When’s the last time you checked your credit-card statements? Not just a quick glance to see how the total got so high, but scrutinizing even the small charges to see if any of them sound suspicious? Those small entries are where the danger lurks, you know. Like zombie memberships that you canceled once, but mysteriously come back to life, patiently extracting an unnoticeable amount from your credit card every few months. Or trivial costs that creep up slowly from $5.99 to $6.99 to $7.99 and so on, taking advantage of the long time between billing cycles, knowing that your attention is likely to wander.

Those are called “grey charges.” Not fraudulent, but certainly unwanted. And expensive in the long run. If you read the fine print for each online transaction you engage in, you’s probably be aware of these – but who reads all that fine print?

What To Watch Out For

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of scams. Sure, we probably have more time than we used to for scanning paragraphs of rules and columns of tiny figures, but many of us aren’t that comfortable doing it. Besides, if someone’s getting a bit absentminded they may honestly not be sure if they really signed up for some service – or already paid a particular bill. And catching recurring charges often requires comparing several billing cycles, to see if an item reappears.

Here are a few other quasi-legal “grey charges”you should be watching out for:

  • Unwanted subscriptions appended to an otherwise valid transaction.
  • Duplicate charges (which could be honest mistakes) where you’re charged twice for the same thing.
  • Unexpected auto-renewals that you didn’t cancel before some cutoff date.
  • “Negative-option marketing,” where you must actively opt out to escape an unwanted extra product.
  • Phantom charges for something you never received, like an extra day added by a car-rental agency.
  • “Free trials” that silently turn into bona-fide subscriptions.

One way to protect yourself from these schemes is to do an online search for the phrase “grey charges” every so often, note what people have been complaining about lately, and see if any of the scams match entries on your bank statement. You may even find a solution to one of your problems on the web: one woman recently complained about a mysterious recurring charge labeled “MSFT” that neither the police or her bank could help her with. A few hours later a kid from the University of Toledo logged on to inform her that the charge was very likely related to an Xbox that someone in the family was using, and the perpetrator was Microsoft.

What You Should Do

When you find some little zombie nibbling at your bank account, don’t keep it a secret. Call the bank that issued your card and let them know that you didn’t authorize the charge. And if you’re used to chatting online through social media such as Twitter or Facebook, make a point of describing what happened to you and how you spotted the scam. There are people just like you who may be able to use the information.

There’s even a free online start-up, BillGuard, that compiles complaints from banks and consumers, scans your credit-card statements for you, and lets you know when something suspicious pops up. Then you decide for yourself whether the charge is valid.

So you’ve got no excuse not to fight back against grey charges. Start taking a better look at your bank statements, poke around online to see what the latest scams are, and when you run across one of them, tell the world. Together we can beat these online pickpockets.

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