April 13, 2000

It was about 7 p.m. when the phone rang. Sylvia put down the Press-Gazette and picked up the phone. It was a very friendly voice on the other end. "Hello," said the unseen man. "I am calling on behalf of Fraud Security. As you know, with the Internet and everything, people can steal your credit card numbers and use them for their purchases."

The Internet was a breeding ground for credit card fraud. Hadn't some fellow in Britain , recalled Sylvia, recently stolen credit card numbers from a commercial Web site and posted them for the whole world to see? Moreover, if you used a credit card to purchase something over the 'Net, couldn't someone steal important information as it made its way from the customer's computer to the merchant's Web site?

"We at Fraud Security," continued the man amiably, "are determined to prevent such fraud. Oh, by the way, my name is Danny. And I am going to tell you how you can protect yourself. Can you take a look at your MasterCard, please?"

Yes, she could. Sylvia took out her credit card from her purse.

"If you look at the back of the card, you will see a magnetic stripe and a place for your signature. Do you see it?"

Yup, she did.

"Well," said Danny, his voice changing into confidential tones, "we will send you stickers that you can place on the back of the card. These stickers will contain the words 'Fraud Security'. Make sure that the stickers do not touch the stripe or your signature."

Sylvia looked at the back of her card. Yes, there would be space for the stickers, she thought.

"That's very important. You should not cover the stripe or signature in any way."

Okaydoke, thought Sylvia. Now what?

"Now I can register your card for this service," said Danny, a little more briskly. "If you turn the card over, you will see 4 sets of numbers. The first set begins with the digit 4. Do you see that?"

Yep, she saw that.

"Just to make sure that we have the correct information," said Danny, "can you read me the four sets of numbers? Each set has 4 digits. Ready?"

"You know," said Sylvia, "I would like to think some more about your service. Can you give me a telephone number so that I can call you back?"

There was a momentary silence at the other end. A pregnant pause, thought Sylvia.

Danny spoke. But there was a steeliness in his voice now. "You don't have to call us back. If you give me the information now, I can take care of it right away. Don't you want to protect yourself?"

He appeared frustrated by Sylvia's resistance. "Wasting time can be dangerous," he said almost brusquely. "Credit card fraud takes place all the time."

"Damn right," said Sylvia, and hung up.


This conversation, or something very similar to it, was played out recently at a friend's home. Scam artists have been around for a long time. But now, with the advent of the Internet, Danny and his ilk have a new weapon with which to strike fear into the hearts of their victims. Most people realize that carrying out a credit-card transaction with a reputed Internet retailer like or eToys is no more risky than giving your credit card to a waiter at a restaurant, but the novelty of the medium, along with some much-publicized thefts, makes some folks unduly anxious about the safety of their credit cards -- and, consequently, vulnerable to dubious assurances of security. The ones most at risk are the elderly, especially single elderly women, and crooks like Danny thrive on their generally trusting nature. A solution to the problem, as Sylvia's experience suggests, is to peremptorily dismiss any unsolicited request for sensitive information. And that means -- NO CREDIT CARD NUMBERS, NO BANK ACCOUNT NUMBERS, NO SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS are to be provided in response to unsolicited phone calls.

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