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Column: This bank is worried scammers may be cruelly paying off people’s credit cards

Capital One froze a SoCal customer's credit card because of concern about a bank transfer used to pay off $14,000 in debt.
Capital One froze a SoCal customer’s credit card because it was concerned that a bank transfer to pay off $14,000 in debt might have been made by a scammer.
(Associated Press)

Scammers are responsible for all manner of fraud and mischief, including the theft of people’s identities, cash and financial information.

As as far I know, however, no con artist has ever maliciously paid off someone’s credit card balance.

So I couldn’t help but be intrigued when a Capital One customer told me about his recent experience having his card frozen and undergoing a fraud investigation after he paid off the more than $14,000 outstanding on his plastic.

“I kept asking them if they thought some random person had paid off my account,” said Erik Castro, 48. “They said they just needed to know that the money was legitimate.”

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Even now, the frustration was clear in his voice.

“The payment was from the same Bank of America account I use for all my payments,” the Granada Hills resident said. “Why wouldn’t it be legitimate?”

Before we go any further, let’s pause to acknowledge that fraud protection for credit cards is a very valuable service. Most cardholders likely are grateful any time a financial institution spots a questionable transaction and steps in to prevent losses.

Castro doesn’t disagree. He said Capital One flagged some dubious iTunes purchases a few years ago and quickly alerted him that his card may have been hijacked. It had been. A new card was immediately issued.

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On the other hand, Castro said Cap One overlooked someone using his plastic last year to purchase a high-end baby stroller. He had to report that fraudulent transaction himself, which once again resulted in a new card being issued.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, acts of fraud resulted in nearly $2 billion in losses last year.

Identity theft accounted for about 20% of all fraud reports. And of those, credit card fraud was the leading form of ID theft.

So it would be foolish for anyone to want card companies to be less vigilant in keeping scammers at bay.

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That said, Capital One seems a bit overzealous in its efforts — even considering the company was itself a cybercrime victim last year after a hacker accessed the personal data of more than 100 million people and small businesses.

Castro told me he’s never missed a card payment but started carrying a hefty balance after plunking down thousands of dollars for season tickets to Las Vegas Raiders games.

Then the coronavirus hit, his work hours were reduced, and he and his wife decided they needed to tighten their belts by making smaller monthly card payments.

Before too long, Castro was carrying a debt load on his plastic of $14,300. That changed a few weeks ago after he refinanced his mortgage and used some home equity to pay off the balance.

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The next day, Castro said, he received a call from Cap One saying a fraud investigation had been opened.

“They wanted me to upload copies of my bank statements to prove that I made the payment,” he recalled.

Castro balked at the request. He asked to speak with a supervisor and was told one would call him back. No one did, he said.

What did happen, though, is that when he tried to buy some stuff at a Ross store, the cashier told him his Capital One card had been rejected. “It was embarrassing,” Castro said.

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He called Capital One and was informed his account had been frozen until he complied with the request for bank documents.

“I told them it was the same bank account I’ve been using for years for all my payments,” Castro said. “I said they were making me feel like a criminal.”

Nevertheless, he uploaded the bank statements. A week passed. His card remained frozen.

Castro called Cap One again. This time a rep had him wait on the line while she set up a conference call with Bank of America.

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BofA verified that, yes, the over $14,000 payment was indeed made from Castro’s checking account. Capital One in turn unfroze his credit card.

Castro isn’t bothered that his card issuer was looking out for his financial well-being. “That’s a good thing,” he said.

“What bothers me is how they handled this,” Castro said. “They couldn’t protect me from baby-stroller fraud but they were more than ready to protect me from myself.”

Ariel Brown, a Capital One spokeswoman, told me that “when an unusual transaction occurs, which is defined as something out of pattern based on a customer’s account history, our system flags the incident as potential fraud.”

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“In the case of Mr. Castro,” she said, “a transaction that was unusual based on his account history was flagged by our system.”

Capital One froze his card “to ensure Mr. Castro’s financial safety,” Brown said, adding that the account was reactivated after the company “ultimately confirmed no fraud had taken place.”

She declined to address why paying off a balance, albeit in an out-of-the-ordinary transaction, would be flagged as potential fraud, especially in light of the fact that the money came from the same BofA account Castro used for all his payments.

Was Cap One worried that he’d filled his checking account with stolen funds? Did they think Castro had scammed someone else out of the cash?

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There may be some who wonder why he doesn’t just cancel his Capital One card and get a new credit card. The answer to that, he told me, is the roughly 190,000 miles he and his wife have accrued on the card for a future trip.

“If I cancel, I lose them,” Castro said.

Not necessarily.

He should look into transferring his miles to an airline affiliated with the card company. These include JetBlue, Air France and Singapore Airlines.

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When I called Cap One, a service rep said transferring miles to an airline is impossible. But when I persisted, she looked into it and confirmed that mile transfers to some carriers are indeed possible, but you get only 1.5 miles for every two miles transferred.

And here’s a thought: If Capital One (or any card company) is worried that a transaction is fraudulent, how about doing a little due diligence before turning a customer’s life upside-down?

In Castro’s case, a lot of hassle could have been avoided if Cap One had simply contacted BofA and confirmed at the outset that the $14,300 card payment from the usual checking account was legit. If a customer’s permission is required for such a call, then get it.

Capital One’s Brown declined to address that.

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If nothing else, how about simply exercising a little common sense? If a questionable transaction involves paying off card debt, it seems highly unlikely an act of fraud is being committed.

Pro tip: Scammers focus pretty exclusively on taking people’s money, not paying their bills.

You’re welcome, Cap One.


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