The one thing every good customer forgets? You’ll never guess

Petr Kopka/Shutterstock
Petr Kopka/Shutterstock
You’re a smart consumer. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.

You look for bargains, you read the fine print, you know how to navigate your way around the branches of a phone tree.

But aren’t you forgetting something?

Most enlightened consumers fail to do one thing with alarming consistency: they don’t review their credit card purchases in a timely manner – or at all. No one knows exactly how frequently (or infrequently) American consumers review their credit card statements, but based on my own dealings with customers who are disputing a card purchase, I can tell you, it’s not often enough.

Consider the following slow-refund scenario. A customer complains to the company. A few weeks go by, and then I get an angry email, asking for help. Often, I’ll ask the reader to check his credit card statement. Sure enough, nine times out of ten, the promised refund is right there in the account.

How’d that happen? The customer didn’t bother to check.

I admit it, I’m guilty of failing to review my credit card statement online. (Never underestimate the power of denial.) But I was surprised when I asked someone I considered to be one of the world’s smartest consumers how often she reviews her purchases.

She’s an accountant who, as you might expect, keeps meticulous records of everything. When I asked her how often she logs on to her bank site to make sure she wasn’t overcharged for something, she confessed that it didn’t happen as often as it should. Sometimes every other week, sometimes monthly.

Every other week is fine, but monthly is pushing it. Anything longer than that, and you’re asking for trouble. Here’s why:

Your bank’s fraud detection algorithm isn’t as good as it thinks.
Little is known about how credit card fraud detection programs work, and that makes sense, because if everyone knew how they caught bogus purchases, they could easily be exploited. But this much we do know: They are wrong about as often as they’re right. I’m grateful to my bank for tagging the fraudulent purchase made at a Dillard’s department store in North Carolina on the same day I was buying groceries in Florida. But I’m less pleased with the same credit card that refused to allow me to buy gas in Calgary, Canada, on a recent trip north of the border. And I’m not pleased that it failed to catch the video game peripherals fraudulently billed to my account a few months ago.

Credit card fraud is tolerated by banks.
Here’s an unfortunate fact I discovered during my coverage of the credit card industry. Fraud is considered a cost of doing business and is written off. If banks wanted to, they could virtually eliminate credit card fraud with new chip-and-pin technology, which offers an extra layer of authentication. But the technology is deemed too expensive by American credit card companies, and they’ve been slow to adopt this promising feature. My takeaway? Banks will do everything they can to stop fraud, up to a point. But they want us to think they’re doing everything they can, even though they aren’t.

You only have 60 days to dispute a purchase.
Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, the clock is ticking after a bogus purchase is made with your card. You have two months from your purchase to inform your bank that you didn’t buy the thing they claim you bought. If you don’t review your credit card account, you’ll never know about the shenanigans and you’ll be stuck with the bill. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

You can’t budget what you don’t know.
Worst of all, if you don’t track your spending, you can’t possibly know how to budget for the future. And although we don’t know how frequently people review their credit card statements, we do know that more than half of all Americans don’t have a budget. There are many programs, including, ahem,, where you can track your finances, easily track the purchases you’ve made, and set basic budgeting goals.

Here’s a tip: If you’re having trouble remembering to do it, set a recurring reminder on your favorite calendar application to check your credit card statement. If you’re like me, you probably don’t want to know how much money you’ve spent last month. But ignoring your spending won’t make the problem go away.

Do you check your credit card statement often enough?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    i check once a week or more, but mainly because i am forgetful.

    there have been a few occasions when i tried to use a card only to have a declined with a balance of like 5 dollars.

    the first 2 or 3 times i would get pissed, thinking someone screwed something up. and march down to the bank to see a full statement (same thing as an online statement but with someoen to complain to), and after a few humiliating minutes i realize- crap- each an d every charge is correct.

  • California_Dave

    I use my card for bars and restaurants quite frequently and add the tip. I keep a copy of my receipt with my tip amount added to compare against the online posting and twice I have found the tip amounts and totals changed. Of course I called the restaurant mgr and it was resolved (hopefully the employee fired). Now, to make it easier to check, I always leave 18% and then round the tip so the total comes out to an even dollar amount.

  • Hotel In California

    The way this article concept “In this post, if everyone knew how they caught bogus purchases, they could easily be exploited. But this much we do
    know: They are wrong about as often as they’re right. I’m grateful to
    my bank for tagging the fraudulent purchase made at a Dillard’s
    department store in North Carolina on the same day I was buying
    groceries in Florida. “,
    it is great,well known fact to be mysteriously open from this blog, thanks for the information.

