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How Credit Card Frauds Are Investigated and Caught

By Kim Franke-Folstad · October 10, 2022 · 9 minute read

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How Credit Card Frauds Are Investigated and Caught

Even if you’ve never been a victim of credit card fraud yourself, you probably know someone who has — and you may have wondered how credit card frauds are caught. Credit card companies and merchants frequently update the security measures they use to prevent credit card fraud, and their investigators will check into issues as they occur. Law enforcement also may get involved, depending on the type of fraud and the amount.

That being said, it’s still important for you to protect yourself against credit card fraud. Read on to learn about the different types of credit card fraud you might encounter, what to do if you suspect your account has been compromised, and steps to take to safeguard your account going forward.

What Is Credit Card Fraud?

Credit card fraud is the unauthorized use of a person’s credit card information to purchase goods and services or get cash from an account. According to data the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has collected over the past four years, credit card fraud is the most reported form of identity theft.

Luckily, federal law can limit your responsibility if you move quickly to report a lost or stolen card or dispute unauthorized charges. Still, it can be a real hassle to clear up the mess and keep inaccurate information caused by identity theft off your credit reports.

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What Types of Credit Card Fraud Are There?

You can become a victim of credit card fraud whether someone physically takes your card, virtually hacks into your account, or uses your information to create a new account. Here’s how fraudsters can obtain and use your account information through various credit card scams.

Card-Present Fraud

EMV® chips, PINs, and other security measures have made “card-present” fraud less of a factor than it used to be. But there are still some criminals who are willing to risk using a lost, stolen, or counterfeit card to make an in-person purchase — and they’ll likely move quickly to do so.

Even if you think you’ve simply misplaced a card, you may want to use your card’s “on/off” feature, if there’s one available, to temporarily suspend the card until you can locate it or report that it’s missing.

Card-Not-Present Fraud

Even if your cards are safely tucked away in your wallet, you may find unauthorized charges on your statement. These days, it’s far more common for a thief to work behind the scenes to get your account information and use it to commit fraud online or over the phone.

Card Skimming

You’ve probably seen warnings in the news about thieves placing skimming devices on gas pumps, but credit card skimmers can be used to steal information just about anywhere there’s a card-reading device. This can include on ATMs and at stores and restaurants.

When you swipe a card, the skimmer reads the magnetic strip and stores the credit card number, expiration date, and cardholder’s name. There are also devices (cameras or false keypads) that can record a PIN number.

The captured information can then be used to make fraudulent charges online or over the phone. The hacker could also sell the collected data or use it to create counterfeit cards.

False Application Fraud

If identity thieves can get access to your personal information (through a data breach or some other method), they might be able to use it to apply for a new credit card, loan, or line of credit in your name. Or, they might blend information from several victims to create a false identity.

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“Card Never Arrived” Fraud

This type of fraud can happen when someone intercepts a new or replacement card before you receive it in the mail. If a new card doesn’t come when you think it should have arrived, you may want to check with your credit card issuer to make sure it hasn’t been taken.

Phishing

Sometimes identity thieves will try to get the personal information they need using a phishing email, text, or phone call that appears like it’s from a bank or some other familiar contact or business. The message might ask you to click on a link or go to a website where you’ll be asked for your password, the CVV number on your credit card, or other details that may be used to access your accounts.

Hacking

Your personal details also could be at risk if your bank, credit card company, or some other business that stores your info is involved in a data breach. If this were to happen, a hacker could get ahold of your credit card information.

Account Takeover

Once a person’s identifying information is stolen (through a data breach, phishing, or another method), a thief may contact credit card companies directly. They could impersonate the cardholder and change their PINs and passwords to take over the account.

How Are Credit Card Frauds Typically Caught?

Early detection is critical when it comes to catching credit card fraud and minimizing the damage thieves can do. Unfortunately, unless you notice your card is lost or stolen, or you see unusual activity on your account statement, you and your credit card company might not know someone is making unauthorized charges for days or even weeks.

How Often Do Credit Card Frauds Get Caught?

It’s difficult to say how often credit card frauds get caught. A heads-up clerk might notice someone using a stolen credit card and call it in to the police. Or, an investigator might be able to trace a criminal who uses a stolen credit card number online. But unless you know the person involved in committing the fraud, you may not find out if there’s actually been an arrest.

The good news for credit card fraud victims is that if you quickly report the fraudulent use of your account, you won’t be held responsible for the charges. The Fair Credit Billing Act protects credit card users from being held liable for more than $50 in the event of fraud. Even better, major card networks have their own “zero liability” policies to ensure you won’t pay for unauthorized charges made with your credit card or account information.

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How Do Credit Card Companies Investigate Fraud?

The best way to start an investigation into fraudulent transactions on your credit card is to notify the credit card issuer, either by phone or online chat. The card issuer will likely deactivate your card and send you a replacement. It also may refund your money at this point, or it may want to wait until the case is investigated.

The issuer then has 30 days to respond to your report and begin its investigation. The investigation can take up to 90 days to be completed.

As for how credit card companies investigate fraud, the issuer’s internal investigation team will begin by gathering evidence about any disputed transactions. It may check for things like transaction timestamps, the IP address of the person who made the disputed purchase, and the purchaser’s geographic location. If the crime appears to be part of a larger pattern or organization, the card issuer might alert the FBI or other law enforcement officials.

