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:


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.


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  A completely outdated form of technology.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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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47 thoughts on “When Your Credit Cards Are Stolen While Traveling”

  1. This is great — never thought of two debit cards, but I did recently write about backup money plans (like paypal), so this is great knowledge to add!

  2. This is why we cancelled our Schwab account. I was far too annoyed by how everything we did with them required either a phone call or a fax or a mailed in letter. We couldn’t do anything via Internet — even for bank transfers, I had to set up everything via mail.

    I MUCH prefer Capital One No Hassle Savings account. I do everything online with them, their customer service is phenomenal, and they also have no foreign transaction fees and the best exchange rates I’ve ever seen.

    I’m so glad that it all worked out though it took a while.

  3. Great post! I also would have never thought of 2 debit cards and I probably will get one for my upcoming trip. In Peru, my credit card was sucked into an ATM machine. A friend who spoke Spanish called the company and they said there was no way of retrieving it. I only had a debit card after that for 2 months and basically withdrew very large amounts of money to last me as long as possible because I was so scared to use ATM machines in fear of my debit card being lost into the ATM abyss. The downside would be carrying huge chunks of money. Definitely going to look into getting a second debit card to avoid this. Good tip!

  4. I have sms alert on my accounts so every time there is a transaction I get a message immediately. This definitely makes me feel better. And I cannot use my cards to shop online, anyway. One of the annoying things about Thai cards, but sounds like it does have advantages.
    So, you don’t have your passport on you all the time? Ever had problems because of this? I only leave it behind when I rent a motorcycle and they insist on having it as deposit, or when I go to the beach and I know that my bag must be left in the sand anyway. Hate it. I would rather consent to a microchip implant.

    1. @Adventurouskate:
      Great post! And thanks for sharing your tips. In 2010, I was locked out of my ATM card (plus I forgot the PIN for my other card I hardly used) for a week as I took the trains from Madrid to Marseille. My ATM only worked in Barajas airport and only allowed me 300 euros. At first I thought there were promblems with the machines and didn’t worry too much about it as I also had 3 credit card brands. But by the time I rolled into Montpellier station, I was out of cash, tired, and embarrassingly asked a Japanese tourist for a coin so I could use the WC. I offered to by her food but she declined and handed the coin to me as if I were a homeless guy. Awkward. FInally, in Marseille I found a Internet and calling center full of Algerians and Morroccans. One of them, Sherif, was so kind enough to spot my phone call to my bank, who’s rep quickly reset & resolved the ATM issue. Again, I offered to compensate Sherif but he declined. He also helped me find a French named Algerian basic hotel for me where I could finally rest.

      As for Argentina, I had a camera and later my laptop pc and backup (both slickly) stolen from me, along with most of my photos from my travels and time living there. 🙁

      @Betti: sms is a very good idea. Another alternative to not lugging around the passport is by carrying a clear photocopy and having another copy stowed away as a backup. Most of the time, I’ve found they’ll let you rent a bike or other such items or services.

      I wait to travel again!

  5. I definitely agree with you about two debit cards, and amex being excellent if your card is lost or stolen.

    my debit and credit cards got stolen last year in Peru (along with my passport), which left me in bit of a trouble. It took me about six weeks to get a new card from Citibank, it was ridicilous. They are not a global bank no matter what they tell you, I had so many annoyed phone calls with them, I can’t recommend them if you want to travel. Thankfully I had a prepaid credit card with me to which my friend transferred money occasionally. So yes, when you travel, have multiple cards in different places (even if some of them are just basic prepaid cards), it can really make your life a lot easier when things go wrong…

          1. Hi, Kate. It’s very common for financial institutions to use commercial banks to process transactions on their behalf. Schwab uses Citi’s wire processing capabilities and pays Citi for the service. Schwab is an independent company, not part of any other bank or brokerage firm.

  6. Whew, that sounds pretty stressful! One of the main things I’m thinking about before I go traveling this year is how to manage my money. From what I’ve gathered, it’s best to have a few different cards linked to different accounts just to cover you in case of theft, fraud, etc. Terrible about having them both hacked though!

  7. Ugh, Kate, I’m sorry that was such a pain! I too use Schwabb and in general I love them- but this doesn’t sound too fun. I lost my card at an ATM (just walked away without it! My own fault!) but just had it sent to my home address and had my mom send it to me- so no faxing to worry about.

    Luckily I travel with two debit cards but my other one (TDBank) charges for international withdrawls now, so I’m still loathe to use it.

