The day crooks tried to buy £600 of champagne with my debit card

1 February 2019

Even financial journalists can be targeted by fraudsters, as Edmund Greaves has discovered

I like to think that my money is well protected. But this assumption came tumbling down when a crook attempted to buy £600 worth of champagne with my bank card.

I was sitting in a meeting one afternoon in December, when my phone buzzed with a notification.

A quick glance at the screen and I became aware of something amiss. The notification said a £150 payment from my account had been declined at a café in Moorgate, in the City of London.

While Moneywise HQ is a short walk from there, this definitely wasn’t me.

Concerned, I excused myself from the meeting. The transaction was on my Monzo debit card, which was perplexingly still in my wallet.

As I scrolled through the app for clues, a message pinged again before my eyes. This time, someone had just attempted to spend £600 in a wine shop.

The shop was near the office. I decided to jog down and see for myself what was going on.

I was greeted by astonished looking attendants when I asked if someone had just attempted to spend £600.

“How do you know that?!”

“Well, it was my card they were trying to use,” I said.

“Monzo – and my frugal spending habits – spared me the loss of £750”

It emerged that a man and woman had attempted to buy a £600 magnum of Dom Pérignon. Classy crooks!

The pair had left the establishment not 10 minutes before I arrived, the transaction having failed.

The shop staff proceeded to call the police and then gave me the phone to relay my details.

Fortunately, the shop had CCTV. I asked the staff to preserve the tape as the criminals’ faces would have been captured.

Next, I googled the location of the café, the place where the crooks had first tried to spend my money. It was across the street.

As it was lunch time and the café was busy with people buying sandwiches, I dutifully queued up. On reaching the counter the attendant asked: “What’ll it be, mate?”

“Erm, did someone just try and spend £150 in here but have the payment declined?” I said.

“Oh yeah! A young couple, they looked very nervous,” he replied.

“What did they try to buy?” I asked.

“£150 worth of halal meat” he said.

I became aware that the entire shop had stopped what it was doing and was now listening to our exchange.

Screenshots of the payment for £600, which – thankfully – was declined

I asked the staff to preserve their CCTV footage too. My case against the scoundrels was piling up with evidence.

The police officer on the line had advised me to log the crime on Action Fraud, which I did once back in the office. Unfortunately (at the time of writing), the police have not contacted me again about what happened. I fear that the constraints of modern policing may lead to no justice being served.

But the episode has taught me a few things.

Firstly, no matter how careful you are about your financial security, you can become a victim. I have no recollection of ever handing over my bank card to someone dubious-looking, or anyone brushing up against me to take my information via contactless. I am at a loss as to how they got it.

Secondly, the modern fraud prevention technology some banks have is the best defence against these attacks. The crooks tried to spend my money just minutes from where I work every day.

But Monzo’s algorithms instantly knew this was atypical spending. Clearly, it knew I wasn’t in the business of buying £600 worth of champagne! Perhaps my parsimonious spending habits are to thank too. I was spared the loss of £750.

Finally, if I had in fact lost the money, it would have wiped out my finances completely. I would have been forced to dip into my savings (and probably use a credit card) to get by. I have resolved to build up a bigger ‘emergency fund’.

Monzo has since told me that it would never leave a customer out of pocket if they became a victim, which is very reassuring.

But it is thanks to its processes that the funds were not even taken in the first place – something that I’m not sure every bank could boast.

So what’s the moral of the story? Sometimes there’s not a lot we can do to stop these things happening. Perhaps though, due diligence on who you bank with and working out what contingency plans you and your provider have in place will keep you a little bit more secure.

I must say Monzo really impressed me that day.

Note: the author invested £100 in Monzo in the December customer funding round. Find out his views on that here