My parents were on holiday and enjoying a nice dinner when they got the phone call from the bank. The clerk wanted to know if my father had recently decided to purchase $9,000 of South African diamonds online. My mother was somewhat disappointed to hear that he hadn’t, and they were both filled with dismay when they realised the truth – their credit card details had been stolen. They thought it was swiped by a waiter the previous night but couldn’t prove it, and ended up spending the rest of the vacation glowering at any retail staff who touched their card suspiciously.
Another friend who set off on a round the world trip with a brand new card found herself cashless after the very first time she used it, on her stopover in Bangkok. Not twenty minutes after she walked out of the store, her bank called her to report it had been used 5 times, and was now frozen, leaving her alone and without access to funds until she could get a replacement sent from Australia.
Not much fun.
I’ve had my own card frozen – the bank raised an alert and flagged my card when item were purchased in three different countries over two days, which does sound suspicious, but is easy enough to do when you decide to take the cheapest all-stops flight from Australia to Ireland at Christmas and need to buy gifts en route. Almost everyone I know has experienced either card freezing or worse, actually having their card used, so it was with some interest (and no small amount of irritation) I sat down in deckchair while on holidays to read Kingpin.
Kingpin is the story of Max “Vision” Butler, a brilliant hacker who played both sides of the law, serving as a consultant to the FBI at one point and staging a hostile takeover of the online criminal fraud network not to disable it, but to coordinate the chaos – to consolidate and make more efficient vast online-fraud supermarkets stocked with credit card numbers, hacked bank accounts and the means of making fake cards and IDs.
It could be heavy reading, but the story flows well. The author, Kevin Poulson, manages to write about a technical subject without drowning a casual reader in the details. It’s fascinating to view credit card fraud from the other side, that of the perpetrators, and infuriating to hear that those who do it often view it as a crime with no victims but the amorphous evil that is big banks. Anyone who has ever stood in a petrol station with an empty tank and frozen card or had their card declined unexpectedly at a grocery or pharmacy can tell you that credit card fraud is not a victimless crime. The bank may normally pay the monetary cost but the time racked up in phone calls, waiting on new cards and feverishly checking statements exacts its own toll in stress.
However much I ground my teeth at the idea that credit card fraud is somehow okay, I found the book really fascinating. Perhaps not ideal as a holiday read, replete as it was with information on how easily a card could be skimmed (or have the details stolen via Internet Explorer). I’m not sure I needed to look quite that sternly at the waitress when she moved out of sight with my card for twenty seconds. I probably didn’t need to glare at the fourteen year old in the ice-cream parlour either. They were probably after $12 I owed for a chocolate cones, as a opposed to a nine-thousand dollar diamond necklace.
Kingpin is a excellent book, and I do recommend reading it. Just not while you are on holidays unless you don’t like the waitresses.