FORT KENT, Maine — The irony was as inescapable as it was alarming.

On a windy, cold, snowy day in northern Maine, some St. John Valley residents were alerted their credit cards had been used thousands of miles to the south in Mexico.

All are members of Acadia Federal Credit Union, which has branches in Fort Kent and Madawaska.

“We are living in an electronic age where money gets bounced around on plastic,” said David Desjardins, Acadia Federal Credit Union president and CEO. “This is the price we pay for convenience.”

It appears that a person or persons got hold of at least eight Acadia members’ credit card numbers, manufactured new cards and made purchases with them. Dollar amounts ranged from around $35 to $273.

Fortunately, Desjardins said, security measures kicked in almost immediately and affected members were contacted and holds placed on their cards.

“Most of the purchases were for smaller dollar amounts and made at a Wal-Mart store in Mexico,” Desjardins said. “So far, we have found nothing the affected members had in common.”

The scammers were likely on what is known as a “fishing” expedition.

“If someone has a card number, they try to use it for a smaller amount, and if it gets accepted they just keep going with larger amounts,” said Sheila Ouellette, Acadia members’ services representative. “They can completely wipe out someone’s account if they are smart.”

It wasn’t only credit cards that were hit. Ouellette said that last weekend several members also had problems with their debit cards in cases unrelated to the Mexico incidents.

In those cases, there was a common bond.

“The people had gone to what they thought was a secure Web site to order [medicinal] supplements they saw recommended by Oprah [Winfrey],” Ouellette said. “As they were ordering, another window popped up offering a free two-week trial of the product.”

The free offer was for a colon-cleansing supplement. Ouellette said the members who completed the online ordering process suddenly found themselves locked into a costly subscription with no easy way out.

“They tried to call the customer service number and it was either busy or they were told the wait time was 102 minutes,” Ouellette said. “People need to really be aware when ordering online [because] it is so easy for someone to put their own link on a legitimate site.”

Nationwide, scamming is a multimillion-dollar a year business, with insurers and businesses feeling the biggest pinch.

“There is always an increase in this kind of activity around the holidays,” said Jon Paradise, governmental and public affairs manager with the Maine Credit Union League. “This holiday season it’s being exacerbated by the challenging economic times and there are trusting people out there who fall prey to these scammers.”

By their nature, people who perpetrate credit card fraud and other scams, Paradise pointed out, are “not law-abiding citizens … [they] are hard to catch because they do this in quick hits and then move on.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, he said, has an entire task force devoted to uncovering credit card fraud and related scams.

“This is not something that will go away soon,” Paradise said. “As soon as one is stopped, another one moves in.”

Fortunately for the Acadia Federal Credit Union members, all credit and debit cards carry a “zero liability” protecting the card carrier from paying for fraudulent charges or activity.

“Members are given a predetermined score on the cards,” said Elaine Jandreau, Acadia operations manager. “When that score is hit, our security company immediately calls the card holder and blocks the card.”

Acadia officials were surprised by the weekend’s fraudulent activity.

“This kind of thing very seldomly happens to us,” Jandreau said. “This is really out of the ordinary.”

Since the card numbers were used in a foreign country, she said, local law enforcement is not involved.

“We do hope they are caught,” Jandreau said. “It’s really up to the merchants who take the cards to catch them.”

In the meantime, Acadia officials stress individual cardholders must remain vigilant.

“You have to keep on top of it and always know where your card is,” Jandreau said. “Always look at your statements because something like what happened in Mexico is out of your control.”

At the same time, Desjardins said, members planning to travel out of the area are advised to let the credit union know where and when they are going.

“If we don’t know people are out of town and the security company calls us and we can’t find you, the card will get blocked,” he said. “We always have different levels of security on the cards.”

Trouble is, Ouellette said, as good as that security is, the scammers seem to be one step ahead and people need to be very cautious when using their cards to place online orders.

“Monitoring this activity could be a full-time job,” she said. “It’s so scary how easy it is for someone to backdoor into your computer. People really need to pay attention to their statements when they get them and report any suspicious activity right away.”

Paradise agreed, saying the consumer must remain on high alert, especially when completing transactions online.

“Make sure you are on a secure Web site,” he said. “If you are not sure, call the retailer.”

A good way to check the authenticity of a Web site is to make sure the letters “http” appear in the address.

“I’ve even had my credit card used in places I’ve never been,” Paradise said. “It’s just a fact of life when using credit cards or debit cards.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.