Beware of mystery charges on your bills

The discovery of a mysterious charge on your credit-card or bank statement is peculiarly unsettling because so much of our money comes and goes as digits on a computer screen or a piece of paper. When we see a weird charge, we rifle through wads of receipts, rack our memories and immediately assume we’re being scammed.

The discovery of a mysterious charge on your credit-card or bank statement is peculiarly unsettling because so much of our money comes and goes as digits on a computer screen or a piece of paper. When we see a weird charge, we rifle through wads of receipts, rack our memories and immediately assume we’re being scammed.

That happened to Doug Johnson of Minneapolis and Mary Ann Spurrier of Maple Grove, Minn. The outcome for each was quite different, but their experiences prove the value of vigilance.

Johnson, an employee-benefits manager at a big consulting company, regularly looks at his bank statement. Last month he saw a $2.29 charge, supposedly from his debit card, for something called “Business Fund” in Las Vegas.

He immediately called his bank, which gave him a toll-free number to the “Business Fund.” It turned out to be a company peddling a CD-ROM with information on making lots of money. That $2.29 charge was just a precursor to much larger charges to come, his Internet research showed.

Johnson never buys such things. So he got through to a “Business Fund” employee who said the charge would be eliminated and his account credited. That happened last week, but the appearance of another bizarre charge prompted Johnson to cancel the debit card, and conclude that he was a victim of identity theft.

“If somebody’s able to get my account number and all this information, how did they get it?” he said. “Thankfully, I was looking. In a month, I likely would have a 30-, 40- or whatever-dollar charge. Who knows where it goes from there?”

For her part, Spurrier admits that she wasn’t looking at her account statements from the Teacher Federal Credit Union.

After being laid off in January, Spurrier got her financial affairs in order with the help of a friend. On Spurrier’s bank statement, they discovered a recurring $52.19 charge for “membership dues” at a company whose name she didn’t recognize.

Then she looked back at her previous statements. She realized with a shock that the charges had begun in September 2007. The charge skipped one month, and then appeared every month through February 2009. A total of $887.23 had been taken out of her account through ACH (Automated Clearing House) transactions, or electronic payments.

It turns out that the charges were for a health-club membership that Spurrier thought she had canceled long ago. The company had changed its name to something unfamiliar.

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