Whoops: How My Bank Card Got Cloned and £1500 Disappeared

It took me two weeks to realize my bank account had been plundered by criminals in Central America

It was in Mexico City that I began to suspect something fishy.

For days now my card was getting spat right back out of any ATM I tried to use. Whether it was Mexican banks like Banorte and Bancomer, or international ones like HSBC and Scotia Bank… I was not getting any money out. I had no problems with ATMs in Mexico before, and I was starting to get concerned.

I called my bank to confirm no security blocks were in place. There weren’t.

Just to be sure I looked at my bank statements online. While I thought there should be plenty of money left, instead my account was nearly empty.

What the…?! Had I been going that much over budget?

My first instinct was to shrug it off and move some money over from my savings account, but then I noticed some strange items on my bank statement: blocks of repeated transactions in increasing increments from the same ATMs. That didn’t seem right.

That’s when I knew I had become victim of bank card fraud.

I immediately called my bank’s fraud team. They asked if I had made any withdrawals from Santiago in Chile…

… and I have never been in Chile before in my life. It was also 4100 miles removed from my actual location.

It became clear that someone had cloned my bank card, had taken the cloned card to a place far away, and had been withdrawing money with it hoping I would not notice.

We soon identified over £1500 worth of fraudulent transactions, all withdrawn over a period of two weeks in batches valueing between £20 to £200. Holy crap!

I retraced my memories to the point where the unauthorized withdrawals began, and realized that my bank card got cloned almost certainly at a gas station in Guatemala.

I was on a road trip with a buddy of mine: we had just crossed the border from Honduras, didn’t yet have any Quetzales and were desperately out of fuel; against better judgement I had used my bank card to pay for our gas at a dingy gas station. I remember the card reader had looked dodgy, and it’s almost certainly where things had gone awry.

The good news is it did not ruin my trip

Fortunately, any reputable bank is insured against this type of crime. After investigating the issue over a few working days, my bank fully refunded all the money that was stolen. I did not lose a single penny.

… But it was still very frustrating

My bank card had to be cancelled and I could only get a replacement sent to a local address in the UK. I now can’t use my primary bank account until I get back home (or if I find a way for someone to send it, though that would probably be expensive and not very secure).

If you want to avoid running into similar trouble, I recommend doing the following:

  • Only use your card with reputable bank ATMs. Avoid gas stations and ideally even small ATMs in convenience stores (they often charge higher fees anyway).
  • Keep a limited amount of money in your checking account. Move money over from a savings account as and when needed.
  • Look at your bank statements from time to time. You never know what fun things you will find! One time I discovered that two failed withdrawals in Yangon in Myanmar had still been taken from my account anyway; a quick call to my bank immediately corrected this.
  • Don’t travel with only one way to get money. While I could no longer use my primary bank card, I still had a card with another bank as well as a separate credit card, so I didn’t have to abort my journey or jump through any difficult hoops to get cash out.

As with most travel adversities they can often be dealt with pretty easily. But if there’s one thing I definitely recommend it’s to have a backup plan for when your primary bank card fails you!

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5 comments

  1. BuurmanBert Reply January 3, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Marek, terrible incident buddy! Happend to me in Brazil, and they took a lot of money while I was away in Antarctica. Of course everything was covered by insurrance. May be a nice tip to add to the list: prepaid creditcards! There are now serveral prepaid cards which you can order online and use for emergency. Just hit google, and its with Mastercard and Visa. Take care!

    • Marek Indietraveller Reply January 4, 2014 at 4:00 am

      Hey Bert! Hadn’t thought of prepaid credit cards before. That’s an excellent tip – thanks for sharing.

  2. Agness Reply January 3, 2014 at 2:28 am

    What!? I’m really sorry to hear that. I’ve heard some of these cities in Central America were doggy, so be more careful! I’m glad to hear this unfortunate accident did not ruin your awesome trip!

  3. Graeme Voigt Reply January 2, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    WOAH! What a shame to hear this!
    At least you were prepared and able to quickly fix the situation – this could have ended a lot worse!

    • Marek Indietraveller Reply January 2, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      I was relieved to have that other card! Would be terrible to lose that one too though… I’m looking after it as though it’s my firstborn 🙂

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