Questionable charges on your credit card are not always from identity theft or fraud. They can appear through well-meaning errors in processing a payment, or they could be through so-called “gray” charges – sneaky but legal charges such as “free” subscriptions or product/service trials that opt-in automatically to a credit card charge.
Regardless of why the questionable charge is there, you want to check it out as soon as possible. Most credit monitoring services deal with your credit score and credit reports well after the questionable charges have taken place.
Your best bet on preemptive action on suspicious credit charges lies with the credit card companies and a few third-party apps.
Almost all credit card companies have websites that allow you to access your account and check all charges over a chosen period of time, and many have mechanisms to allow you to dispute those charges online – but who checks their transactions constantly to look for fraudulent purchases? While it is wise to check your transactions periodically, it is impractical to do it constantly and lead a normal productive life.
Credit card companies try to be preemptive by using certain fraud detection criteria that flag certain transactions – for example, a large expense that breaks typical spending patterns, clustered rapid spending, or usage in a foreign country.
Companies vary in their approach of notification and card acceptance once fraud is suspected. They may attempt to call you afterward for verification that the charge is valid, temporarily freeze or block charges until the situation is resolved, or contact you through apps or e-mail alerts. Because of this, it is usually best when traveling long distances or making an unusual purchase to notify your credit card company in advance to avoid flags — and to avoid having your charges declined as suspicious.
Capital One has introduced a service known as Second Look that is pre-emptive with respect to three types of charges:
- Subscription Fee Renewals – These include all automatic renewals but are designed to catch the “gray” charges listed above. Cardholders can easily detect any so-called free trials that have rolled over automatically into a paid subscription.
- Multiple Card Swipes – If a card is swiped multiple times with the same merchant within a short timeframe, you are notified of the activity. Sometimes this is an innocent mistake by a vendor, but it could also be a relatively careless thief trying to rack up purchases as fast as possible.
- Monthly Utility Charges – Unusual increases in monthly bills such as cable, Internet, and utility providers will produce a notification, so you can verify that the changes are legitimate.
Second Look notifies you of any suspicious charges through e-mail alerts.
BillGuard is a third-party mobile app that performs a similar service to Second Look, but it does so by identifying problem merchants through crowdsourcing and other methods, and then flagging transactions by those specific merchants. Being merchant-based, it is more focused on "gray" charges and data breaches from specific merchants.
A nice feature of BillGuard is that it can cover all of your credit and debit card accounts simultaneously without the need to set up individual alerts with every card. The downside is that you must input the information to monitor all of those charges – thus, the information for all of your cards is located in one site, making some nervous about potential hacking.
Make sure that you protect against questionable charges by using one of these preemptive methods, or some other proven monitoring protocol. Choose whichever one works best for you, and keep an eye out for any new developments in the field.
If you would like to monitor your credit to prevent identity theft and see your credit reports and scores, check out our credit monitoring service.