Chris Jupin never thought he'd create a firestorm when he wrote on his personal blog in September about a bogus $4.95 charge that appeared on his debit card. But traffic to his blog increased sharply, and hundreds of Web users chimed in saying, "me too." About half of them had something in common: They had recently purchased credit services from credit bureau Equifax.
Jupin's short post complained about a company named Digismarket.com, which says on its Web site that it sells electronic books. The company lists a New York State phone number. Jupin, a 25-year-old from Atlanta, had never heard of Digismarket, and had never ordered electronic books. He immediately canceled his credit card and e-mailed the company asking for a refund of the $4.95 charge, which it granted quickly.
"I was surprised and angry, and then you get nervous," Jupin said. He had no idea how Digismarket got his credit card number. "We do everything online. We pay our bills, shop. So once I noticed this I was in a frenzy notifying the bank, getting a new card. And then I checked my accounts every day, because you get a little paranoid after something like this."
Despite receiving the refund, Jupin wasn't satisfied. He filed a complaint with the New York State Better Business Bureau. He also posted a detailed note on his blog about what happened to him, including instructions on how to complain to the New York Attorney General's Office about Digismarket.
Complaints about other e-book sites
Comments from people who'd also found bogus charges from Digismarket streamed in to Jupin's blog. Dozens of consumers also filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau. Then in the past month, consumers began writing to complain about other e-book-related bogus charges from Web sites with names like MyLiberia.com.
On Monday, MyLiberia.com site posted this cryptic message:
"We are now having our major scheduled refit. This site will reopen soon," it read. "Thank you for your input during the consultation stage."
It's not clear if Digismarket, MyLiberia and other e-book sites generating complaints are linked, but they share the same tactics. In each case, consumers are charged small amounts, generally less than $10.
Many victims have something else in common: They say the cards that were charged for e-books also were recently used to pay for Equifax credit report-related products, such as a credit score or credit monitoring. Some of the consumers complained to Equifax. A company spokesperson has told consumers it is investigating.
The reports don't necessarily mean Equifax was hacked, and some victims say they never purchased anything at Equifax.com.
'No connection to Equifax'
Equifax spokesman David Rubinger told MSNBC.com that the firm's security experts have researched the incident and have concluded that "there is no connection to Equifax." The firm's internal security monitoring software shows no signs of any data thefts, he said.
Rubinger suggested that fraud victims' connection to Equifax is a coincidence, and merely a function of the popularity of Equifax products. After many large data breaches, companies often offer consumers free Equifax credit monitoring products. With tens of millions of consumers signed up for such products, it's possible that the connection between e-book victims and Equifax is purely casual.
Still, it's hard to ignore the long roll of victims allegedly hit by Digismarket who say they've used the same credit card to purchase an Equifax product in recent months.
"I spoke with Equifax and they stated that their site is probably one of the most secure sites out on the net," wrote one victim. "Equifax stated that they would turn the information into the fraud department for investigation. I'm not blaming Equifax, but since so many use their services and have the same problems I would like to see the matter looked into."
Credit card fraud victims sometimes discuss common points of purchase to try to determine a possible source of leaked credit cards. But apparent connections can be misleading. As part of the card transaction process, credit card numbers are passed between several financial entities and card processing firms. Any one could be the culprit in a data leak. And a disgruntled or corrupt employee at any point in the chain could steal numbers and sell them for profit.
The one company that could clear up the confusion isn't helping.
'Refunds for all'
By all reports, Digismarket is giving customers who complain prompt refunds. But the phone number listed on its Web site was inoperative on Monday, and the firm didn't respond to e-mails sent by MSNBC.com to its customer support address.
Tony Barbera, investigations manager for the New York Better Business Bureau, said letters sent to Digismarket's Long Island address are simply returned.
Other companies accused of bogus e-book related charges aren't helpful either.
MyLiberia.com offers no contact information on its Web site, but one victim posted its customer support phone number, with an area code indicating it was near Portland, Ore. When I called the number, an operator with a thick accent answered. She said her name was "Anna," but would not say where she was located.
She was, however, quick to issue a refund. When I told her my name was Bob Sullivan, she found an entry for someone named "Tom Sullivan," whom she said had downloaded a book named "How to Lose Weight."
Without asking for any additional verification information -- even a credit card account number – she promised to issue a refund on the spot.
"I'm sorry for the situation. If you haven't bought anything from us I will credit back your account," she said.
It's not clear when the e-book scam began. A few consumers say they saw fake e-book charges beginning in February, but it appears there was a flurry of activity in September.
Credit card thieves often create fake businesses to process bogus transactions -- that's much easier than using stolen cards to make purchases at legitimate retailers, and one of the quickest ways to turn stolen numbers into cash.
It is unusual for the fraudulent Web sites to issue refunds, however.
The refund is cold comfort to another victim, Victoria Volkov. While she also got her money back quickly from Digismarket, she figures many consumers might not be quite so diligent in checking their bills. That means many people may be unknowingly paying for e-books they didn't want and never ordered, she said.
"It looks like a lot of people were fraudulently charged by this company, and, of course, not all of them notice this small charge and contact Digismarket," she said. "People should be alerted somehow."
BBB's Barbera said it's a good idea for consumers to scan their bills and look for bogus charges – especially during the busy holiday season.
"Monitor your bills to make sure all your charges make sense, and when they don't, don't be afraid to call up your credit card company and ask, 'What is this?'" Barbera said.