Ensuring credit card usage overseas

For several years my wife, Paula, and I have used the same airline-affiliated Visa cards without incident, traveling to Malaysia, Chile, Slovakia, etc. Recently, the airline began transitioning to a MasterCard issued by a different bank than the Visa issuer. During the application process for the new MasterCard, I told a representative of the bank’s credit card operation that we would soon leave for Spain and that we intended to use our new credit cards there. (We each were getting a new credit card.) She stated that this would not be a problem and even offered to overnight the credit cards to us to ensure that the cards would arrive before our trip in February ’06.

After the new credit cards arrived, and before we left for Spain, my wife and I used both new cards for over a dozen transactions totaling over $1,000, without incident.

Soon after our arrival in Spain, we successfully used our new MasterCards for a museum admission ($19), souvenir shopping ($32) and train tickets ($32). However, when we attempted to use the new Master-Cards for souvenirs at Toledo’s Cathedral ($22) and again two days later for a 12-dollar purchase in a small shop in Segovia, the cards were rejected.

That evening I contacted the credit card issuer by e-mail, mentioned that I was in Spain and asked for an explanation. Their response was that there was a “security watch” on our account which was causing our purchases to be declined. After I sent a follow-up e-mail, they responded that the hold was “due to the foreign activity.” They requested that I call a phone number collect (not toll-free) to discuss the problem.

Not wanting to deal with making a collect call from Spain to the U.S., I waited until after my return to the U.S before calling. Fortunately, we had taken our old, reliable Visa cards with us and used them without any trouble for the remainder of our visit to Spain.

Upon our return to the U.S., I learned that they had left a phone message for me on my home answering machine (which was of no help to me in Spain). I then called the MasterCard issuer and was quickly able to get our cards taken off of the security watch. From that conversation, follow-up e-mails and a letter they sent me, I learned that their policy is you have to notify them in advance before you leave the U.S. or they will implement a security watch (i.e., make your card unusable) once you begin using it in a foreign country.

I pointed out that this is exactly what I did, but apparently the representative that I had spoken to did not note this in my records.

I then mentioned that we travel overseas several times a year and that they should just expect typical travel charges (hotel, restaurant, transportation, attractions and inexpensive souvenir purchases), but they held firm to their requirement of prior and specific notifications for each trip.

Finally, I pointed out that a thief is much more likely to make large purchases of jewelry, electronics, etc., instead of small purchases at a cathedral, but that didn’t sway them from their position.

While I question their policy and their implementation of their policy, their representatives were unfailingly polite and understanding.

Preventing credit card misuse and fraud is important. As someone who had his wallet stolen several years ago in Paris (of course, it was the only time that I didn’t use a money belt when traveling overseas), I fully support reasonable and sound security policies. However, in my opinion, the policy of this particular credit card issuer is unreasonable for regular overseas travelers and is certainly an incongruous policy for a credit card affiliated with an international airline.

There are at least three lessons to be learned from this experience. First, always have at least one backup credit card, preferably one that you know works reliably overseas.

Second, notify your credit card issuers of your plans twice before each trip overseas. I recommend that you notify them once by e-mail and once by phone to increase the probability that they will actually pay attention to your notification.

Finally, be sure to have the appropriate phone number to use to contact your credit card issuers from overseas. In our case, my credit card issuer said that I should have had the merchant call them (collect) when my credit card was rejected. Of course, try doing that with a non-English-speaking store clerk in a small shop in a small town in a foreign country and see how well that works.

Charlotte, NC