Fraud on debit card eaten by ATM while traveling abroad. Help!
July 13, 2022 2:41 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to maximize the chances that a provisional credit on my checking account for several large fraudulent transactions while traveling abroad will remain permanent?

A few weeks ago, I began what I hoped would be a one-year trip around Africa and Europe as a digital nomad, doing freelance work online to support myself. I'm a U.S. citizen from California.

I landed in Cape Town, South Africa, on June 23, 2022, and I immediately got into big trouble.

Let me start off by saying that I’m a seasoned and (normally) savvy traveler, having been to 43 countries and all 50 states, and nothing like this has ever happened to me.

Please — I am not looking for comments about things I may have done wrong or mistakes I may or may not have made up to this point. I have beaten myself up enough about this. I just need some advice on how to proceed from this point forward.

On June 23, 2022, the day I arrived in Cape Town, I was searching for an ATM in the downtown area, and I was directed to one by two men who were dressed in security uniforms. I inserted my personal Mastercard debit card (issued by my credit union in California) into the ATM, and the machine fully swallowed my card. The ATM then prompted me for my PIN, which I entered. Immediately, the machine printed out a receipt that stated “transaction cancelled,” and the machine did not return my card. I did not authorize any withdrawal on my account. I just entered my card and keyed in the PIN, after which the transaction was cancelled and the machine kept the card.

At this time, I realized that I was in huge trouble. By the time that I was able to reach customer service for my credit union via phone to cancel my card (within one hour of the failed transaction), my checking account had been nearly depleted by several large purchases of several thousand dollars on my debit card with a large South African cellular provider.

I informed a representative of my credit union via phone about what had happened and disputed the transactions within an hour of the incident. I sent my credit union photos of the ATM receipt, as well as a photo of the ATM itself.

My credit union quickly applied a provisional credit in the amount of the fraudulent transactions into my checking account, after the customer service agent I spoke with repeatedly asked me if I was sure that I had not written my PIN on my card (I have never written my PIN on any debit or credit card in my life, and I assured him that I had not).

I also filed a police report with the South African Police Service, and sent digital copies of the police report to my credit union. Additionally, I visited the bank that owns the ATM that took my card and informed them what had happened. They are a large, evidently reputable South African bank. The the manager of the branch I visited knew about the precise ATM in question, and told me that their ATM wouldn’t have swallowed my card. I suspect I fell victim to an ATM skimming device, facilitated by the men who directed me to this ATM, but this bank disagreed with my opinion.

My credit union has told me that they will investigate this incident, and that an investigator will contact me. It has been nearly three weeks since this occurred, and I still have yet to be contacted (I am still in Cape Town). I have called my credit union once a week and spoken with the same customer service representative each time since the day of the incident, and there has been no update on the situation (he has been helpful and understanding, though). Today, he told me that they are investigating and “preparing documents” and it is taking longer than usual since this occurred outside of the U.S.

I understand that Mastercard has a zero-liability protection policy, which states that the financial institution that issued my card won’t hold me responsible for “unauthorized transactions," as long as: "1. You have used reasonable care in protecting your card from loss or theft; and 2. You promptly reported loss or theft to your financial institution."

I clearly reported the loss of the card promptly. I also believe I used reasonable care to protect my card from loss or theft. I hope my credit union agrees with this.

I also understand that financial institutions issue a "chargeback" on disputed transactions like the ones that occurred to me. The merchant can then accept the dispute claim and the resulting loss, or re-present the transactions with supposed evidence that these were legitimate transactions.

I am 44 years old, with a 773 FICO credit score, zero debt, and I have been a member of this credit union for more than five years in 100% good standing. I don’t have any credit cards with them, but I have never had an overdraft and I have never disputed a charge for fraud before. I have been a model customer in these five years. More background info: The day I left on my trip, June 21, 2022, I got a replacement debit card in California from my credit union (this was the one that was stolen two days later in South Africa), because my old one was scuffed up, and I submitted a travel advisory to my credit union, telling them about the countries that I was planning to visit in the first few months of my trip.

My question is this: is there anything I can do from this point forward to maximize the chances that I will prevail in this process and that the provisional credit in the amount of my losses will be permanent? My entire year is riding on this. If the provisional credit is reversed, I have to go home. I can accept that if I have to, but of course it's not what I want. Secondly, can anyone with any experience in this field give me an idea about how likely it is that I'll prevail and that the fraud credit will be made permanent? I'm sort of in a holding pattern and not really able to move forward with my year due to this uncertainty.

I thank you all for the help that I know AskMeFi will provide (it always does).
posted by fenwaydirtdog to Work & Money (9 answers total)
The the manager of the branch I visited knew about the precise ATM in question, and told me that their ATM wouldn’t have swallowed my card. I suspect I fell victim to an ATM skimming device, facilitated by the men who directed me to this ATM, but this bank disagreed with my opinion.

Of course the manager did. He got a payoff, or gets a cut.

It sounds like you gathered just about all the evidence you could have gathered on the spot, actually. I'm not surprised to hear that a state credit union is struggling with dealing with international theft. But also the merchant in question (not the bank, the cell phone company) has something like 15 business days to respond to the chargeback request (I don't know if there are exceptions for international transactions or if extensions can be requested), so the time frame is not absurd so far. If your credit union finds against you, I strongly recommend you complain to the CA DFPI before giving up and going home.

In the future, if you must use a debit card while traveling, use one for an account that contains only a small amount of money at a time (topping off as you go). If your institution permits, set a relatively low limit on daily purchases.
posted by praemunire at 3:07 PM on July 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Nobody can really tell you about the likelihood in your specific case, but based on my bank (not credit union) experience, your chances are good! Since your story is coherent and you don't have a history of denied disputes, you have a very good chance of that provisional credit sticking around. I would feel very confident, although I realize it's not my money so it's easy to say. I know where I worked, the disputes process was Byzantine and even the people involved didn't necessarily have visibility (i.e. a Fraud person might not ever call you even if you were lead to believe that.)

