A tale of crime in theater of absurd


September 18, 2007|By DAN THANH DANG

First of two parts

What if you knew you were about to get mugged and called the law, only to be told that you had to let the bad guy finish the job?

That's pretty much what Denise Stanco, a 54-year-old information technology specialist, experienced recently when a credit-monitoring service called last month to ask her about some unusual charges on her Visa debit card.

When she called Securityplus Federal Credit Union to tell them she did not buy the $1,204 Gulf Air tickets, the $872 Birkenstock shoes, or the $2,500 Asian Air tickets that were charged to her account, Securityplus told her that the charges had not been deducted from her checking account yet.

Oh, happy day! Stanco thought. All $2,189 that she owned was still there. There was still time to save her money from being swiped by evildoers, right?


Stanco's tale is so outrageously infuriating, it'll either make you laugh (not ha-ha funny, but ha-ha WHAT?!) or make you cry. Because try as she might, no one seemed to want to help her stop a theft in progress.

"They told me I had to file a police report and then fill out a fraud report with them [the credit union]," said Stanco, a Catonsville resident who works for the Social Security Administration.

OK. That makes sense.

"They froze my debit card number," Stanco said. "They told me I couldn't touch the funds in my account, which I thought meant that the thieves couldn't get to my money either."

Again, makes sense.

"But the odd and frustrating thing is," Stanco said. "my credit union told me that before they could do anything to help me, I had to let the fraudulent transactions complete processing first."

Come again?

"I know! I was just incredulous," Stanco said. "I had to ask the credit union person three times, `So you still have my money, you know it's fraud, and yet, you're telling me that you're going to release the funds and I have to sit idly by while I'm getting ripped off?' She said, `Yes.' I said that was stupid."

Stanco's problem is that she was thinking logically. Logically, if you warn a business about a crime that's happening, perhaps there's a chance that the business will take some sort of action to stop it from being completed.

Please toss your silly notions of logic out the window.

Bear in mind that everyone she turned to for help did try to help her. But most only succeeded in pushing her deeper into a maze of utter absurdity.

Two steps

Ed Campbell, assistant vice president of marketing at Woodlawn-based Securityplus, said sales transactions transpire in two parts: the authorization and then the posting.

In the authorization part, a retailer swipes your card and the information about that sale is sent to your bank or credit union. The financial institution confirms that there is enough money in the account to cover the transaction and sends a message back to the merchant to authorize the sale.

Authorization has nothing to do with the account holder (in this case, Stanco) or the financial institution (in this case, Securityplus) ensuring that the charge is legitimate. It merely means there's sufficient money in the account to cover the charge.

Once the authorization occurs, the second part of a sales transaction is the posting, which is the time it takes for the funds to clear the account. Sometimes, postings can take a few days to process.

"Systematically, the way we're set up, you're just not allowed to disallow a [transaction] once it's been authorized," Campbell said. "It sounds crazy, but once the authorization goes through, we have to allow the charge to post. We've already told the merchant that the money is available."

So even though the credit union or bank is aware that a transaction may be or is definitely fraudulent, their hands are tied once the sale is authorized.

That means the consumer's hands are tied, too. So despite serious reservations, Stanco did as she was told.

She waited for the mugging to continue.

On Aug. 6, three days after she was warned about the fraud, Securityplus released the funds for the Gulf Air tickets. The credit union did reject the Asian Air charge - but only because Stanco at this point had insufficient funds in her account. The Birkenstock charge was still waiting to clear.

Now that one fraud had been committed against her, she contacted the Baltimore County police. Because the crime wasn't an emergency, she ended up driving to the local precinct where she asked a "very nice and polite" officer to help her file a report. She said he told her that "they were unable to help me because they needed to know who the thief was and whether he was in my county of residence in order to investigate the crime."

It certainly would make it easier on law enforcement everywhere if victims all knew who was victimizing them and where this unsavory person could be located, yes?

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