  • Jeff Kolker

    Debit card is checked daily. I don’t use credit cards that much, so I have text notices set up for any activity that comes across. Have had my debit card compromised 4 times in the last few years. First time put me on notice as the account was drained within a day. X-Box live charges, and no, don’t have an X-Box. Microsoft refunded the money. Now I catch things usually in the pre-authorization stage. My motto now… “perfect paranoia is perfect awareness” (Stephen King)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    “And I’m not pleased that it failed to catch the video game peripherals fraudulently billed to my account a few months ago.”
    @Christoper Elliott, hasn’t the “Away is Home” blog featured your video-game-obsessed son a few times this summer? Could those have been his charges to your card?


    I check my online statement once a week now. I nearly got burned 5 or 6 years ago and learned to check frequently. We had used my card to guarantee several rooms at a hotel in Florence Italy. (We travelled together regularly and this was standard procedure for us.) Each couple then gave their card at check-in. On one of the reservations (in addition to mine) they noted that the card was only to be used for the room and all incidental charges were to go to my card. I had skimmed the statement and did not pick out the extra charges that were listed in 2 different line items. Only when the couple said they were never charged for different things did the light come on in my head. I got my bill and called them to discuss. They declined to pay as I could not prove it was their charges. I contacted the card company who said too bad, so sad because I had waited too long. I then contacted the hotel who took care of the problem on the first email. They pulled the guest folio which was about 6 months old and saw where the problem occurred. They credited my card immediately and then posted the charges to the other couple’s card and emailed them a copy of the folio to show the charges were theirs. I learned two things here–check my credit card statement regularly and even (formerly) good friends might not be trustworthy financially.

  • Extramail

    I refuse to use a debit card. I use credit cards and enter my transactions at least once every two weeks on quicken so that I can track my expenses and check receipts. Just recently I ate at a local restaurant, used my credit card and the next day I had a charge for a gaming subscription. Hmm? Don’t know if the restaurant used my card that way but its my only explanation. I immediately disputed the charge and it was almost as immediately taken off. It was very easy to prove that I’m a granny and don’t play video games. And, I will be calling the restaurant just in case this is a pattern at the restaurant and they act however they choose to act. But, I will not be going to that restaurant ever again.

  • MarkKelling

    Did you tell your credit card bank you would be in Canada? If you did and they still denied your charge, then I would be upset. Otherwise, their system is working. Every credit card out there I know of (except American Express) requires you to notify them if you plan on using your card out of the country (and yes, Canada is out of the country which many of us forget since it is so much like the US in so many ways :-) ). Some credit cards even stop purchases if you use your card more than 100 miles from your home without telling them. With the amount of travel I do I would be constantly on the phone telling them my travel plans, so I am glad none of mine are that restrictive. No fraud detection system is perfect, but you have to either work with the one your bank uses or find another one that works better with your spending patterns. Because that is what the fraud detection systems depend on – your established spending patterns.

    For most of my credit cards I have alerts set up whenever they get used. It’s just a simple email, but I see everything that way almost immediately. I have also started using the system. It lets you add any and all credit cards and alerts you when they are used. You can choose what types of transactions generate alerts. I also check activity through Quicken by having it download all banking transactions. I do that daily. Have I still had fraud occur? Of course. It is an unfortunate part of the modern electronic world. But in every case, the bank caught the fraud long before it even showed up on my statement. They call, I say “no I didn’t make that charge” and I never see it.

    What I absolutely refuse to use is a debit card. There is no protection from fraud because your money is taken out of your account immediately when a transaction occurs and it can take days to weeks before the money is put back leaving you broke and probably piling up more overdraft charges. With a credit card, you at least have the option of disputing the charge and not paying it until the dispute is resolved. I put everything possible on a credit card and then pay off the balances each month. If I can’t put it on a credit card I pay cash.

  • BillCCC

    I try to enter any receipts every day or two and then check online every week.

    If your CC was refused in Calgary it was probably because you did not mention that you were going outside the country. It happened to me a couple of months ago. I usually call them when traveling but did not this time. It doesn’t bother me at all.

  • Trudi

    Two of us use our credit cards, but we discuss which card and why. Then we both check the accounts weekly. I have to give Chris some ot the credit for this almost anal attention to our credit cards. His column has drawn my attention to scams and mistakes made by banks, but mostly to my own responsibilities. With media so readily available, checking the charges and payments on credit cards is easy. It’s also because media is easily available that credit cards can be hacked. Just last month we found a charge for two plane tickets to Las Vegas through an online travel company. I called the fraud department immediately, they froze our account and issued a new number to us. Then the travel company called us at our home number, argued that we had purchased the tickets, gave us the name of the passengers (who we’d never heard of) using our home address. After 10 days the entire issue was resolved – at least on our end. If we hadn’t checked our accounts weekly, and on different days of the week, it might have been much more difficult to stop the carnage. It’s easier to be a responsible credit card owner, than it is to repair credit damage done by neglecting your account.

