Desperate Aussie’s $12k scam warning

Kate Browne had thought of everything when she and her husband set off with their two young daughters on an epic, 10-week journey across Africa.

She knew to be wary of sketchy wireless networks as the family made their way from Cape Town in South Africa up to Zanzibar in Tanzania.

She also knew to take a variety of money sources - cash, credit cards and debit cards - as they spent time in financially challenging countries with different currencies along the way.

And as the managing editor of the comparison and advice site finder.com.au, Ms Browne was armed with a wealth of travel tips to steer her well.

But none of that mattered when she was scammed out of $12,000 on just day two of the epic trip, and found her Australian bank wasn't particularly eager to help her.

Ms Browne believed she was the victim of debit card skimming - as opposed to the credit card variety - which left the family depleted of crucial holiday savings with months of travel ahead.

Kate Browne and her family hit an unexpected roadblock on day two of their trip. Picture: Kate Browne
Kate Browne and her family hit an unexpected roadblock on day two of their trip. Picture: Kate Browne

"I was conscious of not using my Visa debit card too much but we started in Cape Town, a big international city, and I used my card at the airport, the hostel and at a big shopping centre in the big tourist area," Ms Browne told news.com.au of the trip, which began in December.

"The irony is I hadn't wanted to check my internet banking too much as I'd be on open wireless networks."

So it wasn't until two weeks later, in Namibia, when Ms Browne realised something was wrong.

Her debit card declined in a shop and then an ATM told her she had insufficient funds.

"Then I went online to check," she said.

"Every cent was gone from my account. It was a massive hit."

Ms Browne's card was probably skimmed during her first two days in Cape Town. Using two different ATMs, the fraudster then withdrew $1000 - the daily limit - day by day until they'd taken her entire $12,000 kitty.

"Apparently (skimming) is an issue in South Africa and I know it's an issue here too," she said.

Luckily, her husband had a separate account, so the family could still get by for a while. But she found things would be more difficult when she contacted her bank back in Australia.

'THAT'S WHEN I REALLY STARTED TO PANIC'

Ms Browne immediately called the bank's overseas emergency number and was certain she'd be helped.

"The money was withdrawn from just two ATMs in a part of Cape Town I'd never been," she said.

"And there were transactions showing I was in another country for part of that, as we'd moved onto Namibia by then and I'd made a few transactions there."

The finder.com.au managing editor felt the bank wasn’t as eager to help her as it was her money that had been stolen, not theirs. Picture: Kate Browne
The finder.com.au managing editor felt the bank wasn’t as eager to help her as it was her money that had been stolen, not theirs. Picture: Kate Browne

The first person Ms Browne spoke to said there was nothing the bank could do until she got home and filled in a form at a branch.

"It was then I started to really panic because basically half our money was gone," she said. "And he didn't do much to reassure me I'd get it back either, which is what really freaked me out."

Over the next three weeks, as her family trekked deeper into Africa - spending days virtually off-grid in game parks and camping grounds - Ms Browne was locked in a back-and-forth with her bank, getting mixed advice about what to do.

She was told she couldn't get emergency money. Then after being told she'd have to fill out a form in Australia, someone else told her she could do it online.

By then the family was in a camping ground in Botswana and Ms Browne borrowed a stranger's laptop and spent hours filling out the forms before sending them off. She didn't hear back from the bank for a week.

When she did, she was told forms would take 30 days to process.

"I started contacting more senior people at the bank and because of who I am and what I do, I was able to get some cut-through and long story short, it got moved overnight and the money was back," Ms Browne said.

"But I shouldn't have had to do that and other people aren't in a position to do that."

Luckily, they didn’t have to end their trip early. Picture: Kate Browne
Luckily, they didn’t have to end their trip early. Picture: Kate Browne

It took a whole nervous month between Ms Browne's money getting stolen and refunded.

News.com.au won't reveal Ms Browne's bank but she said when it came to debit card fraud, all banks were the same: they didn't treat debit card fraud with the urgency of credit card fraud.

"When it's the bank's money it's in their best interest to get it back ASAP and when it's a debit card, the sense of urgency from the bank is a lot lower," she said.

"I really question why the bank didn't notice for three weeks that one of its customers was in two different countries displaying really unusual behaviour. I don't tend to pull out $1000 every single day.

"And I don't think it's reasonable to expect people to wait 30 days even if they're in Australia, to be honest. It's a big assumption that people can literally afford to sit tight.

"There has to be a better way to help people who are travelling, as not everyone has access to a laptop or the internet."

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF

As society becomes more and more cashless, card skimming has become a major problem, both in Australia and internationally.

Research from finder.com.au shows overseas credit card skimming alone was valued at more than $10 million last financial year.

Skimming happens when a person's card is copied and reproduced through devices fitted onto ATMs and point-of-sale machines, like EFTPOS machines. Often they'd hard to detect.

"It would be nice to think the banks will sweep in and support you immediately but in my experience that just won't happen," Ms Browne said.

Ms Browne is still waiting to hear the outcome of her bank's investigation but in the meantime, here are some things we can learn from her experience, wherever we're travelling.

• Cover your hand when entering your PIN: "It sounds quite basic but (skimmers) often use a small camera to see your pin, so use your hand to cover it," she said.

If you're really paranoid about card skimmers, consider cash, but be aware of the risks of carrying it around. Traveller's cheques, while a bit retro, can be a safe option.

• Travel with different sources of money: "Spread your money as far as you can," Ms Browne said. "Have different pots of money, and an emergency stash in case you run into trouble."

• Use your credit card more than your debit card: "Next time, I would do this," Ms Browne said.

"There is one downside, which is why I didn't do it: you generally do pay higher fees when you withdraw money on your credit card overseas. It depends, product to product.

"But from my experience with the credit card you're going to be a bit more protected because you're spending the bank's money and not your own."

Another option is a travel money card.

• Don't take no for an answer: "If you don't like the first answer you're given, keep trying," she said.

"It's not fair all the work is on the customer, particularly when they're the ones who are stressed and don't have access to information, but keep at it.

"Usually banks do the (fraud) investigation first and then refund you, which is why it usually takes the 30 days. But I made such a fuss, I think that's why they refunded me first."

• Hit up the bank on social media: "In my experience social media teams are usually the most proactive (to complaints) because it's in a public forum," she said.

"In a customer care call centre they're working off a script and don't have much autonomy but on Facebook and Twitter, the social media teams seem quite empowered to problem solve."


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