You may be able to help the investigation if you also report the crime to local law enforcement — especially if you believe the theft was committed by someone you know, or by someone local who stole personal information from your computer or mailbox. The FTC’s identity theft website can take you through the steps of filing an identity theft report.

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What Should You Do If You Suspect Credit Card Fraud?

Besides reporting credit card fraud as soon as you suspect there’s an issue, there are other steps you can take to further safeguard your finances.

Send a Follow-Up Letter

The FTC recommends following up immediately with a letter to the card issuer that confirms you reported unauthorized activity on your account. You should note the date and time you reported the loss, and include any relevant documents (such as your police report and/or your report to the FTC).

Send the letter to the credit card company’s address for billing inquiries (not the address where you make payments). Consider sending it by certified mail so you have a receipt.

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Change Your Passwords

It’s a good idea to change your password occasionally anyway. But if you suspect you’ve been the victim of identity theft, you may want to review all of your accounts and change your passwords and PINs.

Contact the Credit Bureaus

You also should contact the three major credit bureaus to report your problem, and you may want to request a credit freeze, credit lock, and/or fraud alert. What’s the difference?

•   A credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, limits access to your credit report without your permission. This can make it harder for an identity thief to open a new credit account or loan in your name. A credit freeze is free, but you must request a separate freeze from each credit bureau. And when you want to unfreeze your file, you must do that separately as well, usually by using a PIN or password provided by each credit bureau.

•   A credit lock is pretty much the same thing as a credit freeze, but it may be more convenient. Once you set it up, you can lock and unlock your credit reports using an app or secure website. Plus, you don’t have to keep track of a PIN or password to change your status.

•   A fraud alert doesn’t put an all-out block on your credit report the way a freeze or lock can, but it still can be a useful tool. It puts a notice on your credit reports that cautions creditors that you may be a fraud victim. Additionally, it encourages them to take extra steps to verify your identity before opening a new account or changing something on a current account. Fraud alerts are free, and once you place a fraud alert with one of the credit bureaus, it will send a request to the other two bureaus to set up alerts on their reports.

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Watch Your Credit Card and Banking Statements

Don’t assume you’re out of the woods because you haven’t seen any unauthorized charges for a while. It may take weeks or even months before charges show up on your accounts if you’re the victim of identity theft. Checking your bank account, credit card, and other statements regularly for unusual charges (and to track your own spending) is a healthy financial habit to develop.

Track Your Credit Reports and Credit Score

It also can be helpful to track your credit reports to make sure the unauthorized charges you reported were blocked or removed, and that nothing new has turned up. Lenders, credit card issuers, and others use these reports to determine your creditworthiness, so you’ll want them to accurately reflect your finances.

You also can check your credit score to be sure it’s where it should be. Consumers can get a free credit report once a year from each of the three credit bureaus, and many financial institutions and credit card companies provide free credit scores to their customers. Even if you’re not a victim of identity theft, this can be a good credit card rule to follow.

Protecting Yourself From Credit Card Fraud

Unfortunately, identity theft and fraud can happen to even the most vigilant credit cardholders. To improve your chances of spotting and tracking unusual transactions, you may want to:

•   Set up transaction alerts: If your credit card issuer offers fraud notifications, it could help you react more quickly to unauthorized charges on your account. You may be able to set up alerts for specific transaction types, amounts, or locations. If an alert is triggered, you’ll be notified (usually by text, push notification, or email), so you can let the card issuer know as soon as possible if there’s a problem.

•   Track charges online or with an app: The days of waiting for your monthly credit card statement to arrive in the mail are long gone. You can check your current credit card balance and other details any time you like, by logging into your account regularly (at least once a week) or using a mobile app.

•   Sign up for credit monitoring: A credit monitoring program is another way to find out quickly (generally within 24 hours or less) if there’s been some type of unusual activity on an account. The service can notify you of major changes to your credit report, including large purchases or inquiries from lenders or credit card companies. If you didn’t make any big purchases or apply for a new credit card or loan, you can quickly take steps to inform your card issuer and the credit bureaus.

The Takeaway

Detecting and reporting credit card fraud as soon as possible is critical if you hope to limit the stress and cost of clearing it up. Even though issuers are on top of credit card fraud investigation, It’s also important to take steps to proactively protect your accounts.

Carefully choosing which credit cards you use is one way you can help safeguard yourself. The SoFi Credit Card, for example, offers chip technology, ID theft protection, and other security features. It also can make monitoring all your accounts easier, because you can manage your credit card, loans, banking, and investing all in one place on SoFi’s app or website.

Check out how the SoFi Credit Card can help protect your financial future.

FAQ

Can you trace credit card fraud?

Yes. If you notice suspicious activity on your credit card account, you can notify your credit card issuer immediately. The card issuer will then take steps to investigate any fraudulent transactions. You also should contact the three major credit card bureaus, and you may want to make a police report.

How long does it take to investigate a credit card fraud?

The card issuer must send a letter confirming it received your fraud report within 30 days. It then has 90 days to complete its investigation.

What evidence can a card issuer use to investigate a credit card fraud?

The card issuer will use any information you provide in the course of its investigation. It also may gather further evidence by talking to the merchant who was involved, looking at transaction timestamps, or checking the IP address of the device used to make an online transaction.

What fraud protection measures do credit card issuers provide?

Credit card issuers have developed several features to stop criminals from committing fraud. Those measures range from chip technology and PIN and password protections, to real-time risk assessments that allow merchants to decide whether to approve or deny a transaction.


Photo credit: iStock/Galetos

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
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