Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Pattern of Unusual Behavior

Salon haircut: $30
Two tracksuits and a pair of trousers from the clearance rack at a women's clothing store: $52
Tank of gas: Priceless, apparently, because my credit card got denied

You know how credit card companies use software to pick up patterns in your spending and to try to detect fraud? Well, sometimes they just don't work so hot.

I am one of those people who pays for everything with a credit card. I hate carrying cash, and I don't like writing checks or using a checking account debit card. Oh, don't worry. We don't live above our means; we pay my one credit card off every month. But I use that card for everything: food, gas, medicine, upkeep on the house, clothes, books (yes, books are essential for living as far as I am concerned.)

So Saturday found me doing a little upkeep on myself. I got my hair cut and was lured into the clothing store next door by a big red banner advertising 70% off winter items. I needed to buy gas next. But lo and behold, my trusty old credit card got denied. Loudly and embarrassingly denied as I had to forego "pay at the pump" convenience when a message popped up telling me to go see the cashier.

I panicked. I called home and was reassured by my incredibly financially responsible hubby that he had just checked our account the day before and there were no unusual charges and we were well below our limit. Plus, I had just used the darn thing twice without event. He determined the problem was with the gas station.

So I turned around and hit a station on the other side of the road. Where my card was denied again (albeit quietly this time, as the pay-at-the-pump machine just spelled out that the transaction was cancelled.)


I called the customer service number with my heart in my throat. I was convinced that despite Jason's reassurances, I was a victim of fraud.

And here's where it gets interesting. According to my credit card company, I don't buy gas very often. This comes as a big surprise to me. I buy gas every 7-10 days; how much more often do "normal" people buy it? And also according to them, my biggest expenses are for groceries and clothes (this last one made me laugh out loud; after all, I mourned the loss of a 10-year-old pair of jeans a short while ago.) When I decided to go nuts Saturday and buy (oh, my!) a tank of gas after spending less than $100 on myself, it triggered the fraud protection software because it was "an unusual pattern of behavior."

In a way, it was. I don't spend much money on myself. I don't do the regular manicure or pedicure or massage thing and while $30 is a little ridiculous for a haircut I only do that every 6-8 weeks. I buy clothes for myself in two spurts a year: the month after Christmas when all the winter stuff is at least half off and again before school starts. It's rare for me to spend over $100 in either of these spurts (which I why I had to crack up when the customer service person told me it's my second-highest category; I hope my Christmas gift purchases is what has made that a little skewed.) I may be emotionally high-maintenance, but in a fiscal sense I don't require huge amounts of money to get buy. A true shopping spree would be unusual for me. I get that.

But why oh why did it deny my gas?

It was a question the super-nice customer service rep had a hard time answering. All I heard that made sense was that she would try to change the formula to reflect my American need for gas for my car. I also learned something quite scary at the end of the call.

"So will I be able to get gas today and to go grocery shopping? That's my next stop and I don't want to get denied there."

"Yes, ma'am. We're showing that you go to Kroger a lot so that will never be blocked for you."

Oh, boy! Hear that, identity theives? You could steal my card and go spend $1000 at the grocery store on lobsters and frozen turkeys and beef tenderloins and cheap plastic patio furniture and whatever other "luxuries" exist there, and my company wouldn't even register that as a blip on the radar!

Just don't try to buy gas after your spree. Because that would be too much.

Have any of you ever triggered your fraud protection stuff? And just how often do normal people such as yourselves buy gas?


Robert K. said...

The only time I got caught was at the Hong Kong airport when I was coming home from Japan in 1998. One of the more annoying traits of many international airports is that you have to pay an airport tax, in cash, after you arrive. I guess it would be too much trouble to tack it on to the price of the ticket. Anyway, I tried to use Mom's trusty Visa, only to have it denied. The only cash I had on hand was some Australian currency, so I had to go get it converted to HK currency (at some godawful rate, of course).

When I got home and inquired, I found out that Hong Kong is a big heroin trafficking hub, so an attempt to pay a $15 tax at the airport was taken to be evidence of identity theft or fraud or something. *shrug* I guess the next time I'm in Hong Kong, I'll make sure I have enough cash on hand to pay the tax.

Karen said...

We had this happen a few weeks ago too. We bought a tv and dvd player, no problem. But when we tried a few hours later to buy cables to hook them up, the purchase got flagged for fraud. I guess someone could fraudulently buy a tv and dvd player, but God forbid they try to hook it up.