A night in a five star hotel in New York followed by a day of frantic shopping in Macys, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co, FAO Schwarz, then two first class tickets to Barbados. You know, just the average post Christmas pick-me-up.
If you could sum up my dream weekend trip this would be it, but hang on, according to my debit card statement this is my life! Except, I'm not in Barbados, I'm in Ireland and the only shopping I did this week was for two bumper packs of nappies in Tesco.
As I stared at my debit card statement on my computer screen my heart began to race. I called out to my husband who came rushing into the room expecting a fire, such was the urgency in my voice.
"Someone has been stealing from my account!"
"Again?" he exhaled with one of those withered looks.
The truth is I sometimes go to my account and there's less in it than I expect, so for a moment I think someone has in fact stolen my money until I go through my account and see purchases I'd long forgotten, but God damn it I wouldn't have forgotten about purchases from Tiffany &Co!
I called the bank who confirmed my card had in all likelihood been skimmed - which means that a fraudster copied my debit card and pin, and then apparently flew to the US and hot-footed it around New York's best stores. Though the fact that my thief had excellent taste gave me little comfort.
"When should I expect to get my money back?" I asked the bank official, my voice cracking just a little.
In a 'hold-your-horses' type of voice the man replied that each case was investigated individually and there was no guarantee of a refund.
I'm sure he was just being cautious. At least this is what I keep telling myself. Over a month has now passed and I've been to the police to get the necessary forms stamped for the fraud squad. I tried to make small talk with the policeman about it, "I'm sure you see this type of thing all the time?"
"No, not really," he claimed.
The fraud squad are investigating my case, which won't call for the expertise of Sherlock Holmes because I couldn't be in Tesco in Ireland and Tiffany & Co in New York at exactly the same time. I can do a lot of things but bi-location on different continents isn't one of them. I pointed this out to the man in the fraud squad but he just kept repeating, "every case is investigated individually".
Since this incident I've learned the following things about debit card security:
-NEVER use an ATM on the street, always use one inside a building such as a shopping centre or bank because it will be more difficult for a skimming machine to be attached.
-Hovering your palm over the keypad while typing your pin will not protect you from fraudsters trying to copy your card information and pin. Some skimmers will even go so far as to place a secondary keypad over the top of the actual keypad. The secondary keypad captures your PIN number and records it while passing your input to the real keypad.
-NEVER let your debit card out of your sight in a restaurant, if they can't bring the payment machine to you then go with the waiter to wherever the machine is located.
And it's not dodgy restaurants in the wrong end of town that we need to watch out for, waiters in some of New York's top restaurants have been convicted of being involved in an organised credit card fraud ring.
In the fraud, customers with high-limit credit cards were targeted, when the diners handed over their credit cards to pay the waiter used a skimming device to copy data which was then passed on to the organisers of the fraud ring who made counterfeit cards with this information. 'Shoppers' were then sent out and told to act like big spenders, purchasing items which could easily be sold on. These shoppers racked up as much as £30,000 on each card.
The skimming device used by waiters in the Manhattan scam was about the size of a tube of lipstick so it was easily concealed in the palm of a waiter's hand. These devices are not difficult to come by, portable magnetic card readers are readily available on the Internet for a couple of hundred pounds.
-Don't assume you're going to get your money back because as we all now know, 'each case is investigated individually!'and on my most recent follow-up call to the bank they had no record of receiving my claim forms.
So once again I stood in line at the police station waiting for my turn to talk to a policeman through a metal grid and explain my case and ask for a form to be signed, and as I did so I thought about the person who had stolen my card information. I imagined their winter tan, designer clothes and Tiffany jewellery, but most of all I thought about how hard I worked for my money which I'd never have spent so recklessly, in fact this money sat in my account to be used for extra maternity leave.
To say I felt hard-done-by would be a understatement and I was getting impatient because the woman ahead of me was taking forever. Then she finally finished her hushed-tone conversation with the policeman and turned around, her face was battered, her left eye so swollen and bruised it couldn't open and black stitches zig-zagged across her cheek, suddenly I feel very lucky.