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Sunday, July 25, 2004

Safe ATM card? Don't bank on it


Your voice: Meena Maddali

Recently, I came back from a 10-day school trip to Spain. The best part about it? My first ATM card. With an excitement familiar to many teenagers, I ran to the nearest machine to test my new weapon. It worked! But the experiences I was to encounter with my ATM card would soon shatter my faith in our banking system.

After arriving in Spain, my first stop was the nearest ATM. I tried my luck. Evidently, I didn't have any. After spending my last remaining euros on lunch, I called my parents, who confronted the bank. All they had to say was that the card wasn't properly linked to my savings account. They worked their magic, and voilý, my card worked once more.

But the next time I tried my card, it again didn't work. My exasperated parents called the bank once more. After researching a bit, the bank came to a surprising two-part conclusion: One, the card was linked to my parents' checking account, not my savings account. And, the card that I had wasn't supposed to work outside the country.

It seems ATM cards have to be endorsed by either MasterCard or Visa to function properly outside the country. Mine wasn't. Still, the teller who gave me the card had told me it would function in Spain. Good news: It worked. Bad news: It wasn't supposed to.

By now, this was a major problem for the bank. The security of everyone else's accounts and mine were at stake. If I could withdraw money from my parents' checking account when the card wasn't supposed to work outside the country, what about thieves trying to steal money out of others' accounts?

With just a card, thieves can hack to get personal information, and call in to get a PIN number. In my case, the ATM card wasn't supposed to work, but it did, because it was linked to my parents' checking account.

Thanks to my parents, the rest of the trip went well without any more troubles with the card. But I was still scared. If I lost my card, then my parents could easily be robbed.

We plan on traveling again soon because my parents need a break. (And they plan on taking me?) This time, we'll take extra precautions, including setting the limit on the card to only the bare minimum of what our expenses might be. Perhaps a better approach would be to forget the card (and its troubles) and bring travelers checks. But whatever we choose, we'll always have our fingers crossed.

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Meena Maddali of Montgomery will be a freshman at Cincinnati Country Day School this fall.

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