Jim Bishop | Columnist (Almost) Gets Lump of Coal in Christmas Stocking

The Grinch came within an inch of ruining Christmas for my wife and me.
I blame no one but myself. I’m embarrassed to give a public disclosure of this nightmare before Christmas, but if my grievous error spares at least one other person from a similar experience, it’s worth it.
In retrospect, the timing was likely key to my falling for the ploy – a fraudulent phone call mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve. I’d just finished wrapping my last gift and was peeling steamed shrimp for our family gathering about an hour and a half away.

So, my mind was preoccupied when the phone rang, I answered – the first mistake – and a voice at the other end told me that my Visa check card has been temporarily suspended because they believe it was accessed by a third party. To resolve the problem, they needed the card ID number, expiration date and PIN number.

Without thinking – obviously – I pulled out my card and gave the legitimate-sounding requester that information. “Thank you,” came the response. “Your account will not be further compromised.”

Yeah, right.

Upon hanging up, a voice welled up from my subconscious and exclaimed, “Do you know what you just did? How did you know that call was on the level? Do you realize what an unethical person could do with the information you just gave out?”

Actually, that troublesome voice was overridden by a distress call from my fiscally-erudite spouse Anna when I told her about the call.

I had no excuse, should have known better. Not long ago, a similar message via the Internet at work informed me of unauthorized attempts to access my corporate VISA card. The “warning message” included a link to to a website that, once opened, looked exactly like the corporate site that I’d accessed many times. Just complete the requested information, I was told, the problem would be corrected and my account again secure.

Something smelled “pfishy” here, I thought at the time, and upon checking with our information systems people, was told, “Don’t respond. Delete the message immediately,” which I promptly did.

So why not this time? Likely because of my preoccupation with preparations for our Christmas Eve gathering at our place and because I try to operate by the principle that people should be trusted until proven otherwise.

I immediately called the lending institution, Park View Federal Credit Union, and got a recording that they were closed as of 3 p.m. Christmas Eve.

The call had come about 3:30 p.m. Someone knew what they were doing: catch persons at a most vulnerable time; by the time the credit union reopened the day after Christmas the damage would be done – the guilty party enjoying last-minute Christmas shopping spree with the ATM card and likely our modest savings gone as well.

I then called the number specified to report a lost or stolen check card. A real person came on the line, and I told him what had happened. In a cordial manner he took my information, told me to hold, and about two minutes later came back on the line and said my card was canceled.

I felt a bit better, but having committed the almost unpardonable sin of giving my PIN number was like posting our account information on a bulletin board along Interstate 81 and inviting passersby to help themselves.

I tried calling several Credit Union persons that I know, without success.

My quick-thinking spouse then grabbed the phone and called PV employee Kent Dayton, who happens to be a first cousin.

Kent, bless him, was home and without hesitation said he would go to the head office and “lock” our checking and savings accounts. He called about an hour later to report he’d done so, and after giving him information on our most recent checking transactions informed us that it didn’t appear at this point that any unauthorized funds had been taken.

We thanked Kent profusely. He said, “Relax. Enjoy your Christmas.”

We tried, but a nagging fear hovered in the background for Anna and me amid the feasting and merriment of our Christmas Eve family gathering.

First thing Friday morning, Anna and I rushed to the Credit Union, explained our situation and in a few minutes were assured that no funds had been siphoned from our accounts. I applied for a new checking card and PIN number, and we were soon on our way, rejoicing.

We reviewed our disconcerting experience with Ken Gonyer, the Credit Union’s retail services manager, who said that “efforts to con unsuspecting people out of their hard-earned money are getting more sophisticated all the time,” adding: “It’s unfortunate that there are people out there whose calling in life is to find new ways to scam others.

“The best defense is to stop and think before you act,” Ken said. “Your financial institution may call if they see strange activity on your account, but they’ll never need to ask for your personal information – they already have it on file. The same goes for email messages. If asked to ‘confirm’ information by entering it yourself, don’t do it.”

Speaking of phones, our home answering machine message says that “we can’t come to the phone because we’re arguing over whose turn it is to answer.”

Be assured that should the phone ring again and a suspicious voice informs us that our bank accounts are in jeopardy, whichever one of us takes the call will know immediately what to do.

That’s one hangup that we can live with.


– Column by Jim Bishop

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