When Your Credit Cards Are Stolen While Traveling

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I’ve had my credit cards stolen while traveling in the past — I was pickpocketed in Buenos Aires in 2008 — and since then, I’ve guarded my belongings almost militantly.  I lock up most of my belongings in the hostel safe.  I use a purse that zips up and hangs across my body.  I take what I need for the day and nothing more.

But what happens if your credit cards are stolen online?

That’s what happened to me in Portugal.  And it led to a sixteen-day odyssey as I attempted to get my new card mailed to me.

Here’s what happened:

DAY ONE: LISBON TO EVORA

I check my email in the morning and find a message from my mom: Charles Schwab, my bank, called her.  I have her phone number as the main number on my account because I shut off my US number when I travel abroad.

I ignore her email for the moment and concentrate on booking a hostel online.  The payment doesn’t go through.

I log into my bank account and see that my card has been shut down.  Some trick tried to purchase $77 worth of Burts Bees lip balm in North Carolina, as well as two purchases in Montreal.  Way to live it up with someone else’s credit card, buddy.

I call Schwab and they agree to turn on my debit card again for 30 seconds while I’m standing at the ATM.  I withdraw 200 euros.  In the meantime, I also have my Visa credit card and my American Express card.

DAY TWO: EVORA

The annoying thing is that I can’t just tell Schwab where to send my replacement card — I have to fax it.  A completely outdated form of technology.  I fax their Indianapolis office from the Evora hostel, telling them to overnight the new card to the Quinta in Santa Clara e Velha, my next destination.

Later, I call them.  They haven’t received the fax.  I send another fax to a different number — one in Arizona.

DAY THREE: EVORA TO SANTA CLARA E VELHA

With time to kill at the train station in Lisbon, I call Schwab again.  The lady I speak to tells me that Schwab still hasn’t received the fax, and that overnighting internationally can take up to three weeks.  This is news to me.  I have them turn on my card for 30 seconds again and withdraw another 200 euros to hold me over.

This lady is wonderful.  She talks me through everything, tries to figure out what went wrong, and removes the $15 fee for overnighting internationally.  She tells me to make out the fax to her name (a name I can easily remember, as it’s the name of one of my favorite TV characters) so she can make sure it gets to the right place.

DAY FOUR: SANTA CLARA E VELHA

WiFi is down, but I get on the Quinta’s desktop computer.  I email my friend Erin, asking if I can have my new card sent to her apartment in Madrid.  She readily agrees.

I fax Schwab a third and fourth time, to the different numbers.  There’s also an email from my fraud specialist telling me to call her.  The phone signal is weak out here in the country, so I have to wait.

DAY SEVEN: SEVILLA

I arrived in Sevilla the night before.  I call Schwab and find out that they STILL have not received my faxes.  I verify the numbers, find an internet cafe in town, and send them both again.  Then I call the fraud specialist who contacted me when I was in Portugal.

DAY EIGHT: SEVILLA

I get an email from American Express.  My Amex has been hacked as well.  This person at least went on a respectable shopping spree at Nordstrom and Beauty.com.

American Express is fantastic.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Having worked at one of their vendor companies and having been saved by them when I was robbed in Buenos Aires, I can tell you that their customer service is fantastic and far better than any other company I’ve dealt with while abroad.

If anything happens to you while traveling, the Amex people are the ones to call.  Even if you just have the basic blue card like I do.

It takes just one quick call to American Express and they send my new card to Dave’s house in the UK.  It arrives about a week later.

DAY NINE: SEVILLA

Now I’m freaked out that ALL my cards are going to be hacked.  I only have one left: the Visa.  I call Schwab again and have them turn on my debit card for another 30 seconds while I withdraw 250 euros, which should definitely last until I get back to the UK.

The faxes?  Still not received.  After a long time on the phone, I send a seventh fax.  The seventh fax gets through.  Schwab now knows where to send my debit card.

DAY SIXTEEN: GRANADA TO MADRID

I walk into Erin’s apartment in Madrid and she hands me the FedEx envelope with my new Schwab debit card inside.  It arrived earlier that day.

The Aftermath

The main takeaway from this incident?  I need two debit cards.

I had two when I traveled Asia, which was very helpful at times, but I closed my Bank of America account after the trip.  Now I’m pretty sure I’m going to get the Paypal debit card — just for backup.

Schwab seriously needs to rethink its fax-only approach.  I’ve been happy with them so far, but this fax situation was unacceptable.  When I send a fax, it should be received — on the FIRST try, not the SEVENTH.

Are things done for security reasons?  Every time I contact Schwab, they put me through a series of security questions.  How is that not secure enough for me to give an address?  Had they done things over the phone, like Amex, this situation would have been resolved immediately.

However, I’m going to stick with Schwab.  Even through all the fax nonsense, they are still an excellent bank for someone who travels as much as I do.  They refund all my ATM fees and they don’t charge for international transactions — two critical things that most banks don’t do.

Plus, most banks would not have allowed me to withdraw money after shutting down the card.  Schwab let me do that three times.

Schwab will be receiving an email from me directing to this post.  I’m not angry with them at all; I just want them to reconsider their fax requirement.

The phone calls to Schwab also cost me an obscene amount of money.  Skype calls drop so often that I didn’t want to keep calling back through the system, so I used my mobile phone (and British SIM card).  Plus, I couldn’t use Skype when I was calling Schwab from the ATMs.

It would have been cheaper with a local SIM card, but I kept feeling like each call would be my last.

How to Protect Yourself From Online Credit Card Theft

Ideally, you should never use public computers when logging into your bank account or credit cards, any company that has your credit card on file (like Amazon), or even your email or Facebook.  These days, WiFi is far more common than internet cafes — use your smartphone if you don’t have a computer.  If you must use a public computer, carry a web browser on a thumb drive and access the web that way.

That said, nothing is perfect, and nothing is 100% safe.  You could take all the right steps and get hacked anyway.  Keep the phone numbers of your banks and credit cards on you, including the numbers to dial from abroad, down to the country codes.

If This Happens to You

If your credit cards are stolen online, no matter where you are, immediately call your credit card companies.  They will shut down your card, if they haven’t already, and advise you of the next steps.

Depending on the length of your trip, it might be best to get the replacement card sent to your home (which is what I did in the Buenos Aires incident).  If that’s the case, and you need money, it might make sense to have your bank wire money to a place that processes Western Union payments.  If not your bank, have your family or partner wire you money.  You’ll need ID to pick it up.

As for other travel safety tips, always keep your money and cards hidden in multiple places, and keep your passport locked up during the day.  This is what will ultimately save you if you’re robbed.

Above all, relax and don’t panic.  This happens to people every day, and they survive.  You’ll be all right.

Have your credit cards been stolen while traveling?  How did you deal with it?

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