There are some things and some days here that make me figure whether there are any helpful institutions in Brazil at all. That is exactly how I felt last week when I found out that my credit card had been cloned. From there on the situation turned quite absurd very quickly.
It was a nice Thursday afternoon. The last golden beams of the setting sun were gently warming the side of my neck while I sat and browsed for flight tickets. Toying with the idea of white Christmas back in Estonia, I decided to check my online credit card account. You know, just in case, to make sure my card was accepted by the airline and I could complete the purchase of flight tickets without errors or delays before my chosen tariff would sell out (as it always tends to happen).
Once I was in, it took me almost 10 minutes to understand what was going on. The card, which I hardly ever take out of my wallet, had apparently been used to buy tickets through Ingresso Rápido and to pay for some goods using MercadoPago.
As I am not too good with dates and tend to be a bit forgetful sometimes, I revised all my personal records one by one to find out what those costs were supposed to stand for. Until it dawned on me – someone else was using my card! Having checked all records available, as well as my calendar to recall where I had been and what had I done on each day, I realized that those purchases were definitely not mine.
I did not panic, though. My experience with banks from Estonia was that they were there to guarantee the security of my money and even my peace of mind. If something suspicious was going on, they would get my money back and have the scheme figured out in no time. I would not have to worry too much and could trust it in the hands of the experts. After all, that is their job.
That was a moment when any Brazilian could have cited the famous quote from Game of Thrones to me: “You know nothing, John Snow!”
Indeed, little did I know what was waiting ahead.
Scene 1 – Getting the Credit Card Company to Talk to Me
When you call Amex, you will be provided with many options to choose from to establish why you are calling. Once I had surfed through different menus and thought I had finally made the right choice (unrecognized purchases), I was put through to speak to an actual human. I briefly described what had happened and was then asked to respond to a series of questions to check whether I actually was the owner of the card.
The Amex woman on the phone asked if I had already been contacted by Amex. Having never heard from them before, I responded “No” and explained once again that I had discovered the abnormalities on my account by accident, as that was not a card that I normally used. Then, I was told that they would direct my call to the responsible department*. I waited cheerfully listening to some Jack Johnson music with my expectations high.
Soon enough, another female voice answered. Once again I had to explain what had happened and answer all the same security questions. Again, I was asked if Amex had already contacted me. You readers already know the answer to that question. However, this time the woman also read out loud some of the attempts to use my credit card to see whether I recognized them. It turned out that since the very last day of June, someone had tried to pay, for example, for their shopping spree in Drogarias Pacheco, book some flight tickets with Azul Linhas Aéreas and buy other things on the internet. Fortunately, none of these were authorized. Otherwise, my credit card bill would already have been thousands of Brazilian real at this point.
As soon as I had given feedback about all attempts, the woman dryly stated that she would put me through to speak to the responsible department and turned Jack Johnson up again. From there on, I heard the whole album, plus half of Carla Bruni’s greatest hits with occasional drop-ins from the woman on the other side of the phone thanking me for waiting and saying that I would have to keep doing so.
Only 50 minutes later, the voice spoke again. It said that I would have to leave my contacts and the Amex team would get back to me about my case.
- “But you cancelled my card, right?” I asked.
- “No, you will have to wait for Amex to contact you to solve this case,” said the voice.
- “What do you mean? You will not even cancel my card now? But what if the person keeps using it in the meantime?”
- “You will have to wait for Amex to contact you to solve this case,” insisted the voice impassively.
- “Well… but when can I expect them to contact me then?”
- “There is no deadline.”
- “What do you mean?! So I am just supposed to hang on and let someone continue to enjoy the free lunches not even knowing when this might be solved?”
- “Just a moment. Let me verify with the responsible department.”
At this moment, I was beginning to think that the mysterious “responsible department” did not even exist and they were just trying to make me run around in laps until I would get tired and give up. Which made no sense to me. It was their money, their reputation – what was going on?
- “Hi, unfortunately, you will have to wait for Amex team to contact you.”
- “But this does not make any sense!”
- “I am sorry but this is the procedure.”
- “I will not pay this bill. I want this card blocked and a new one sent to me!”
At this point my husband was getting frustrated with my inability to impose myself the Brazilian way – argue aggressively and even threaten, if needed. So he took over. “This is how you get things solved here in Brazil,” he said.
