Mysterious Credit Card Charges: Why You Need to Check Your Bills

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Do you read your credit card bill? Really look at it? Crooks are counting on that not happening.

Their work usually starts with them buying your card number on the black market and placing a small charge on it that likely wouldn’t jump out at you unless you were really concentrating. After all, if you use your credit card a lot, a $2, $5 or even $10 charge can easily get lost. And considering how often these sorts of scams happen, plenty of people don’t notice.

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Credit card numbers are stolen in huge numbers. Some of the big data breaches you’ve heard about involved taking credit card numbers. Values of the card numbers are increased after one of those mystery charges goes through unchallenged, said Yaron Samid, CEO of Billguard, a free service that looks at your credit card use to find questionable charges.

In an attempt to slow the flow of stolen cards, the FBI announced on Thursday that it had shut down 36 sites that were selling them. The sites operated like any traditional eCommerce site, the FBI said, with buyers actually putting stolen credit card numbers into an online shopping cart for purchase. Undercover agents bought card numbers issued by banks including Bank of America, SunTrust, and Capital One, according to the FBI.

“Countless lives are thrown into financial turmoil because of these websites,” said U.S. Attorney MacBride. “With a few simple clicks, thousands of stolen credit card numbers can be bought or sold to fraudsters anywhere in the world. Today’s seizures are part of an ongoing campaign to disrupt this online market regardless of where it operates.”

To give you an idea of the scope of these crimes and how the crooks can be anywhere, the investigation involved law enforcement in countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, Macedonia, Ukraine and Romania.

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Experts say these kinds of scams are successful in part because even when consumers do notice the charges, they sometimes don’t report them. “Some people won’t take the time to dispute a $5 charge,” Billguard’s Samid said.

In addition to increasing the value of a stolen credit card on the black market, crooks will also hit a card with a small charge and then wait. If it goes through then they’ll charge more. It’s easy for a crook to run up charges. They don’t have to buy anything — just create the pretense of being a business. “Anyone can open a merchant account today,” Samid said. “The names of the merchants sound legitimate.”

The crooks might hit 50,000 cards at a time with these charges, he said. There are examples of when hundreds of thousands or more received these bogus charges.

These charges can happen at any time and come from any place. In fact, I recently had one myself. A mystery charge showed up on my credit card from, a Canadian website with a billing address in Zurich, Switzerland. Fortunately, my bank’s systems caught the fraud. My credit card was then shut down and a new one had to be issued. That’s a happy, if annoying, ending.

Do yourself a favor: Read your bills and check your charges online regularly. Federal law protects you from paying for fraudulent charges, but you got to spot them first because your bank and the FBI aren’t going to get them all.