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Consumer alert

Mysterious credit card charge may have hit millions of users

By Mitch Lipka
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2009

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Several Internet complaint boards are filled with comments from credit card customers from coast to coast who have noticed a mysterious charge for about 25 cents on their statements.

The charge shows up on statements as coming from "Adele Services" in Melville, N.Y. There is no business by that name listed in Melville, or registered to any business anywhere in New York, for that matter.

Two theories of what is going on have advanced on message boards and among consumer advocates: Someone is trying to find out whether an illegally obtained credit card number will work before making a bigger charge, or they're trying to rip off tiny amounts from tons of people.

The latter theory has more credibility at the moment. The Better Business Bureau in Louisville reports that, at least so far, those who have been hit with the small charge have yet to get slammed with a bigger charge. The bureau speculates that the number of possible victims could be in the millions.

It's not clear how the numbers got in the hands of the people making the charge, but consumer advocates say it is most likely through either a data theft or someone using a computer to generate numbers.

Former Massachusetts assistant attorney general Edgar Dworsky, who runs ConsumerWorld.org, said the scam reminded him of an old adage: "It's easier to steal $1 from a million people than $1 million from one person," he said.

Most people, Dworsky said, are likely to overlook or ignore the small charge. "Isn't that the perfect scam, when the victim doesn't even know something has been taken?" he said.

Take a look at your credit card statements, and if the charge is there, don't let it slide. It's what the thieves want you to do. Instead, file a dispute with your credit card company, and lodge complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov) - which is run by the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Federal law enforcement officials tend to react when the complaints reach a certain volume.

HAVE A CONSUMER QUESTION? E-mail your questions to consumer@globe.com.