5 On Your Side

Woman hit with $5K in fraudulent charges after ordering pizza online

Posted June 3, 2015

Deborah Howlett ordered a pizza online. A few hours later, her bank account was drained.

The transactions happened within minutes, one debit after another until a total of $4,992 was gone.

“We go to this Mexican restaurant that we love, and (the waitress) says, “Well, I’m sorry but your card has been declined,’” Howlett said.

Her account showed the trouble happened two days earlier when she used her debit card twice at Home Depot, once at a gas station and later to buy a pizza online.

Right after the pizza order, the fraudulent withdrawals began.

“You’re kind of in shock. I was shaking,” Howlett said.

Of the 17 bogus charges, three were for Papa John’s – one for her order in Cary and two for a shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. The rest of the debits involved travel companies.

Howlett wondered if it all stemmed from the pizza order. She called the bank and Papa John’s.

The bank slowly credited her account over several days. Papa John’s did not initially respond to Howlett, but when 5 On Your Side reached out, company spokesman Eric Zeugschmidt responded with the following statement:

"Papa John's takes customer complaints very seriously and is aware of this isolated issue that occurred nearly three weeks ago. Since learning of the issue, we have conducted a full investigation. Our investigation confirmed that the fraudulent charges made on this one individual's debit card did not arise from using Papa John's online ordering system or from our Raleigh, North Carolina store. Papa John's has not been contacted by any financial institutions or law enforcement authorities related to this issue, nor has it received any related customer complaints. Additionally, our customer's credit and debit card information is encrypted and cannot be accessed by local store employees for online orders. When we last spoke with the customer, she indicated that everything was resolved and the bank had refunded her money for the fraudulent charges."

Howlett’s experience highlights the perils of using a debit card instead of a credit card. If someone steals your debit card or just the information, the money is gone until the bank can sort it out – a process that can take months.

Experts recommend avoiding the use of debit cards to make purchases online, at restaurants, at gas stations or using them at ATMs. The latter two locations are often where thieves use skimming devices to copy card information.

Another tip from the experts: Limit funds in the account and set up an alert through the bank to notify you about transactions over a certain amount.

“I didn’t even know they had such a thing, that I could just go online and click on it and it’s there for my protection,” Howlett said.

She said she’s now more cautious about where she uses her debit card.

“Five thousand dollars is a lot of money,” Howlett said.

Consumer Reports has online resources for how to report a lost or stolen card and advice on credit versus debit card.


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  • Jason McAllister Jun 8, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    It should say, "Experts recommend avoiding the use of debit cards. Period."

    The fact is, they are EXTREMELY dangerous in today's technology climate where fraudsters can get the card information with relative ease. Once they have it, your hard earned money is in direct danger. For a lot of people, checking accounts are all they have, and if that gets drained then they have nothing until the bank is done investigating.

    I for one NEVER use my debit card. I have a credit card that serves the same purpose, and I just pay it off at the end of the month. If fraud occurs on the credit card, I simply dispute the charge and I don't end up paying for it when my statement hits. Therefore, my personal cash is never in any danger.

  • Anthony Snark Jun 8, 2015
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    My wife's card info was stolen at RDU probably at the hudsons news last week. Boa stopped the fraudulent charges as they were attempted and contacted us immediately.

  • Brian Stephens Jun 8, 2015
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    I only use my debit card at the atm or sams club.

  • Doug Hanthorn Jun 4, 2015
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    I have to laugh at Poppa John's claims that the data is encrypted and can't be stolen. Yeah right. That's why PCI requirements are getting stricter and stricter, right? Because it's all safe? I'm sure they don't really believe that themselves, but just spewed it out to try to deflect suspicion o f their system.

  • Clif Bardwell Jun 4, 2015
    user avatar

    "Experts recommend avoiding the use of debit cards to make purchases online, at restaurants, at gas stations or using them at ATMs."

    So, where does one use a debit card?

  • George Herbert Jun 4, 2015
    user avatar

    This story confirms my decision to decline my bank's offer to switch my credit card over to a debit card.

  • Jacob Smith Jun 4, 2015
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    "Experts recommend avoiding the use of debit cards to make purchases online, at restaurants, at gas stations or using them at ATMs. The latter two locations are often where thieves use skimming devices to copy card information."

    The problem with that is what else is a debit card for other than to be able to withdraw cash from the bank machine after hours?

    In any store I always use my debit card as a credit card so as to not type in my PIN - this also changes the liability when fraudulent charges are made.

  • Russell Chapman Jun 4, 2015
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    To have the headline be "....after ordering pizza online." is not fair to Papa John's, especially after the company spokesperson gave a statement indicating that the theft originated some other place after conducting an investigation. It is clearly not known how this theft was done as only the bank has refunded the money and not Papa John's. Please, just stick to the facts.

  • Charles Boyer Jun 4, 2015
    user avatar

    It's hard to know for sure where where Ms. Howlett's financial credentials were stolen, at least from the information in this story. It could well have been at the gas station, or even at Home Depot who has had two major data breaches in the past few years that were made public. Gas pumps can be especially dangerous places, as they can have "skimmers" installed to capture people's card data.

  • Dianne King Jun 4, 2015
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    I keep 2 accounts, one for debit card I use for purchases where I might be at risk. This account stays at $30 or less. I have also used prepaid cards for such. Age old advice, don't put all your eggs in one basket (someone might steal the basket).