Friday, December 9, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Card Trouble

by Peggy Robin

My friend went to use her credit card to buy a train ticket for a last-minute trip out of town due to a family emergency, but her card was rejected. When she called her card's customer service number, she found that a lock had been placed on further purchases, triggered by one suspicious overseas charge for less than twenty dollars. My friend was on hold to speak to a customer service rep while the minutes to the train's departure were ticking away. All she needed to do was explain that her son, who was abroad, had bought the item in question and that it was completely legitimate, but of course she had to go through a complicated voicemail maze first, followed by a seemingly endless hold. By the time she got her card cleared for use, she had just time enough to make the final call for boarding. If only her long-lost true love had been on that train, it would have been the perfect ending scene to a romantic movie. Instead, there was just one more groan-inducing moment, when, moments after stowing her bag, she realized to her horror that she had left her credit card back in the station, on the seat in the waiting area from which she’d made her frantic phone call to reactivate her card.

Fortunately, when she explained the situation to the conductor, he told her there was still time for her to go back and retrieve it, and she did so at a gallop, making it back just before the train pulled out. Whew.

My most recent experience with the customer service department of my credit card was less suspenseful but still had its little moment of drama. I got a phone message asking me to confirm a recent purchase…for twelve thousand dollars! (I have an early warning system in place that lets me know immediately when there is any unusual activity on my card, which means that I can deal with problems before I am locked out of using my card when I need it.) Well, I definitely did not make that charge. As soon as the vendor was named, I understood exactly what had happened: The charge had come in without an essential element, the decimal point. $120.00 becomes $12000 when incorrectly recorded. The vendor immediately acknowledged the mistake and the problem was taken care of in one mercifully brief phone call.

For me a big part of the relief is that I didn’t have to change my credit card number. It seems to me that by the time I’ve had a card long enough to end up knowing all sixteen digits by heart, that’s exactly when some sort of security breach is bound to occur, resulting in a changed number. The last time this happened, it was because a large retailer had reason to believe that tens of thousands of its customers’ files had been compromised. I had not had any false charges appear on my statement, but I accepted that an account number change was needed for my protection.

However, the time before that, I had gone over my statement and discovered a charge from a restaurant I knew I had never patronized. It wasn’t a huge charge – in fact, it wasn’t even large enough to be a normal  sit-down meal for two. But I was sure I had never been there in my life. I called the credit card company and after discussing the situation with the customer service rep, was pleased to hear that the charge would be voided. But less pleased to learn that I would need to begin the long, slow process of memorizing a new sixteen digit number.

About ten days later, after I had already received my shiny new plastic card in the mail and activated it, I had a sudden epiphany about what had actually transpired: We had not, in fact, been out to eat on the night in question and then experienced amnesia about the name of the place but we had picked up take-out food from a local restaurant/deli. The problem was that both the name and location of the place that sold us the prepared dinners bore absolutely no resemblance to the name and identifying information that appeared on the credit card statement. In other words, that take-out place did their billing under a completely different business name and address. You might think that any company following this practice would inform its customers about how its bills will appear, or at least, when there’s an inquiry, would let the credit card customer service rep in on the secret. But that didn’t happen in this case.

Though it was too late to resurrect my old credit card number, I did call to restore the legitimate charge to my newly renumbered account. I guess that’s a happy ending to this story, at least for the business that sold me the food. As I listened to my friend tell her story about the questionable charge and its consequences, I was just grateful that mine did not involve a race for a train.

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