Roman thieves impersonating cops confiscate student’s debit card and steal €250 — now what?

Never give your PIN number to anyone. Ever.

Derek Wilairat learned this rule the hard way on a recent trip to Rome. I’m sharing his heartbreaking story as a warning to readers. But I think you’ll find the resolution just as interesting.

On June 14th, 2008, on a deserted street in Rome, two men approached me claiming to be undercover police officers. They demanded my wallet to “check my identification” and they demanded the PIN for my debit card so that they could “check my identity” with my bank.

Despite my obvious suspicions, my instinct was to play along. They were threatening men — mafia-types — and the fact that they claimed to be police officers, and that I was in a foreign country, made it that much harder to resist their demands. I surrendered my PIN only because I felt that to not do so would be putting myself in danger.

They handed back my wallet, minus my debit card. I called WaMu right away to cancel the card, but by then the thieves had already withdrawn €250 from an ATM. Later that day, I filed a claim for an unauthorized withdrawal, explaining the whole story in detail to a sympathetic customer service agent.

Soon after, I received a letter from Alex Wilson of WaMu Debit Card Claims that said that my claim was denied because I “gave the person who made the transaction permission to use the debit card and PIN.” I called the claims department again and spoke to another sympathetic agent who said she would reopen my claim.

Later, when I hadn’t heard back, I called claims again, and was informed my claim had been denied a second time.

Then, following the advice of the manager of my local WaMu branch, I wrote a letter to WaMu Executive Offices. The case was considered, and denied a third time.

I wrote back, arguing that according to the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, I should not be held liable for more than $50 of unauthorized use, since I reported my Debit Card stolen within two business days after I realized the card was missing. I received a reply which denied my claim for the fourth time, stating that “the DCS (Debit Card Services) department deemed your transaction as authorized because you gave your PIN to a third party. Therefore the $50 limit does not apply.” This last letter was dated December 19, 2008.

To be confronted by two men claiming to be police officers on a deserted street in a foreign country is clearly a threatening situation. I did not give my PIN willingly; I was coerced into doing so. Also, the actual card, used along with the PIN for the withdrawal, was just flat-out stolen.

I contacted Chase, which now owns Washington Mutual. Tom Kelly, a spokesman for the bank, responded with a terse denial.

We checked out the debit card issue raised by your reader. Because the customer did not file a police report, we will not reimburse the loss.

How interesting.

I think if the customer service agent Wilairat had spoken with the morning after the incident had asked him to file a police report, he probably would have. Although I can certainly understand why filing a report with the authorities wasn’t the first thought that came to his mind. After all, the thieves had claimed to be police officers.

What’s frustrating is that Washington Mutual (and later Chase) gave him numerous reasons why it denied his claim. If they’re going to deny his claim, is it too much to ask them to stick to the script?

Needless to say, you should never, never, ever give anyone your PIN number.

Wilairat must now decide what to do next. He has two options as far as I can tell: accept the decision or go to small claims court to recover his money.

Update (2/11): Just got an update from Wilairat …

I received a letter from Washington Mutual. They argue that the incident is not governed by the EFTA, and they continue to deny the claim, but even so, they are refunding the full amount of the disputed withdrawal in the interest of customer service.