Debit card nightmare: Business owner’s account ‘wiped out’

Posted Jan. 13, 2011, at 10:59 a.m.

BETHEL, Maine — Maryann Jordan thought her debit card was safe. Then, two days after Christmas, she received a call from her bank.

“They told me my account was wiped out,” Jordan said.

Someone had used her MasterCard debit card to spend just over $4,700 in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai and it triggered a red flag with Northeast Bank.

Her account showed four transactions, including a $2,469 charge at the Dubai airport.

The thief emptied her account of more than $3,000 and ran up her overdraft limit of $1,500.

Jordan still thought she was OK.

After all, card companies promise that customers’ money is safe and will be replaced if stolen.

Then, a bank employee highlighted the fine print of her account. Because the account was tied to her business, the Toe Tappin’ Jazz Dance Studio in Bethel, the bank didn’t have to refund all of her money.

It’s there on MasterCard’s website: Protection does not apply if the card was issued for “commercial, business or agricultural purposes.”

“Everybody ought to know this,” Jordan said. “I did not realize that a personal account was safer than a business account.”

Her bank, Northeast Bank, did return some of the money, agreeing to erase the overdraft limit and fees, she said.

But her $3,000 is gone.

A spokesman for Northeast Bank declined to comment on the case, saying “the privacy of our customers is of paramount importance.”

Jordan’s problem is unusual but not rare, said Lloyd LaFountain III, the bank superintendent for the Maine Bureau of Financial Institutions.

Accounts like hers, pitched by MasterCard as “faster than checks, safer than cash,” have limitations, he said.

Often, such as with Visa’s “zero liability” protection, people have five days to report a problem.

LaFountain counseled Jordan to call his office. Sometimes, arrangements can be made with banks to return the money.

Meanwhile, Jordan has reported the theft to the FBI, the state police and at least one U.S. Senate office.

The money was intended to be her studio rent for the next three months, she said. It will be missed.

“We basically make ends meet throughout the year,” she said. “We’re going to have to struggle.”

It’s not her only worry. If someone has her debit card number, perhaps other details of her identity have been seized, she said.

She imagines someone traveling the Middle East under her name, she said.

“I still don’t know if my identity has been stolen,” she said.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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