One of the great things about buying and selling vintage items for a living is that I get to read all kinds of old magazines and newspapers. I find it fascinating how much American life has changed, and even more how it’s stayed the same, through the decades. This evening I came across this fascinating article about credit card fraud in a 1964 issue of the American Legion Magazine. It’s chock full of intriguing tidbits, IMO.
The American Legion Magazine Volume 76 Number 5 May 1964
Don’t Lose Your Credit Cards! by Robert Angus
When the black market gets its hands on them, guess who’s stuck?
June 29, 1963, was an unlucky day for the nation’s more than 18 million holders of credit cards. On that day, the New York Supreme Court decided in favor of Texaco, Inc., in a test case against real estate broker Bernhard Goldstein of the Bronx, N.Y. According to the New York Times of June 19, 1962, Goldstein’s troubles began when he pulled into a gas station in the Bronx and charged a tank of gas. The station attendant failed to return his credit card. Some months later, Goldstein received bills run up with the card which ultimatelytotaled $569.88 – a charge he refused to pay. The court held that Goldstein was liable – because he had failed to notify the company of his loss. The case is being hailed by oil companies, hotel chains and the credit card industry generally as a precedent for future cases involving card holders whose cards fall into other hands.
In some instances, credit card holders are released from further liability as soon as they drop a letter notifying the issuing company of a card loss into the mail. In others, liability ends when the company receives the letter. In still others, it ends five or ten days after receipt of notification. Conflicting state laws and company policies keep the matter of notification in a somewhat gray area, however – with some states and companies insisting on compliance with the letter of the contract, and others giving the cardholder the benefit of the doubt.
Each year, according to American Oil Company’s Central Credit Office manager L.C. Goodlander, some 1 1/2 million Americans report lost or stolen cards. Of these, some 60,000 fall into the stolen category. But each stolen card, according to Goodlander and his opposite number at Pure Oil, Robert Walerius, represents an average of $3,500 in charges, some of which are charged back to the legitimate card holder. So big is the busines in stolen cards that a black market has developed in them. Comments Walerius, “A pickpocket in New York, rather than using the cards he lifts himself, sells them to a broker (going price: from $10 to $50), who in turn sends them to Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami or elsewhere, where they’re priced at $100 and up, and used. In Chicago, yet another ring member will begin running up bills or forging checks using a credit card stolen only hours before in New York. That’s the reason we consider the prompt reporting of lost or stolen cards so important.”
The theory of the underworld seems to be that credit cards are at least as good as money. One professional bad check casher even had his own plastic embossing kit for counterfeiting credit cards when he was arrested two years ago. Another man, a convicted forger, bought an American Express credit card in New York’s black market several years ago and proceeded to run up a substantial bill for liquor and clothes before he was arrested. (But few “cardsharps” have been able to top the four-months-long, $15,000 spree of a 25-year-old Michigan man. In June of 1963, he was handed six credit cards by a companion who had found them in a purse he picked up on the street. In spite of the stop orders issued by the card companies, the man managed to run through an average of $200 a day. He had stayed in the finest hotels, had his car painted four times and had gone on a $125-a-day fishing expedition in Florida.)
Actually, the three principal general-purpose credit card companies – Diner’s Club, American Express and Carte Blanche – and most of the major oil companies spend time and money tracking down credit card frauds and abuses to protect themselves and their card holders. And, for additional protection, all companies have tightened credit requirements and they keep in closer contact with active card users. American Express, for example, boasts it can often detect a credit card abuse before the owner reports his card lost. The general purpose companies today have their own detective bureaus, generally staffed by ex-FBI men.
One protection which many card holders feel they have is their signature on their cards. Not so, say the issuing companies. “We can’t ask every gas station attendant, waitress and store clerk to be a handwriting expert,” Goodlander comments. “The purpose of the signature is mainly to deter amateurs, since professionals generally come up with a pretty acceptable forgery.”
What happens when the credit card company catches a crook? Until recently, the main aim of every company was to get its card back. Companies considered themselves lucky if they could obtain reimbursement from the offender,; but rarely did they prosecute. In the past 12 months, all of this has changed. Notes one New York hotelman, “Time was when the credit card companies actually supported some clip joints – removing a spot from their listnot after repeated complaints of overcharging, pickpocketing, and so on, but only after customers refused to pay padded bills. Now they’ll knock a place off the list at the first complaint from members of any management irregularity. Credit cards have grown up in the past year.”
The companies generally offer a reward of $25 for each stolen card picked up by a waiter, serviceman or store clerk. “All that this did was to put a floor under the black-market price for stolen cards,” a New York Police Department member grumbles.
When you lose your wallet containing $100 cash, you’ve lost $100, points out Pure Oil’s Walerius. But if it also contains half a dozen credit cards, you could take years to pay off all the bills that the finder could run up.
What can a card holder do to protect himself? Walerius offers the following pointers:
1. When you receive an unsolicited card in the mail, return it or destroy it if you don’t plan to use it. Retention of the card may imply a contract to honor any charges made with it.
2. Treat your credit cards as you would cash. Don’t carry them loose in pockets, leave them in car glove compartments and so on.
3. Each time you use your card, be sure you get it back.
4. Don’t lend your card to anybody unless you’re prepared to assume full responsibility for any purchases made while it’s out of your hands.
5. Save your receipts and compare them with your statement at the end of the month. It’s possible for unscrupulous salespersons to add charges to a sales ticket after the customer has signed it.
6. Report lost or stolen cards immediately – preferably in writing – to the issuing company.