The bad news is that if there's a foreign transaction involved, they have up to 90 days to resolve the issue. But they'll let you know when it's resolved. It's good that you're calling regularly. Be kind and persistent.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:07 PM on July 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have had cards compromised abroad several times, though thankfully always with smaller charges, and my credit union gave me a full refund but it took awhile. I also have friends that have had this happen, all with similar final outcomes. I can't think of what else you could do at this point. Good luck.

I suspect I fell victim to an ATM skimming device, facilitated by the men who directed me to this ATM, but this bank disagreed with my opinion.

I know this is kinda besides the point, but I agree with both you and the bank. When I had my card compromised, there was no "eating" of the card, but some people know how to lift the ATM info right after you use a machine. For this reason, when I was in a country notorious for this sort of crime, I tried to use ATMs that were high traffic, and not located in a rich area - not fool proof (obviously), but a harder for someone to just be hanging out nearby waiting for a mark. Anyway, it's possible the "eating" was a red herring, and I wouldn't assume the men who lead you to the machine had anything to do with this - scammers can lift data from any ATM.

Finally, I ultimately gave up after the second (or third?) time this happened. The good news is that sending money abroad has gotten easier (more options than just Western Union). So, if you have someone you trust in the US, you may want to consider this option.
posted by coffeecat at 3:08 PM on July 13, 2022

What else can you do? I would try to further contact and create a relationship with your credit union both your local branch and the investigative unit.

Call your local credit union building if there is one and make sure they know you are local to their office. Try to speak with a manager, ask them if there is anything else you can do. Maybe not, but they will know you reached out and if there is any likelihood that a local relationship can help you, you will have at least tried.

Follow up with the investigative unit and ask if there is anything else you can do and ask what the typical timeline of the issue resolution is (knowing there is a 90 day or whatever timeline to resolve, the usual timeline may be shorter). They may or may not be able to help but they will note your the seriousness of your request.

Make notes of the names of the people you talk to and follow up every week with your thanks about how they are taking your request seriously.

(When this happened to me in a nice part of London in a bank branch's atm, I didn't realize for weeks and was then home near my local branch who immediately did the provisional credit and assured me that this kind of thing happened all the time (and gave advice about never using standalone unbranded atms, atms at gas stations, gas stations, and so on). Obviously they could look at my accounts and see the lack of this type of thing happening before and see me and my many year history with the bank branch which no doubt helped. The provisional credit never reversed - I did not lose any money. Based on what you are saying, I think you are good, this is fraud and your card is protected from fraud, though I don't know how soon you can be assured of the final result.)
posted by RoadScholar at 5:08 PM on July 13, 2022

Best answer: You did everything you could and should have and I'm sure in the end it will be fine, but these matters often take quite a while to resolve (i.e months, not days), particularly if chargeback is concerned (although it shouldn't need to be as it was an unauthorised transaction). Just keep following up with them regularly. The fact that the credit union credited you the money straight away shows there is no doubt on their end, it just may take a while for it all to clear.
posted by ryanbryan at 1:37 AM on July 14, 2022

Have had my debit card compromised a few times, including at an ATM that turned out to be a chronic problem for others, and the bank always repeatedly asks the questions about writing your PIN on the card, giving access to another person, etc. It seems ominous and upsetting but is routine. I have always gotten a credit for the fraudulent charges immediately, and it is always wiped from the record going forward. It has not affected my credit rating. But I don't use an ATM any more, or use my debit card for any charges, except inside the bank where I am known, with the teller. All my problems have occurred within the USA, however.
posted by Peach at 4:53 AM on July 14, 2022

I think you've done everything you can, and correctly, in the situation and it sounds like your bases are covered here. Please try not to stress yourself out.

I also travel a lot, and have a method to mitigate this risk. I would suggest getting a separate bank account with its own ATM card (I use two different banks for this so the cards are clearly different). While I'm traveling, I only use one of the cards and only transfer (online) the amount of money I will be withdrawing that week, plus a bit extra for fees, etc. As soon as it hits the other account, the balance goes back to a nominal amount so even if the card is compromised, there's no possibility of serious cash loss until my bank can address the issue. And if I lose the card or it gets stolen, I still have my other card to use until I get a new card mailed to me from the other bank.

If I have a secure hotel room or other place I'm staying, I don't even take the non-used card with me, I hide it in the room (set a reminder notification on your phone with the location for when you're leaving!)

I've had this system for over a decade and it's saved me a headache more than once.
posted by ananci at 11:33 AM on July 14, 2022

Response by poster: To all of you who provided me advice, feedback, and your own perspectives and real life experiences on my situation: Thank you so much! I truly appreciate it! You have helped me to sort of get my bearings on this situation and to feel more hopeful about it. I'm going to just continue my trip as planned. I will follow up with a post about the resolution to my situation when it happens. Positive feelings and thanks to you all!
posted by fenwaydirtdog at 3:05 AM on July 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I am pleased to report that 111 days after this incident occurred, my credit union informed me that "this provisional credit is now permanent... your fraud/dispute claim is closed." I still can hardly believe that the system actually worked for me (this was fraud in the five figures), but I am very grateful! Thank you again to everyone who responded to my original post. Because of your feedback and encouragement, I didn't go home and I continued my travels. In fact, I am still on this same trip through Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, nearly nine months later. Thank you to all who responded — your advice turned out to be wise and true. Life is beautiful. Positive feelings to you all. Ask Metafilter wins again!
posted by fenwaydirtdog at 12:09 PM on February 6

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