- “Hi, this is not dona Gretchen anymore. This is her husband. I want to cancel the card right away!”
- “I am sorry; this is not possible as my manager did not allow it.”
- “Well, I want it canceled. And what is this responsible department you keep referring to? I want to talk with them right away!”
- “It’s the department responsible for security.”
- “So put me through, I want to speak to them!”
- “I am trying but they do not want to attend this case right now.”
- “What do you mean? They could answer but they do not want to?!” asked my husband unbelievingly.
- “Yes. They do not want to attend right now.”
- “I know that you are trained to repeat everything like a broken doll, but I am sure you understand that it does not make any sense. I am going to the police now to make an incident report for embezzlement, and the next call you are going to receive will be from my lawyer.”
- “Wait, Sir! I will talk to my manager again”
At this point we had been on the phone for more than one hour with absolutely no resolution. While Jack Johnson was at its very first set again, my husband called his cousin who is an experienced lawyer. According to him we had a right to cancel the card right away but we had to fight with the credit card company in order to achieve that. He also recommended we actually go and get an incident report registered with the police.
- “My manager authorized cancelling the card. We will also be transferring some credit to your account, so you will not have to pay the bill with the unrecognized purchases.”
So apparently threatening with a lawyer had worked. It had taken one hour, four minutes and all the Jack Johnson I could bear just to get my card canceled. Something I had ingenuously deemed tacit. But there it was, finally. I would still have to wait for the Amex responsible team that did not want to talk to me, to contact me about solving the case, though…
Scene 2 – How the Hotel That Copied My Card Hung up on Me
Thinking back on how someone might have gotten their hands on my card, I lined up the main facts:
My Amex is connected to the corporate account of the company where I work. In the end of June my company sponsored and participated in an executive event in a very nice hotel in São Paulo. We had invited a client from the United States to present their success story and speak on our behalf.
I used my corporate credit card as a guarantee to his accommodation reservation in the hotel where the event took place. This was the only way the hotel agreed to confirm the reservation. Even though, we paid the full cost of our guest’s accommodation in advance by bank transfer.
Furthermore, a colleague of mine that flew in from United States for the event stayed in the same hotel and used their own corporate credit card to pay for their accommodation.
Right after she got back to the States she was contacted by Amex about some suspicious activity on her account. It turned out that someone had cloned her card and had been using it in all kinds of weird places. Her card was cancelled immediately and a new one was sent to her.
As soon as I discovered the inexplicable charges on my own card, a week later, it became quite clear what had happened. Both of our cards had been cloned by someone from the hotel. Someone that had access to the information that only the hotel had requested and possessed.
The same Thursday evening after having spoken to Amex first, we decided to call the hotel and let them know what had happened. We called the general number and asked to speak to the finance department. A woman’s voice answered asking why we were calling. We explained her what had happened and that it had to be the hotel where the cards were cloned. No names were mentioned at any point. My husband could barely finish the sentence, when the woman asked us to wait a minute and started a heated discussion in whispers with someone in the same room as her. Half a minute later we were put on hold and then the call dropped. We called back, were put through to financial department again but this time no one answered the phone anymore… It just kept ringing and ringing.
Without any conviction that anyone I had contacted so far cared enough to solve this, I decided to give a heads up to the organizing team of the event. I told them that that two credit cards from the same company were copied and had been used right after the event. The only place that had the credit card information of the two was the hotel. They promised to contact the hotel event team and investigate.
Scene 3 – No System, No Reports aka Brazilian Police
Annoyed and wanting the justice to be served, I decided to go to police to make an incident report (a BO as they call it here in Brazil). I was encouraged by the accountant of the company where we work to do that. Furthermore, it turned out that the same thing had happened to another colleague of mine some time before, yet in another hotel in São Paulo.
We arrived to the nearest police station that does BOs around 6pm. The building was dark and empty, there seemed to be no one there, which was most suspicious, as we had mentally prepared ourselves to wait there for what might even be hours. The reality was that there was no one even at the reception desk.
After a few minutes of clueless looking around a weary man with his hair tangled and his white short-sleeved shirt already unbuttoned around the neck came from another room to see why we were there. It turned out that the police system was not functioning since midday and there was no way of making the report. He advised us to go home and come back the next day at 8am in the morning.
