Angry about my circumstances, I sat down in my hotel room and tried to remember which cards I had in my wallet. When a person is as upset as I was then, the memory banks get foggy. I recalled the “normal” cards that I use on an everyday basis, but was unsure of which other little-used cards I might have been carrying. As it turned out, there were two of those in my wallet. American Express recommends carrying only the bare minimum of credit cards for a trip, and now I understand why.
The U.S. State Department recommends travelers make copies of their debit and phone cards, front and back, and include bank information, telephone PIN or password, customer service phone numbers, emergency contact information and account information. Document your cell phone or PDA account information and carrier contact numbers. The department recommends making two copies of this documentation, one to keep where you can access it easily and another to be left at home where a spouse or relative can retrieve it. Good advice, which of course I had not followed. Had I done so, things would have gone much more smoothly.
The backs of credit cards often have the customer service phone numbers to report a theft, but that does little good if the card is in the possession of the thief. The hotel had a business center where I used their computer to get on-line and look up the customer service phone numbers for the various credit card companies. When I called the various 800 numbers on the landline while sitting next to the computer, representatives at each of the companies followed their procedures to ascertain that I was indeed the rightful owner of the respective account. This involved answering a number of identity questions. The practical problem was that there were others in the hotel business center and the location of the telephone did not enable me to answer those questions discretely. My paranoia had peaked, and I realized how easily it would be for a person sitting nearby to listen in and note my answers.
As I went through shutting down the credit cards, I was happy to discover that reporting the theft quickly would alleviate most fraudulent charges. However, if I ever have to go through a high-level security clearance background check in the future, I'll be embarrassed at the criminal's purchases.
The creep had also called several of those 1-900-Talk-Dirty-To-Me phone numbers that any husband would never want his wife to see on the phone charges. The criminal had racked up eye-popping charges in just a short time.
In my rush to stanch the red flood of credit card fraud, “Murphy's Law” struck back. My wife was in Ireland at the time on a business trip. She needed to refill her car with diesel and return it the next day to the rental car facility for the flight home. Since this was the end of her trip, she had dutifully used up almost all of her euros. When she pulled into the gas station 5 min. before closing time at midnight, the gas pumps wouldn't accept her credit card. She tried another. It, too, didn't work. The station attendant was frustrated waiting for this “foreigner” to hurry up and finish refueling the car. His language was Polish. My wife is multilingual, but Polish isn't one of her languages.
So, consider her circumstances: It's midnight; she's alone in a foreign country; she needs fuel but has only a couple shillings in her pocket; her credit cards suddenly aren't working for reasons unknown; and her departure time is looming.
Naturally, she pulls out her cell phone, punches in my number, her mind chock full of questions and concern. The phone rings and rings, but her husband fails to answer, and she gets more angry with each unanswered “Brrrinngg!”
Lesson number umpteen I painfully learned from this experience: If you are going to shut down your credit cards, don't leave your spouse stuck in Europe without a working credit card to complete the rest of her trip!