Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

The poorly-paid person who skimmed my credit card will have been rewarded with a few dollars by the organised criminals who buy card details wholesale

Answering the call  of the wild...

If you feel drawn by the call of the wild, Etosha National Park in Namibia provides an excellent solution. This Wales-sized slab of wilderness in south-west Africa protects an alphabet of animals from aardvark to zebra, including a scattering of the endangered black rhino.

At the heart of the reserve is a vast salt pan roughly the area of Norfolk. The name of this sun-shrivelled hydrological dead-end (Etosha, not Norfolk) translates as “great white place”.

The savanna grasslands that encircle it are etched with dirt tracks that allow visitors to search for wildlife, encounter a real zebra crossing and reach the three tourist lodges. The foremost lodge is the first, Okaukuejo, a former military base from the days when this area was part of Germany’s African empire. Today, its leading attribute is a waterhole – not the swimming pool, which is currently empty, but an artificial bowl pumped full of fresh water to lure parched creatures for the benefit of visitors.

Many beasts come to drink at dusk. Fortunately from the tourist’s perspective, the waterhole is floodlit. Once the sun goes down, you can watch elephants perform their slow-motion ablutions and see giraffes dance skittishly around rhinos that move with the might and menace of a platoon of Panzer IVs.

After this spectacle, you might be in need of replenishment at the lodge’s bar and restaurant. But be careful how you pay: according to the Foreign Office, there could be hunters at work. The latest FCO advice for Namibia highlights the property when it warns British guests that they could be victims of fraud: “There have been cases of credit-card skimming at some hotels and lodges around the country.” And it says Okakuejo Lodge has been identified as a “hotspot” for the practice.

To remind you: “skimming” involves extracting names and numbers of genuine credit cards, and seeking to use those details to obtain cash, goods or (often) airline tickets.

At the fraud’s most basic level, the perpetrator needs only a pen and paper to record the name, card number and the three-digit CVV (“Card Verification Value”) security code on the signature panel. The US State Department warns that the practice in Namibia is usually more sophisticated: “While most business establishments deal honestly, some may have individual employees who use card-reading machines to steal information when patrons pay”.

Mufaro Nesongano, a spokesman for Namibia Wildlife Resorts, told me the lodge takes the accusations“very seriously”. He said: “What we have been able to do, is increase our security ... If any of our clients get suspicious of any unusual activity they are welcome to contact us so that we can follow up the matter on their behalf.”

... and answering the call of the fraud team

Preventing your credit card from being skimmed is easy: don’t use it. For travellers in southern Africa, cash is king. As you can read in the latest edition of Carousel magazine: “Cash says less about you than plastic ever can, which is worth bearing in mind if you are in a location with a high risk of credit-card fraud.” (Carousel  sounds like a timely new publication to help fill the long hours at the end of a flight while you wait for your case to wobble ponderously out  of the shadows in baggage reclaim. It is, actually, the venerable journal of the Diplomatic Service Families Association.)

Towards the end of my trip through southern Africa I ran out of cash. I had planned to top up as necessary by using my debit card in an ATM – which should be a risk-free transaction using the chip-and-pin system. Frustratingly, the bank blocked the attempt. So, on my last day, I had no choice but to use my credit card in a couple of restaurants in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. But I failed to heed the FCO advice: “Keep the card in full view at all times.”

Back at Heathrow, I had barely retrieved my baggage from the carousel at Terminal 5 when I got a call from the bank’s fraud department. Had I just tried to make a purchase for 4,999 Namibian dollars (about £275)? Well, I felt like saying, coffee at Heathrow can be expensive but ...

Semi-skimmed

This card trick has several players besides the unwitting traveller. The poorly-paid person who skimmed my credit card will have been rewarded with a few dollars by the organised criminals who buy card details wholesale. Someone else will then have set about trying to cash in with a series of “cardholder not present” transactions. Often, they try a small purchase to see if the card is still active, then move on to bigger buys. In this case, they went straight for a transaction that was intended to sneak below a presumed N$5,000 threshold. They predicted it would not trigger an alert. But my bank (or at least the detection algorithm it uses) was awake; when I explained I was in west London, not south-west Africa, the purchase was rejected. My account was closed down and a new one started.

I guess that counts as being semi-skimmed: the only “cost” is the online tedium involved in telling everyone from Ryanair to Virgin Trains that the details of my stored card have changed.

Looking on the bright side: as financial crimes go, I’d rather be skimmed than mugged. The scam must work sufficiently often to make it worth the villains’ while, and therefore at least some wealth is transferred from relatively rich parts of the world to southern Africa. And it is less destructive than poaching rhino and selling their horns to China and Vietnam.

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