International travel is great! There are millions of great places to see, people to meet, and foods to try waiting out there in the world. Unfortunately, there are also crooks and fraudsters everywhere. Most of us know how to handle a sticky situation when we’re on our home turf, but what do you do when someone in a place where you don’t speak the language is taking advantage of your wallet in a way you didn’t agree to?
A credit card being lost or stolen is comparatively easy to cope with. The smart traveler realizes it’s happened fairly quickly, and knows how to call their card-issuing company to report it immediately. Lost and stolen cards (and card data) happen all the time, everywhere; getting it shut down quickly and replaced is old hat by now for, well, basically anyone who shops.
But there’s a different kind of fraud that happens sometimes to tourists. It looks a little something like this: Let’s say “Jack” is traveling abroad. He stops in for an evening’s entertainment at the wrong bar. A few drinks worse for wear, late in the evening, some gentlemen in suits sidle up to him at his table and strongly suggest that he sign a $2000 credit card bill — for about $20 worth of drinks — before he be permitted to leave.
Jack, of course, acquiesces. An exorbitant, extortionate credit card charge is a much preferable problem to solve than a broken leg is. Jack knows this isn’t right, though, and plans to contest it after the fact.
The key question is: how?
When Jack is out of harm’s way, he needs to sit down, collect himself, and call his credit card company to explain the charge was made under duress and request a chargeback. And for that, he’s going to need a paper trail.
What Won’t Work
The internet is full of advice for situations like Jack’s for the victim to write “under duress” or some kind of other indicator on the signature line of the slip in order to make it clear that this payment was coerced. Doing so might not hurt anything, but it’s also extremely unlikely to help in any way, either.
For one thing, the card-issuing bank probably does not have a copy of your current regular signature on file. The signature on the back of your card is irrelevant. It’s meant to help the merchant know you’re actually you and makes the card officially valid.
In other words, the signature on the back of your card is there to protect merchants from fraudsters who are trying to use a physically stolen credit card in a very twenty-years-ago kind of way. As many other nations have gone to EMV-enabled cards, they’ve eliminated signature use entirely in favor of PIN use since the signatures are next-to-useless.
If the merchant is already doing something shady, they don’t care about matching the signature on the card to the cardholder in front of them. They know perfectly well it’s your card — they’re right there, with your card in their extortionate little hands. And they know a tourist is unlikely to be able to come after them about it after the fact.
Deliberately signing something other than your standard signature may become a note in your file if local law enforcement is helpful and solicitous and manages to get their hands physically on the slip you signed, but realistically speaking that paper is probably never going to be seen again.
What Will Work: Get Help
In the country where Jack is traveling, he suspects the local cops are less than likely to be immediately helpful. They are, in fact, more than likely to demand some extra cash under the table in order to help him at all, or for all he knows they get a cut of whatever the bar owner rakes in from tourists like him. Jack doesn’t think the cops can help him recoup the cash, so why would he call them?
Disregarding local law enforcement, though, is a mistake. The point of going to police in this kind of situation is not that the local cops will necessarily be able to refund you any money or help you out; the point of going to law enforcement is to have a paper trail and an incident file to refer to when you call your credit card company.
If going to law enforcement alone seems daunting, that’s understandable. Happily, American travelers abroad have options for help, perhaps even as close to hand as room service.
We asked travel expert Gary Leff what travelers should do if the damage is already done. Leff confirmed that the best thing to do is to get proof from someone in-country that you authorized the charge only under duress.
Leff’s suggestion? Go straight back to your hotel and ask them for assistance contacting local authorities and filing a police report. “If you’re staying in a hotel,” Leff explained, “you’re their guest.” Helping you is their professional obligation. And in many cities, for a western-style hotel, it will also probably not be the first time they’ve seen a tourist taken advantage of.
Even if the police they put you in touch with aren’t immediately helpful, by going through your hotel to reach the police you’ll be creating paper trails, Leff said. Get copies of any of those papers, and you’ll have the documentation you need to substantiate your assertions.
Depending on the kind of extortion being run, Leff added, the people charging your card may also offer — or threaten — to call the police. Leff suggested that if they do so, that you may want, in a non-confrontational way, to let them. You will probably still be paying the bill (or at least part of it) when the police do come, but records of the incident will then exist.
Another resource overlooked by many travelers? The Department of State.
America’s diplomatic network isn’t all high-level nuclear talks and trade treaties. A lot of it is simply about helping people muddle their way through the world. An entire section of the State Department’s website is devoted to handling emergencies while traveling, including a full page of resources for victims of crime while traveling abroad. That page has links to 24/7 emergency contact information for consulates and embassies worldwide, who can help connect travelers with local law enforcement when something shady has gone down.
The Best Offense Is Always A Good Defense
Of course, the best way to deal with being extorted is to avoid it up front if at all possible. Leff told us that unfortunately, there are some scams routinely perpetuated on travelers, and that one should do one’s homework before one goes. In parts of China, for example, “tea house” scammers routinely chat up western tourists, invite them to observe a tea ceremony, and then somehow present a bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars at the end, out of the blue.
If strangers seem incredibly happy to talk to you, Leff advises, remember that you are probably “not as interesting or as attractive as you think you are,” and be wary of the places you are invited to go and the things you are invited to do.
We also asked Visa and MasterCard if they had any advice for travelers stuck in a similar sticky situation.
“Always report fraud as soon as possible to your bank,” a MasterCard representative told us. “If you can file a police report too, that would be even better, depending on the situation and location.” MasterCard emergency cardholder services are also available any time, worldwide.