What's All This Credit Card Stuff, Anyhow?

Oct. 13, 2003
While I was cruising up the A30 from Penzance to London, I stopped to buy 28 liters of petrol (about £20). I pumped the gas and tried to pay. "Your credit card is not valid." Oh, jolly. How about my backup credit card? "That's not working...

While I was cruising up the A30 from Penzance to London, I stopped to buy 28 liters of petrol (about £20). I pumped the gas and tried to pay. "Your credit card is not valid." Oh, jolly. How about my backup credit card? "That's not working either." I gave the man a £20 note and vowed that as soon as I got to my hotel in London, I would get to the bottom of this. My credit card had worked fine just the day before, paying for lodging. Why had it suddenly stopped working?

When I got to London, I called my wife. She told me the Fraud Squad of my credit company had called her. It wanted me to explain what was going on. "Why didn't you just tell them I am in England and trying to use my credit card to pay my bills?" I asked. Nancy said that the company refused to listen to her and wanted to hear it from me. "Here, call this 800 number," she said. But you can't normally call an 800 number from overseas. After a few rounds of arguing, I finally got a phone number to call from London. I called and told the company that it had better stop cutting off my credit.

The clerk said the credit card company's computer had detected a "nonstandard usage pattern" and shut off my credit. I explained that I had been going to England in July and using that credit card every year for at least five years, and if I did not use it in England, that would be a nonstandard usage pattern. The gal agreed to reinstate my credit, but she said there was nothing anybody could do to stop the computer from cutting off my credit.

My Visa card just happens to be a "United Mileage Plus Card," issued by First USA Bank. (You would think a company linked to United Airlines might expect me to use it on a trip, far from home!) But some other credit companies are also very touchy. I know one guy with a different card, and that company shut off his credit when he used it 140 miles from home. The company didn't even tell him until a week later. So if you're going on a "long trip" of, say, 100 or 200 miles from home, don't be surprised if your credit card is shut down by an overzealous computer. And if you go overseas, make sure you have a "real" telephone number, not just an 800 number, so you can call your bank and complain.

Even when my credit card was shut down, my debit card kept working. So it's always good to be prepared with several kinds of "credit," especially while overseas. I also keep a couple of spare, backup, unused credit cards at home in case I return from a trip with cards shut down or missing.

I finally got a reply from the credit card company: "If you are going on a trip, notify us in advance, and we may be able to keep the computer from shutting off your credit." As you may have noticed, I'm on a lecture tour to 31 cities, and many more cities in between, where I might buy gas or a meal. So I sent the company the list of 31 cities, by certified, registered mail. It cost me $9.85. I replied, "I would not REALLY want to have to take your stupid credit card, and shove it up your nose because you cut off my credit in one of these 31 cities, or adjacent cities." I also told the company that it had never given me any warning that it might cut off my credit if I used my card far from home.

I got a nice letter saying, "Even though you have informed us you will use your credit card on that trip, our computers may still shut down your credit if it sees something it doesn't like.... In that case, just call 1-800-123-4567 to ask us to re-start your credit." Not bloody likely. I expect to be burned by these idiots, and I'm prepared to chop up their credit card. Details to follow. You should just be prepared to recover when you are burned by your credit card company. Keep good phone numbers with you to complain.

Comments invited!
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