  • emanon256

    I love your idea, I am going to try that. I always do the same thing with comparing them. I only had an issue once and called the manager as well who took a while to fix things, but finally did.

  • Willliam Smith Jr

    Since I’m the one primarily managing / tracking our finances, I’ll generally catch a charge that seems amiss if the credit card company hasn’t first. I’ve also had a few instances where they rejected a legit payment that required me contacting them about. While annoying, I’m willing to live with those occasional glitches

  • Helio

    I’d like to point that the chip-and-pin technology isn’t safe against internet purchases, and sometimes for regular purchases – all my cards have this technology, and in several places, mainly in Europe but in US as well, the machine didn’t bother to ask the pin, I just inserted the card and the operation ended OK.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Are you sure they are good friends? Good friends would have at least made an attempt to figure out what they owed and offered accordingly.

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe it’s just me, but if I stayed with a group at a hotel and charges I expected never showed up on my bill and the guy who reserved the room told me he got charged for those exact items, I would be handing him the cash ASAP. Now if the charges did appear later on my CC statement, there would be some explaining to do by the hotel.
    Glad the hotel was willing to work it out after such a long time frame.

  • DavidYoung2

    Being organized helps too. I use different cards for different purchase types. Amex Costco is ONLY Costco. MC gets groceries and restaurants. Another Amex gets all on-line purchases. Visa gets the rest. Makes things easier to spot.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Wasn’t him. He doesn’t know how to use dad’s credit card (yet), and the merchandise was ordered but not shipped.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Yes, I told them I would be in Canada.

  • bodega3

    I have done this, too, especially when on vacation. Our MC, which we assigned for auto, was used by someone in Costa Rica after we used it there to pickup our car and once to get gas. They enjoyed a stay at a resort before we got home. Since they knew the date of our return on the car, my bet was that someone at the car rental desk was guilty of using or forwarding our card for someone to use.
    We just had our card used for airline tickets on LH purchased in Germany. What I am angry about is that this card was tagged by the card company a day prior due to an online purchase with an OTA and they called me about it. They were to close the account, but didn’t, so the airline tickets got purchased the next day for thousands over our limit. While we are not responsible for these, let me tell you it has been a hassle with the card company on this even though this was their fault.

  • bodega3

    We always travel with 3 credit card due to something like this happening. We travel to Hawaii frequently and have to let our card companies know that, which I find to be a PITA. I guess Hawaii is international for them :-(

  • MarkKelling

    Then you are rightfully angered.

    I always have to laugh when I tell my various card banks that I will be traveling to country “X” and they say they will make a note but cannot guarantee my card will actually work. Always have a backup option!

  • MarkKelling

    So what’s the point in having a limit when it is never enforced on fraudulent transactions exceeding the set limit by huge amounts but If you go $5 over they deny your purchase?

    I have never understood this.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    This is an opportunity for you to make your readers aware that their children can rack up charges, all without physically handling a credit card. Any account, such as a phone or online merchant, which is linked to either a credit card or a promise to pay (again, think phone), can be used by a child to order things.

    For example, my boys used to call a phone number to get hints on a computer game they were playing. Those charges showed up on my phone bill. In recent news, there was a story about a toddler pressing the wrong buttons on a smartphone and buying a car, I think through eBay. Many stories about kids buying extra “stuff” for their online games, and those charges were run against the same credit card used to buy and download the game.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    As I understand things, the reason why they allow you to go over the limit is for emergencies, accidents, etc, but the amount over the limit is due and payable immediately, i.e. no rolling balances on over the limits amount.

    The fraudulent transaction is a bit different. The credit card company probably just screwed up. Happened to me once. I was out of town for a week and my credit card got flagged, But it still worked. They called me, but the interesting thing was that my card was still working even though the fraud protection rep showed that it had been frozen pending confirmation that it wasn’t compromised

  • bodega3

    Some cards charge you for going over the limit.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That too :-)

  • BMG4ME

    I used Quicken to track all my spending. I download transactions and check them for accuracy. It makes it so easy. Unless you have unlimited money everyone should track their credit card spending. Having said that – it’s very rare that there are mistakes – but there are some.