Using Credit at a Gas Station

Paying with plastic on the road

Avoid common credit card mistakes when you travel! These tips can help you protect against fraud, and more.

Tell Your Bank You’ll Be Traveling

Many banks use fraud-detection software that looks at your purchase patterns and tries to guess if a purchase is legitimate. The problem is that sometimes this software sees you making purchases all over the place as you roam, and your card can be blocked automatically.

Tip: Major banks often have a place on their website where you can report your travels in advance, especially when traveling outside your home country. This is okay if you only roam occasionally.

If you travel a lot, contact the bank and tell them to put a note on your account that you travel frequently. If the bank still repeatedly blocks your card “for your protection,” don’t waste time arguing with them—just switch to another bank that has a more travel-friendly policy. They’re not all the same.

Know Your Rights

You might be worried about losing your card or having fraudulent charges put on it, but it’s much less of a problem that you might think. US Federal law limits your liability if you notify the card issuer (bank or credit union) promptly.

Even if someone racks up $10,000 in fraudulent charges on your credit card you won’t have to cough up a penny, as long as you tell the bank as soon as you spot the problem. For debit and ATM cards you need to notify within two business days and your losses will be limited to just $50. For more details, visit this helpful website.

Tip: Record the customer service phone numbers printed on the back of each card you carry, in a separate and safe place. This way, if your card goes missing, you’ll be able to call the bank right away.

Did you know? Credit cards have better liability protections than debit cards. If you have a choice and intend to pay the balance due in full, using a credit card is usually safer.

Watch Out For “Skimmers”

If the card swipe at a gas station or ATM seems strangely loose or unusually bulky, it might be a modified “skimmer” designed to steal your credit card info.

Skimmers are a real problem these days, particularly at gas stations and other unattended card swipes. Thieves add them to the legitimate card swipes when nobody’s looking.  Often they’re fake attachments added to the front of the real swipe and designed to appear as it they are supposed to be there.

Tip:  Torn or cut inspection seals on a gas pump are a sure sign it has been tampered with.  Don’t use it.  Compare to another gas pump and notify the attendant.

Ditch Some Cards

Credit CardProne to losing things? Leave at least one card and anything else you don’t need behind when you go on that hike, tour, city adventure, etc. If the worst happens, you’ll at least have a backup back at the Airstream.

Similarly, if you cross borders, save some money by seeking out a credit card that doesn’t charge an International exchange fee on every purchase.

Tip: Find a hidden spot in your Airstream where you can put a spare credit card or some cash for emergencies. If you can’t find a good spot (make sure the money can’t vibrate out and disappear!) check online for a “diversion safe”.

Be Aware Of Bank Holds

Gas stations and other businesses often place a “hold” on your credit card for anticipated charges, which ties up a piece of your credit line even after you’ve completed the purchase. This usually gets released within a day or two, but the exact time depends on your bank.

The “gotcha” here is that a card that is near its limit can run out of credit even if you haven’t actually made many purchases. For example, you might buy $65 dollars of fuel at the pump but have a $100 temporary hold on your card. Hotels and car rental agencies are much bigger users of the “hold” feature, often tying up $500 or so.

Tip: Make sure whatever card you take has plenty of credit left. You can check your credit limit online with most banks.

Set Up Fraud Notifications

It’s almost inevitable that one of your cards will get shut down (at least temporarily) for suspected fraud while traveling. Banks are super-cautious about this, because they’re the usually ones who get stuck with fraudulent charges, not you. (See “know your rights”, above.)

Many times a “fraud alert” is a false alarm. When this happens, you want to know right away, because once the bank flags your card, it’s dead to you.

Tip: Make sure you’re enrolled to get fraud alerts from the issuing bank by text message, phone, or email (your choice). When you get a fraud alert, take a moment to respond to the bank and get your card back in action. A quick response can get your card re-activated in a minutes. Waiting too long can mean permanent shutdown of that card, meaning you’ll have to wait for a replacement to be mailed to you —which is inconvenient on a long trip.

–by Rich Luhr