Scene 4 – “If there’s no system, there’s no system, what else do you want?” said the policewoman in a tight white cocktail dress
Friday morning. We arrived in the delegacy around 11am in the morning and detected some movement but nothing similar to what we had heard from people about sitting and waiting in a police station for hours.
At the reception desk two dressed up women were in the middle of an energetic conversation. They both ignored as we entered the room. It seemed like they had their own important business to discuss. The woman standing to the right of the reception desk was dressed in a leopard print blouse and jeans. She batted her long fake lashes and kept nervously fixing her hair, while the woman on the left spoke.
And was that second woman a sight to see! At 11am in the morning, the forty-something-year-old policewoman was dressed in a tight white sleeveless mini dress that she had matched with silver sandals with heels no less than 10-centimeters. Her black meticulously straightened hair reached her lower back, whereas her make up left no doubt: she was definitely either coming from or going to a cocktail party. To be fair, although it was still morning, she was a policewoman and we were in a police station, it was a Friday morning after all…
While the woman spoke, she demonstratively twirled a pink mini-purse attached to a key ring around her index finger as if to exhibit the bright blue long nails she had probably gotten done the night before.
Although this sight was quite unexpected for someone entering a police station to make an incident report, we approached the reception desk without hesitation. We were there to fulfill an objective, after all.
- “Yes?” asked the woman with the blue nails, evidently not pleased to be disturbed during her conversation.
- “We are here to make an incident report, our credit card was cloned, and…”
The rest of the words died on my lips right when I saw the two women throwing annoyed looks at each other.
- “The system is not working. You cannot do the report today,” said the woman in the white dress.
- “It is still not working? We came here yesterday evening and they said the system had been offline since lunch that day? How can it not function for so long?”
- “The system is not working since Monday. There is nothing that we can do.”
- “Wow. But it is the police! What if there was a really serious problem, like someone was stabbed?”
- “I do not know what you want from me. The system is not working and nothing can be done.”
The woman shot at us angry looks of someone who is tired of explaining and impatient for us to leave. She looked irritable and ready to attack.
- “I know it is not your fault. I just would like to know what happens. How can it be that the police cannot make any reports for a week? What happens if something urgent comes up?”
- “Well, then we will do something. There are other delegacies in the state of São Paulo, we will take them to another delegacy in the state. There is nothing we can do here now, the system is out since Monday and that is that.”
At this point the woman had gotten so angry she could have turned into a jaguar right then and there and lounged right at us to make us shut up.
- “Fine. Understood. Have a good day,” we said and left the building, while we could feel the women staring the back of our necks until we were out of the door and they could go on with whatever they were at when we interrupted.
Back in the car, I called the next closest police station (3 kilometers away). As soon as I could open my mouth they shouted out that the system was not functioning there either, so there was no point of even driving there. I believe it is not surprising if I tell you that there has not been a fourth attempt to report the incident, nor drive around the state of São Paulo to find a police station that actually operates. I am not proud of it, but I do not have the patience or time either.
Scene 5 – The Accidental Hang Up
The same day I received a call from the hotel that I suspect of cloning my card. Apparently, the event organizer (a non-related third party) had talked to them about what had happened. It turned out they had mentioned names and shared my contact.
It also looked like the hotel had put two and two together and even though it was my husband that had spoken to them on the phone and no names were ever mentioned, they knew it had been me who had called the hotel twice the day before. Even before I could confirm or deny it, they apologized more than three times and insisted that they had not dropped my calls on purpose, that it had been by accident and that the second time the call just could not be completed…
They proceeded to say that it definitely could not have been someone from the hotel that had cloned and used my credit card and kept asking repeatedly what Amex had discovered about the case.
I listened, thanked for the call and said I was in contact with Amex and would let them know if I had any information. That was finally enough for them to stop insisting on finding out whether Amex had confirmed my doubts.
In the meantime, I am still here waiting for the “responsible department” to contact me.
(*) Responsible department – the literal translation of “departamento responsável” in Portuguese. The actual meaning would be something like “the department that is in charge (of the area in question)”.
What do you guys make of this situation? Have you had any similar experience?
Do you think that institutions in Brazil base their actions and communications first and foremost on the assumption that people will always try and trick them for their own benefit?