Chris and Susie Linford got an unexpected call from Credit Union 1 a couple of weeks ago. Their debit card number had been stolen, the person on the phone told them. Someone had been making a lot of unauthorized charges.
The Linfords checked their account. Sure enough, in just about an hour's time, someone had spent $5,000. Most of the charges were from places the Linfords didn't recognize. The person did a lot of shopping. He also ordered a subscription to USA Today, paid a Vonage bill and tried to join a fruit-of-the-month club. Chris had no idea how it happened. He hadn't made many purchases recently.
"(The card) was never out of my sight," he said.
The credit union blocked the card. The Linfords got their money back. Credit Union 1 issued a new account number. The Linfords filed a police report. They thought that was the end of it.
Then the first delivery man arrived at their door.
Susie was working from home that day in mid-December. She collected the package. Inside was a JVC car stereo and a radar detector.
After that "the boxes started coming pretty quick, a couple of deliveries a day," Chris said.
There was a baseball bat signed by a famous player. And the poster-sized, framed, autographed portrait of stock car racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. There was half a case of North Face jackets in women's large and men's extra large sizes. A set of martial arts gloves and shin pads.
"I'm thinking all signs point back to a 20- to 30-year-old male," Susie said.
Until the $50 linen scrapbook arrived. And the $220 women's jackets from a fancy store in New Jersey. Susie decided the thief was Christmas shopping.
After a week or so it slowed down. Christmas came and went. Susie called a few of the vendors trying to learn more about the person who made the orders. She tracked orders back to phone numbers and IP addresses in Kansas and Illinois. That made it even more confusing. What was the thief thinking? Maybe he or she switched the billing and shipping addresses by mistake? Maybe they had a local connection and were planning to come to the Linford's house and steal the items off the porch?
"Bad plan," Susie said. "I work at home and I have a big dog."
The last thing that arrived was a bulky corner shelf for plants. Last week they were trying to figure out what to do with everything.
"Whoever was out of pocket on this needs to get their money back," Susie said.
Pat Berry, vice president and chief audit executive at Credit Union 1, told me that his fraud investigators deal frequently with situations like the Linfords', though it's very uncommon for merchandise to arrive at the home of the person whose credit card number is stolen.
When a credit card isn't physically taken, it's usually compromised with technology. Maybe a merchant's system gets breached in some way, then the numbers get collected and distributed to other people who make fraudulent purchases. Sometimes thieves create cloned cards with stolen numbers and new signatures. Other times they just use the number. The Linfords' case looked like the latter.
"If they clone the card and there is a signature on it, the card issuer will take the loss," he said. "If it's an internet transaction, in a lot of cases, the merchant takes the loss."
How can people avoid getting their credit card number stolen? It isn't easy, he said. He suggests making sure that online purchases are done on a secure site (the web address will start with "https"), and watching cards when making purchases at a business. If someone swipes a card twice in two different machines, warning bells should go off. He also recommended making sure your computer operating system, browser and virus-protection software are updated regularly.
Sgt. Larry Rhodes, from the financial crimes unit at the Anchorage Police Department, said whoever stole the Linfords' card number was probably an amateur. He'd seen something similar only a few times. Stealing a credit card and then shipping goods to the person you're stealing from is likely not what the thief meant to do. He recommended that the Linfords contact the vendors and arrange to ship the stolen items back.
Like Berry, Rhodes said it's hard to prevent having credit card numbers stolen by people hacking into electronic credit card systems. He recommended using only ATM machines associated with banks and being careful when using cards at small businesses, which tend not to spend the money on enhanced electronic security. Personally, Rhodes goes with an old fashioned method for credit card theft prevention.
"I use cash a lot," he said.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.