Should you use your debit card when traveling in Europe?

If you are traveling abroad to Europe, you may be thinking of using your debit card in order to withdraw money in British pounds, Euros, or whatever currency, and also to avoid getting a bad exchange rate at a currency exchange. While I think this is a fine idea, I’d like to share my own bad experience with using my ATM/debit card in London. This is not to discourage you from using your own ATM card in London, but rather to make you aware of what can happen and how to avoid it.

My experience using a debit card in London

Before I left for my trip to London, I called my bank (Bank Of America) to let them know that I was traveling in London and Spain – I gave them the exact dates and asked them to confirm that I could use my debit card while on my trip to which they clearly said yes. Note that I had to speak to 2 different departments within Bank of America – one of those was their ATM/debit card department, and since I also wanted to get my credit card cleared, I had to speak to that department separately.

When I landed in London I tried to use my debit card in at least 3 of the ATM’s in the airport and none of them worked. I even tried to use my ATM at a Barclay’s ATM – Barclay’s bank is a partner bank of Bank Of America, so they don’t charge any ATM fees if you try to use your card in one of their ATM’s while traveling in Europe. So, it was clear to me that even though I called Bank Of America to inform them that I would like for my debit card to work in London and Spain, they did not carry through with my request even though it seemed to be taken care of when I spoke to their representative on the phone.

Since my ATM was clearly not working in London, I gave up on it and just went to some currency exchange places to get some cash in exchange for my American dollars – and that is what I did for the remainder of my trip (my credit card was working, however, so I did use that). On a side note, if you are looking for some good places to exchange money in London then check out this page: Best place to exchange currency in London.

Fraud on my Bank of America debit card

During the first 2 weeks of my 3 week trip I did not check my bank statement online – even though I do so almost everyday when at home. That turned out to be a big mistake – when I logged in, I was shocked to see that about $14,000 was missing from my account. And when I looked at the transactions none of them were mine – the person who stole my card made a lot of large transactions on a site called (which I later found out is a huge department store in Mexico), at a Macy’s in Chula Vista, CA, and a large purchase at Victoria’s Secret. The funny thing is that he even paid a phone bill with my card! This is what the transaction looked like: “COX*COMM SAN DIEGO 619-262-1122 CA” (and yes that is the real number). I doubt it’s his phone bill, since he can’t be that stupid – but hopefully Bank Of America looks into it. Based on his purchases, I’m 99% sure the guy is in Tijuana since he bought stuff from a Mexican website, and then probably took a day trip to Chula Vista, California (which is very close to the border), and went on a shopping spree at Macy’s. Anyways, $14,000 is a huge amount of money so naturally I called my bank immediately.

My guess is that there must have been some sort of card reading device in one of the atm’s I tried to use in London, because the fraud started the day after I tried to use my ATM there (which is also the day I landed). So, this guy in Tijuana probably paid someone else who collects debit card numbers for my card information. Another less likely possibility is that somehow the Bank Of America employees are involved – the guy I called at Bank Of America never really did take any action to let my card work, and he was the only one who would have known that I’m traveling. I’m assuming that these thieves try to take advantage of your account while you are traveling since that is when you are most vulnerable.

What to do if you find fraud on your Bank Of America debit card while traveling?

The number I called was actually on the back of my debit card – it says “From outside the US can call collect at 315 724 4022”. I made the call from my hotel and I was connected with somebody in about 2 minutes – so not a long wait. I informed the lady that there was some serious fraud on my credit card, and she told me that she would put a block on my debit card immediately since I told her that I was not even using it (this prevented anyone from doing anything with that debit card). She also offered to send me another replacement card immediately, but I told her that I didn’t need it since I was using cash anyways.

Are Bank Of America Visa debit cards insured?

Then, I wanted to confirm with her that I would get the money back that was stolen from my account and she said yes – Bank of America debit cards are insured against fraud, so I would get my money back. I was pretty sure that was the case before I called, but it’s always nice to hear that – and it was a big relief. She told me to call back later at 8 AM EST when the Fraud Department was open.

Will Bank Of America also refund foreign transaction fees that are fraudulent?

Yes, they will refund that money as well, and it’s easy for them to do that since they are the ones who are profiting with those fees anyways. For me, they simply deposited the money back into my account, but that showed up as a separate line item – in addition to the credit for all of the purchase that were fraudulently made on my account.

How to submit a Fraud claim to Bank Of America

When I called back I asked to be connected to the Fraud department, and once connected, they asked me to go through all of the transactions on my debit card that were fraudulent. I did just that since I wanted to get it resolved ASAP, and they said they would issue me a temporary credit for the amount of the fraudulent transactions, which they did. So, they put back the $14,000 into my account. But, this was a temporary credit until their investigation was complete – they mailed a letter with the fraudulent transactions to my home and asked me to sign it and send it back to them. They said the investigation would be complete in 90 days and if they did not find anything wrong in that time they would not reverse the temporary credit, and it would be mine to keep.

Note that when they send you the affidavit you have the option of either sending it back through regular mail or faxing it back to a number that they give you. I recommend that you fax it since it will be much faster, and you can just fax it from a Bank of America branch for free if you don’t have a fax machine.

You can also get a temporary debit card by just requesting one at the branch – they will then send you the real one in the mail in about 2 weeks.

The lesson learned here

So, what is the lesson I learned? Basically, check your statements regularly if you plan on using either your credit card or debit card when traveling. The worst thing about having fraud on your debit card is that they take money directly from your account whereas with a credit card thieves don’t have direct access to your account. Thieves know that when you are traveling that is also when you are the least likely to be checking your account, so definitely be on the lookout for any type of fraud on your account. Although you can’t really prevent fraud completely, you can catch it early on and minimize the amount of money stolen (and the shock). This will also make the claims process easier.

What could Bank Of America Fraud detection done better?

Well, one thing which Bank Of America could have done better is obviously to have had better fraud detection – considering the fact that I called them to let them know exactly when and where I would be traveling they should have immediately rejected the online transactions made on a website for department stores in Mexico. I was traveling in London and I live in the United States – so why would I every buy anything from a Mexican department store online?

And there were purchases in Chula Vista, California – if I told the bank that I was in Europe how could i possibly be in 2 places at once? Obviously the information that I gave them was not cross referenced with their fraud detection – even though it should be. Or that information wasn’t even recorded in the first place. It was pretty pathetic that I called them to let them know when and where I was traveling and they still allowed transactions on my debit card. But, then again, they never did allow my debit card to work in Europe, even though I had a very clear conversation with a representative about my plans – which means that the information was never recorded properly and that is probably the fault of whoever I spoke to on the phone at Bank of America.

I did read in some places that Bank Of America was very quick to put holds on people’s cards. And since that was sometime in the past, I think that now they are almost too slow to put a hold on someone’s card – they have not yet found the right balance with their fraud detection.

I also never received a phone call (when I checked my cell phone back home) or even an email from Bank of America questioning these purchases – I’ve never spent $14,000 in 2 weeks before so I found that to be very odd as well. All in all, a very crappy experience with Bank Of America, which may convince me to change banks.

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