Editorial Policy

Hey, I didn't charge that!

Erica Sandberg

December 2, 2013

QDear Erica,

There is a charge on my credit card bill that I don't recognize. It is for $220 for a restaurant I have never eaten at on Oct. 31. That was Halloween. I was trick-or-treating that night and did not go out to do anything else. What should I do? Was I a victim of identity theft? My card is in my wallet and it never left there so I don't know how that could have happened. If I am a victim, what do I do? Do I have to pay it? — Jayne

ADear Jayne,

Spotting something amiss on your credit card statement can come as quite a shock. Immediately your thoughts can run wild: What is that and where did it come from? Did some crook make off with my card — and if so, how else might I be in danger?

I can't say for certain why you were hit with this particular charge, but your credit card company can help you investigate. Even better, if the charge turns out to be fraudulent, you can set your worries aside. Not only do credit issuers want to be fair and make their customers happy, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) stipulates that cardholders have a right to dispute unauthorized charges.Ask Erica

This matter won't solve itself, though, so you're going to have to do a little work. Don't worry — it shouldn't be too bad.

Step one is to contact the restaurant. Explain that you've never dined at their establishment and that you want to know why your credit card was charged for the meal on Halloween night. Because your card was in your possession all along, you were either billed by mistake or someone used your account fraudulently. If it was as simple error, you're in luck. The restaurant should swiftly pull the charge and it won't sully your statement again.

On the other hand, you may find that the card that was used to purchase the meal was indeed yours — or at least the numbers were. That means that your account was compromised. A thief could have created a dummy card using your information. How might that have happened? A cashier at a store could have absconded with your card's data (and sold it to a ring of thieves that buy stolen credit card numbers). Perhaps a thief lifted your card number and information via an ATM skimmer. Or maybe you bought something online via an unsecured website and fraudsters got it that way.

While this type of problem sounds scary, it's common and should be relatively easy to fix. The restaurant still should honor your request to purge the charge. If it refuses, appeal to your credit card company's fraud division. You should do that anyway, because you'll want to alert your card issuer about what happened so you can prevent future fraud.

When you call, the representative will probably put you on hold and contact the merchant in question. You may even have a three-way conversation, where all of you communicate to sort out the details. If the restaurant cannot verify that it was you who dined and charged, the issuer will remove the item from your bill. The FCBA allows the issuer to ask you to pay up to $50 of any fraudulent charges made before you reported your card was compromised, but many issuers won't hold you responsible for even that much.

Your card issuer will most likely cancel your current account number and issue you a new card with a new account number.

If this is a case of identity theft, take these steps as well:

  • Call the police to file a report. You'll need it for the next step.
  • Place a fraud alert on your credit report. Contact one of the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax or Experian) to place the alert. The bureau you contacted will then notify the other two. You have a choice between a 90-day or seven-year alert (active duty military personal also have a one-year option). Whichever you decide, it will serve to warn lenders that someone other than you had access to your personal financial information and prompt them to take extra caution before granting credit in your name.
  • Keep tabs on your credit reports. A fraud alert will tell creditors to check with you before allowing an account to be opened in your name — but it won't force them to do so. That means that someone who's swiped your personal information could still impersonate you. So check your credit reports regularly. You get a free one from each of the big three credit bureaus every year, and you can pull them at AnnualCreditReport.com. If you've placed an extended fraud alert, you're entitled to two additional free copies. If you spot evidence of fraud, contact the bureaus and consider more drastic measures, such as a credit freeze.

Hopefully, this mysterious charge will require only a minor clean-up. The important thing, Jayne, is to act now to prevent it from becoming a big mess.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.