is small comfort when a son-in-law lays down his credit card and has it approved within minutes. As you skulk out, even the diners way across the room seem to be staring at you. If you had a tail, it would be between your legs.

Things only get worse when you indignantly call the credit card company on your cell phone. The favorite phrase of the husband dodging his boss’s call (boss may be read as either employer or wife) comes into play: “You are breaking up. I can’t hear you.” Then the phone goes dead. You bleakly accept the fact that you are located in a remote part of Michigan, and it may well be that the bankers at the other end of the line can’t hear you, not that they don’t want to talk to you.

Eventually, in another place, you get through to the gimlet-eyed financiers and find out what happened, and it all has a disturbingly familiar ring. Somehow the bad guys got hold of your credit card number and used it in attempts to buy things all over the world. How about $22,000 worth of jewelry in Saudi Arabia? And a couple of thousand bucks in Greece? And then back to Saudi Arabia for another stab at it.

Thank heavens for the alert credit-fraud detail that blocked the purchase. They did e mail us about canceling the card, but we had already left for vacation. But none of the fraud attempts were successful.

Imagine trying to explain to a spouse (who already thinks I’m losing it) the purchase of $22,000 in jewels. Still, it would have been interesting to watch her speculate as to who in my dislocated mind would rate $22,000 worth of jewels. In Saudi Arabia no less.

Unfortunately, the fraud scenario is all too familiar. This is the third time our credit card has been canceled because someone stole our number. On one occasion someone spent $250 on gas in Indiana, and other similar purchases ran the total up to $1,000. Those purchases went through, and it took more than a year to get the $1,000 off the card. Another time someone tried to buy $2,800 in sporting goods online in Florida; that one got blocked, but our credit card was canceled. A check with our offspring revealed that most of them also had similar experiences. It’s some comfort to know that we are not alone.

One thing was different this time. I think I know how it happened. A daughter told me that she believes her problem was traceable to a well-known online merchant. That caused me to go online for information, and I found a site that explained how a crook could intervene in a purchase. That rang a bell. I bought a book recently through Amazon.com and at one point it appeared that the purchase did not go through. I then put it through again. I suspect that someone intervened to get me to repeat my credit card number.

The scam I suspect took place is virtually identical to the phone fraud that occurs when a person checks into a hotel and receives a phone call indicating that the front desk apparently didn’t get the credit card number right and would you please repeat it. It turns out that the call comes from a fraudster outside the hotel.

The recommended response to any such request—online or off—is to call the hotel or online seller and find out if in fact a real problem exists. In a hotel the better policy would be to go personally to the front desk.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. A new credit card is in the mail, and we managed to find another workable credit card. It does make me wonder what might have happened if I’d been in Europe and only had one credit card.

Meanwhile, I think I will not go into that particular restaurant again this vacation. I don’t think I could take the look on that young waitress’s face when I walked in.

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