It's a text or phone call that can ruin a vacation.
Dear cardmember, we have detected potential fraud on your account and have placed a hold on your account.
Years ago, an alert like that would be rare. But as digital fraud proliferates and banks set their warning systems to a hair trigger, a card freeze is something that now happens to most of us at least once in our traveling lives—even if our transactions are legitimate.
The Financial Times reports that fraud alerts rose dramatically during the lockdowns of 2020. And because "banks find it hard to distinguish between unusual account activity and criminal behavior," says the FT, holds are often triggered by algorithms that detect even the slightest shifts in your normal spending patterns.
That's why you should always notify your bank and your lenders when you're about to go on the road. You can usually log into your account before your vacation to register future travel.
But in cases of genuine fraud when your bank decides to issue you an entirely new card number, advance travel warnings won't matter. Most institutions will send that replacement card to you immediately once you establish your identity.
If you're traveling internationally or remotely, that package may take a few days to reach you. While you wait, the obvious and most ideal workaround would be to simply switch to a different card in your wallet.
But for many of us with leaner finances, alternative credit cards aren't an option. And if the alert is placed on your ATM or debit card, it's unlikely you'll even have a substitute.
You can still get cash off the frozen card, though—and the solution is so simple you'll be surprised you didn't think of it.
Here's how: After a hold is placed, banks invariably wish to speak to the affected account holder on the phone to verify recent transactions and determine the authenticity of the suspicious charges or withdrawal attempts.
When you're speaking to the bank's fraud detection agent on the phone, ask if the bank will be willing to unlock your card long enough for you to make an ATM withdrawal of a specific amount you both agree to.
After all, you'll have just validated your identity as the legal account holder.
If, during the same conversation, you can also tell your bank the location of the ATM that you'd like to use to withdraw some emergency funds to help you survive until the replacement card arrives, then your bank should be able to supervise that single transaction as it happens, watching from their computer screens.
And if you can conduct the ATM withdrawal while you're still on the phone with your bank, that would be even safer.
So if your card is blocked for any suspicious reason while you're on the road, the first thing you should do is scope out an ATM nearby. Then, when you speak to your bank to arrange for the new card, you can also arrange to withdraw some emergency cash.
With most banks, as long as you can validate your identity with the phone agent, it really works.