The Checkout

Another Urban Legend--With a Lesson

Another urban legend hit my e-mail box this past week--and probably yours as well since I've gotten several. This one warns of a new credit card scam and, in theory, has good advice that we've heard before: Never give out any financial information to anyone who calls you unsolicited, no matter how official the person may sound or how much information he may have about you.

But other than that, Visa and MasterCard officials say the story in the e-mail is not true; they know of no specific person who's been scammed according to the story outlined in the e-mail. Yes, I know that the urban legends reference Web site says it is true--but if you read the entire item, you see that only says it's possible and plausible, but is unclear whether it's a widespread phenomenon. Still, I repeat, there are some lessons to the e-mail even if it didn't really, truly happen.

The e-mail tells a story about a consumer getting a call from someone claiming to be an official at Visa's security and fraud department. The official, who even gives his badge number, tells the consumer that his account has been flagged because of a suspicious purchase. The official asks whether the customer paid for an anti-telemarketing device for $497.99 from a marketing company in Arizona with a bank credit card, even naming the bank. When the customer says no, the caller says the person will get a credit and an investigation will be launched, even giving out a control number and toll-free number to call.

After that, the caller asks to verify the customer's credit card number, including the three digits that are the security number on the back. After the customer provides that, the caller politely hangs up. But should the customer have second thoughts and decide to call Visa within the next 15 minutes, the customer will discover that there was a $497.99 purchase on the account--but it had been made within the past 15 minutes.

Visa says this e-mail has been going around for more than two years. "As far as we know, to date no real complaints have come from living, breathing victims," said a Visa spokesman who asked not to be identified. In fact, he added, Visa wouldn't make such calls, though the bank that issued your card might. MasterCard officials say the same thing. But, no matter who is said to be calling, here's the lesson: NEVER EVER give out any personal information--unless you initiate the call.

By  |  January 27, 2006; 8:00 AM ET Consumer Alerts
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

The problem with that rule is that once you get on the phone and start talking, it's really hard to remember who initiated the call.

Posted by: Bruce | January 27, 2006 12:41 PM

More often seniors are receiving emails from paypal, chase manhattan, e-bay,asking for information to check on accounts the senior doesn't have...

Posted by: saul friedman | January 27, 2006 1:01 PM

If you can't remember if you called them or they called you that is a problem.

Posted by: That is a Problem | January 27, 2006 2:12 PM

if you are very busy, have kids, pets running around etc and get a million phone calls a day, it is not that unusual to forget, especially if you have been meaning to call the company for some reason or other

Posted by: ACA | January 27, 2006 4:14 PM

Dear ACA, did this webpage visit you, or did you visit it?

Posted by: Duh | January 27, 2006 4:58 PM

The PayPal ones are fairly frequent, but since the real PayPal expects you to remember what a genuine one is--and most can probably do this if they record it somewhere (I ought to, I guess)--it's best to delete all PayPal emails unless they are from a payment you know you just made, as for an eBay auction. And then call PayPal and ask them. I've done this, and it has always turned out that the 'PayPal email', usually warning you of trouble with your account, is fake. But never give any details to an unexpected PayPal email.

Posted by: Patrick J. | January 29, 2006 3:28 PM

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