Student Travel Alert: ATM cards can be disabled in high-crime destinations

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Anyone who does a lot of traveling can expect to encounter some challenges when using plastic. In places notorious for an unusually high rate of credit card and ATM crimes, for example, you should be especially vigilant when using an ATM machine. Pickpockets are more common in some destinations, and theft of credit card data by employees in restaurants and bars may also be more prevalent.

What you probably do not expect, however, is to have your debit card completely blocked by your bank just because you are trying to use it in a well-respected chain store in the U.S. or in three of the biggest states in the entire USA, namely California, New York, and Florida.

These kinds of things can and do occur, however, which is why anyone – especially a student traveling abroad for vacation or study – should talk to their bank before leaving home.

Banks Blocking Debit Card Transactions

The Bank of Dade, a community banking institution headquartered in Trenton, Georgia, posted a letter on its website explaining that it blocks transaction in certain “high-risk” locations. Here are two excerpts from that letter:

“The Bank of Dade has previously blocked all debit card transactions conducted in foreign countries, all debit card transactions conducted at Walgreens (in all states except Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama) and blocked all ATM transactions in the State of California.”

“Effective June 1st, 2014, the Bank of Dade will begin blocking all debit card transactions conducted in the States of Florida, New York, and Illinois. The Bank of Dade reserves the right to block additional areas and merchants based on levels of fraudulent activity.”

That may sound pretty astonishing considering many of these apply to places you may live, work or go to school. The practice may, however, be more commonplace than you think. Here are some examples we found:

  • The Citizens Bank of West Virginia -Their website has an announcement explaining to customers that internet transactions with Canada and the UK, are blocked. Additionally, internet and non-PIN transactions are blocked in dozens of other countries.
  • The Bank of Easton in Massachusetts -Displays a notice on its website that reads; “Due to an increase in certain types of fraud, we are blocking signature transactions at certain categories of merchants such as discount stores, department stores, grocery stores, drug stores and pharmacies if the store is located more than 200 miles from where you live.”

All of these banks make a note about the importance of letting them know when you are traveling in order to make certain accommodations. The lesson here is that if you plan to travel, let your bank know ahead of time or you may wind up stranded with no access to cash.

Credit Unions May Also Block Transactions

Credit unions in the USA are all run as nonprofit organizations and tend to be much more user-friendly than non-union banks. One credit union, the Mass Bay Credit Union, located in Massachusetts, posted this message on its website:

"The growth in fraudulent ATM & Debit transactions has caused us to restrict card access in countries where there is a high risk of fraud. Access to your funds using a Mass Bay ATM/Debit Card will not be available in the below countries...If you are traveling to the below countries, we recommend using our Prepaid VISA TravelMoney® Card, which can be issued at any of our branch locations."

In fact, if you do a simple Google search for “credit unions blocking transactions,” you will find pages of search results that point out this precautionary measure. Some blocked examples include:

Helpful Tips

Not all blocking is the same because some financial institutions block all debit card transactions while others may allow transactions that require a signature or PIN.

Your bank may not be required to notify you of these policies, either, so don’t expect them to tell you every time they block transactions in a particular country, region, or city. Use a proactive approach and contact your bank before you leave to make sure that the places you plan to visit will not be banned or otherwise blocked.

Be sure to check the expiration date on your debit or credit cards before you leave home in order to avoid any issues overseas. Banks typically mail out new cards so it’s not likely that you would be able to get your card instantly reinstated while away.

Apply for a new chip-enabled credit card or request one to replace your magnetic strip card before traveling abroad. The majority of the blocked transactions we found were directly related to credit cards with a magnetic strip on the back with no EMV chip.

*The content in this article is accurate at the publishing date, and may be subject to changes per the card issuer.

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