Before we get started on this, check your wallet, purse, tote bag, wherever you keep that buyer's passport to the world--your credit card--just to make sure it isn't out burning up all creation while you aren't.
Not long ago, mine was when I wasn't.
You do not want this experience.
You do not want your Visa bill arriving bloated with extra charges from discount stores and mail-order outfits and eateries and bait-and-tackle shops you never knew existed. You do not want a stranger signing your name for 50 chicken chimichangas and 20 pitchers of beer.
A stolen credit card is unsettling in a personal way and, even worse, it's unsettling to the investigation department of the bank that issued the card.
They normally find little humor in a fraud running wild with your line of credit while you lamely mumble something about last seeing that darned card a week ago Thursday.
Speaking for card issuers, Stephanie Keire, vice president and manager of operations and customer service at Wells Fargo Bank, says credit-card fraud has become a significant headache.
A $1-billion-a-year headache.
"It's not a lot of fun for anyone," she said, noting that most major banks have personnel on staff to investigate increasing cases of fraud, including stolen account numbers.
As for card holders, Keire said: "People feel violated when they see fraudulent charges on their bill. It's like somebody breaking into their house."
In my case, the card thief broke into Mexican restaurants. Apparently, this person--let's call him Hungry Jack--had an insatiable appetite for beef tostadas, fish tacos and buckets of Corona Extra beer. His run with my card was brief but tasty. Over a two-week span, Hungry Jack made 14 stops at Mexican restaurants, racking up tabs, in total, of $717.47.
His favorite dining spots were Que Pasa in Sherman Oaks, La Siesta in Tarzana, Tortilla Inn in Northridge and El Torito restaurants in Northridge and Woodland Hills. (According to bank records, he also stopped by various stores, and he ordered a film from a video company located in South Carolina.)
All of this began one day after lunch with a colleague at El Torito in Woodland Hills, which was paid for with my credit card by me ($16.84). Somehow, though, the Visa never made it back into my wallet.
The fact was lost on me until shortly thereafter, when I received a routine bill from the card issuer, First Security Bank, requesting payment on, among other things, the $16.84 lunch. The routine part ended on the next line, however, where another charge made at El Torito later that day came to $94.32.
I called the First Security offices in Salt Lake City and admitted that occasionally I could handle chile relleno in moderation but swore repeatedly that it was entirely beyond me to do close to 100 bucks worth in one sitting.
They wanted it in writing.
They also wanted me to fill out and sign an "affidavit of forgery" form which, a bank official said, would be used in legal proceedings if any fraudulent charges had, in fact, been made on the account.
"If we can find out who did it," said Stephanie Gollaher, who works in First Security's investigation department, "we'll hold them criminally responsible."
I couldn't help but wonder who would have the nerve or be dim enough to return to the same restaurant where the card was taken, on the same day it was taken, to roll up big numbers at the cash register. On subsequent days, Hungry Jack made separate charges of $24, $55, $41 and $100 at El Torito.
Gollaher said bank investigators contacted El Torito management, saying they suspected that a restaurant employee was the culprit. Marc Faircloth, vice president of facilities for the restaurant chain, said his company conducted interviews, but wasn't able to prove anything, despite "having our suspicions about one person."
Inexplicably, the Visa card showed up for the last time at El Torito in Woodland Hills about 15 days after leaving my wallet.
It was recovered and the restaurant collected a $50 reward for finding the card, even though the whole episode smelled, according to Gollaher, "kind of fishy."
I am no closer now than ever to knowing exactly how Hungry Jack got my Visa, or who this mystery person is. What I do know is that he eats and drinks like a horse or shares meals with friends. That I wouldn't want to stand between him and the bean dip. I hold no animosity toward him, more than likely because First Security Bank didn't hold me liable for any of the extracurricular charges.
Fact is, Gollaher, who has worked at the bank for seven years, almost scoffed at my apology for the mess that, all told, closed in on $1,000.
"Oh, man, I've seen them go up to $3-, $4-, $5,000," she said. "It could have been worse."
True, Hungry Jack could have gone for French.