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The ATM won’t give me any cash. Help!

Special to The Times

ON his first day in London, Frank Conlon went to an ATM to withdraw some British pounds. Conlon, a frequent visitor to England, is accustomed to withdrawing cash from machines without incident. But on his trip in February, things didn’t go as usual.

Instead of spitting out pounds, the machine flashed a message that his bank was refusing this request. Figuring something was wrong with that ATM, he went to another and encountered the same problem. He tried the toll-free customer service number, but it wouldn’t accept international calls. When he finally reached a Wells Fargo representative, he said he was told that the bank had blocked ATMs in Britain because of suspected fraud.

The ATM usually solves the classic traveler’s dilemma of getting access to cash in a foreign land. ATMs have become ubiquitous. Convenience coupled with lower fees have made them perhaps the most reliable and easiest way to get currency abroad.

Until now. Recent debit-card frauds have made the ATM a far less certain bet for travelers. Unlike credit cards, which routinely reject as “unusual activity” purchases made in places far from the cardholder’s home, debit-card blocks tend to be directed at countries, not at individuals.

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“Large blocks of cards have been compromised by criminals who get card information and then distribute it through international networks of organized crime,” said Mike Urban, director of fraud technical operations at Fair Isaac, a Minneapolis-based consulting and decision management company. “The easiest way for the bank to protect itself is to block the country the fraud is coming from.”

That’s what happened at Wells Fargo. Referring to Conlon’s situation, Lisa Westermann, assistant vice president of public relations for Wells Fargo Card Services, said, “We knew the risk for fraudulent activity was very high, so we needed to take immediate measures to protect our customers.”

The blocks -- their duration and the countries they affect -- change frequently. Besides Britain, Wells Fargo has blocked transactions in Thailand and the Philippines.

Bay Area credit union Patelco has blocked Romania. So has New Jersey’s First Hope Bank, which has also blocked Greece. The Alabama Credit Union is OK with Greece but has vetoed withdrawals in South Africa, Japan, Singapore and Romania.

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Some banks block PIN-based transactions; some, like the Commonwealth Credit Union in Kentucky, block signature-based transactions (in 23 countries, including France, Germany and Ireland); some block both. “Every bank has a different risk threshold,” Urban said.

But unless you have a habit of searching through your bank’s webpage, you may not even know a ban is in place until you’re standing in front of an uncooperative ATM.

Small banks as well as credit unions may be more likely to impose the blocks. “Smaller institutions may rarely have enough customers abroad to make it worthwhile” to do detailed fraud evaluation, said John Hall, spokesman for the American Bankers Assn. “So they block all transactions in a given country, and they may do it more often and for a longer time.”

Hans Ganz, chief executive of Pacific Trust Bank, based in Chula Vista, offers a case in point. After buying additional security software, his nine-branch bank was able to remove its block on transactions in Britain. But the block in Turkey, he said, will remain in place. “We have a lot of customers who travel in the U.K.,” Ganz said. “But not that many who go to Turkey. For us, Turkey is not worth the additional risk at this time.”

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It’s not only customers at small banks who are susceptible, nor is it only far-off lands with few American visitors that are targeted. In March, San Francisco resident Jake Appelbaum found himself without cash in Canada when ATMs in Toronto refused to honor his Citibank card. He said a customer service agent told him there were problems with ATM networks in Canada, Russia and Britain, and that certain groups of cards would have to be reissued.

When he asked why he hadn’t been notified, Appelbaum said the agent replied: “We’re not required to inform you.”

Finding out about blocks can require extra effort. Westermann, of Wells Fargo, acknowledged that the bank was purposefully reticent. “We knew the fraudsters were very sophisticated, and we didn’t want to tip them off by disclosing our countermeasures to stop the unauthorized use of the cards,” she said. “Therefore, we decided against proactively discussing the block.”

Since his experience in February, Conlon is changing his behavior. He’s not a big fan of traveler’s checks because they can’t be used in several of the Asian countries in which he travels. “But I’ll start carrying more money than is conventionally considered prudent,” he said. “It might be the only safe bet.”

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Money tips

To avoid getting caught short overseas:

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* Call your bank or check out its Web page before you leave to try to find out whether a country block is in place at your destination.

* Take more than a debit card. “We recommend travelers always carry a mix of payment options that may include credit cards, debit cards, traveler’s checks and currency to help them navigate through any circumstance,” said Lisa Westermann, assistant vice president of public relations for Wells Fargo Card Services.

* If you can’t withdraw cash from an ATM, go to a bank. Many U.S. debit cards come with a credit function that allows customers to get a cash advance. The fees and interest are higher than for a debit transaction, but the desperate can’t be picky. And if you have your checkbook, American Express offices usually will cash checks for any cardholder.

* Make sure you know how to contact your bank from abroad if you need to report fraud or a card malfunction. Your bank can also direct you to a nearby financial institution, and it will sometimes issue you a new card that will work (although it will send the card to your home address; you’ll need to have someone forward it to you).

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Lisa Abend

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E-mail Travel Insider at travel@latimes.com.


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