  8. Hi, Adventurous Kate. I’m a spokesperson for Charles Schwab, and we hear you loud and clear. We’re continually looking for ways to improve our service and processes, so thanks very much for your feedback on this experience with your Schwab debit card. We take it very seriously — as well as as your readers’ comments.

    1. Sarah, thank you for reading and responding. I do hope that Schwab is able to drop the fax requirement. Your bank is known as being the Cadillac of banking for full-time travelers like myself, but this fax requirement sets you back 15 years. Especially when you compare yourselves to American Express, who were able to fix everything in a short phone call.

      I do hope to stick with Schwab, and I look forward to seeing how you move forward.

  9. Great post and what a headache! As a last minute afterthought, we threw a second debit card in our packs “just in case.” Glad we did, because our primary card (TD Bank) didn’t work anywhere in Guatemala. Glad to hear it all worked out for you in the end.

  10. Geeze, what an ordeal! I can’t believe it took 7 faxes before they finally received one. What a mess! I’m glad everything worked out in the end and I hope you got reimbursed for part of what they stole. I can’t believe someone tried to buy $77 worth of Burt’s Bees. Seriously? That’s what they really wanted?

  11. I’ve had a number of mis-adventures with credit / debit cards while traveling. Once stolen in Zimbabwe another time a similar incident to you where my card was “hacked” while I was away. One thing I do now, which has proved to be excellent, although I haven’t yet needed it – get one of those re-fillable / disposable debit / credit cards and put some emergency money on it. If the card is lost or stolen, no big deal, the damage is limited, if your primary card is lost or stolen, you have a back up!!!

    1. Must be nice to have that much money. I have several credit cards and one debit. Having enough money to literally pay for my trip twice would be a pipe dream. Losing the credit for a day or two would wreck my vacation. That is why I have 5 credit cards different banks. Nobody is going to pickpocket me. and if one or two cards get compromised I have others. I had a debit debacle cause of a skimmer/ Local bank. No international anything. Same town (bank has no branches out of area so I would have been toast if traveling). Took 4 weeks for the new debit card to show up. 4 weeks in the same town. I closed the account and switched banks. They also did not shut this down immediately on the breach. No they sent a snail mail letter (no call, email text) and said we are shutting this down (dated the day I got it). I hate big banks in principle but little ones are deadly if you need the money and you are out of area as they dont have branches anyplace else

  12. Two credit cards, crazy! I had one stolen and they used it to purchase over $100 in metro cards, but $77 in Burts Bees Lip Balm? LOL!!! Nice post.

  13. I’ve never had my cards stolen online but i did have them taken out of my bag. I got pick-pocketed in New Orleans whilst on a tour with Trek America. I had far too many drinks and was an easy target. For some reason i took my entire purse with me and so everything got taken! Cash, debit card, credit card and my fairfx card. Luckily my parents wired me some money via Western Union which lasted me until the end of the trip. It was my first time traveling and i will never make such a stupid mistake again! Great article and some good advice – i hadn’t thought about online card theft. Will be even more prepared for my next trip!

  14. I have never had any major issues about banking with traveling for one reason:

    I use two separate banks. One is HSBC and the other is a Canadian bank. I travel with debit and credit cards from each, although one credit card is stuffed in my medicine kit and another debit is inside my big backpack.

    I highly recommend it, even if you don’t get robbed I have been in towns where the ATMs all reject one of the cards but take the other.

  15. Hi Kate,
    I had my wallet (with cards and all my cash) stolen in Rome last summer 3 hours after arriving — the worst part was that I was halfway through writing a blog post about how to stay safe while traveling!!!
    Good to have met you at TBU.

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  17. Just fyi, it’s a VERY good idea to purchase a good VPN (virtual private network) service before traveling, for 2 reasons:

    1. VPNs encrypt your Internet connection. I believe they all do this, but it’s good to check with the provider, just to be sure. You can then use your VPN service while you travel, at airports, etc without fear of being hacked. I would never dream of logging onto a financial account without one.

    2. VPNs allow you to access services only available in certain countries, Netfilx, for example. I use Overplay – they have tons of servers around the world… which means you can look like you’re logging on from just about any country.

    I LOVE VPNs.

  18. I am not sure of your problem. This is four years after this post I had my card sent to me in Thailand Fed Ex with out any problems. I sent my address to them through the secure messanging on Schwab.com. I would not deal with any other bank when living abroad.

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