Hot Little Numbers

Yesterday, I became reacquainted with “hack” – a harsh bit of a word.  On the one hand, hack is when you take big chops into a tree with your ax.  Nothing wrong with that. Hack is also whether you can cope with a given situation (i.e. “can you hack it?”).  Nothing wrong with that either.  But then again, hack is uncontrollable coughing caused by a bad cold.  Or even worse, hack is breaking into a computer or account, with not-so-nice intentions.

I experienced not-so-nice hack yesterday.  My wife and I are waging war with a cold we’ve had since Easter.  Together we’re coughing up a storm (sounds of thunder).  More to the subject at hand, our bank left a tidy little message on our answering machine last night. “…do we have reason to suspect fraudulent charges on our Visa card?”  So, I logged onto our account and scrolled down to the last couple of days of activity.  There the little devils hid – six small charges, all for the food-delivery service “DoorDash“.

Have I ever used DoorDash? (No.) Do I even know what DoorDash is? (I do now.) I have no use for DoorDash, nor them for me.  We live in the country; wide, open spaces in every direction.  The only way we get pizza delivery is to agree to meet the driver halfway.  The only way we get trash service is to pay “fuel surcharges” on top of the monthly bill.  We’re too far out for DoorDash.  Just for grins, I entered our address into DoorDash’s website and up popped my options.  Cool!  For thirty days I get free service on delivery orders above $10.  Not cool – I have zero nearby restaurants offering DoorDash.  Guess its pizza for dinner again tonight.

Data Source: FTC Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2016

But I digress.  Back to the hack.  To my bank’s “credit”, they handle minor fraud efficiently.  They noticed the hack before I did (bless their computer algorithms).  Once I called back and denied any knowledge of DoorDash, they blocked my card and promptly dropped a new one into the mail.  A few days from now, I’ll be off and charging again, the only real inconvenience being to update my linked accounts.

I wish I could leave it at that.  After all, this incident won’t cost me a penny.  Those who pay annual fees and interest charges unknowingly pay the cost of credit card fraud as well ($40 billion every year).  I just can’t get past the fact someone out there enjoyed six free DoorDash deliveries courtesy of my credit.

The scammers are winning this game hands-down. A physical credit card allows crazy-easy access to its critical information.  Take your pick as you regularly surrender your data: 1) through your phone, 2) through your computer, 3) through self-service devices (i.e. gas pump, ATM), and 4) by simply handing over your card at a place of business.

Left: actual card slot. Right: Skimmer data-collection “cover”.

My DoorDash friend picked up my numbers through one of the last two ways – I’m sure of it.  I never give out my credit card over the phone, and the websites I use have some form of verifiable security.  Alas, self-service devices and handing over cards are no-win situations.  With the former, you encounter skimmers (discrete data-collection devices placed over card readers).  With the latter, you risk the merchant or waitstaff copying your numbers when out of sight.  They probably use a skimmer as well.

The only real solution to credit card fraud – sad to say – is not using the card at all.  Pay for your gas with cash.  Write a check for the cash you would’ve taken out of the ATM.  Technology is improving the situation (i.e. Apple Pay, table-side pay systems), but until these approaches become the norm, you’ll continue to deal with situations where your card goes out-of-sight.

Frankly, I’m not asking for much here.  All I want is my bank to collar my DoorDash friend and let me know he/she faces the consequences of their actions.  But I know my little scammer is not worth their time.  Instead, he/she keeps getting free food, and annual fees and interest rates tick up a little bit more.

My brand new Visa card arrives later in the week.  I’ll activate it and update my linked accounts.  The inconvenience to me amounts to less than thirty minutes.  But the annoyance of it all – well – that feeling lasts a whole lot longer.  I just hope, by the time DoorDash gets to my neighborhood, I’m no longer perturbed and willing to give it a try.

Hope they’ll take cash.

Some content sourced from the March 2019 Upgraded Points article, “The Best Ways to Prevent Credit Card Fraud & Theft”.

Manipulation Games

In April of last year Starbucks modified its customer loyalty program, linking reward “stars” to dollars spent instead of store visits. Where previously you nabbed a free coffee for twelve trips to the cash register, you now need a total purchase value exceeding $63 .  According to CNN, “…customers were furious with the new program.”  Maybe so but those customers didn’t stay away either.  Starbucks’ 2016 gross sales were $21.3B, up 10% from its previous fiscal year.

Once upon a time I resisted customer rewards programs but over the years I’ve made peace with them.  I keep a couple dozen loyalty cards in the car or on my phone, ready to play whenever I visit this store or that restaurant.  I still control where, what, and how much I purchase.  Since I don’t keep a close eye on my rewards, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever I qualify for a freebie or a discount.

But here’s what I don’t like about rewards programs.  They’re designed to manipulate your spending habits.  That’s where Starbucks – like so many other merchants – gets a “fail” on my customer satisfaction test.  In addition to their stars program Starbucks sends emails every other day (which I unsubscribe from but always seem to return).  Those emails encourage me to purchase in certain ways or quantities or timeframes with the allure of “bonus” stars.  It’s a ruse; plain and simple and obvious.  No amount of “free” will ever tempt me to buy three breakfast sandwiches in five days.  Or three Frappuccino’s in three days.  (I don’ t even buy one breakfast sandwich or one Frappuccino.  Just coffee.)

Starbucks may annoy me with their sales tactics but I still buy their products.  The same cannot be said for credit card companies.  The newest Visa and MasterCard programs include sophisticated reward programs where spending is literally the only path out of debt.  Take Chase Bank’s Sapphire Reserve Visa card.  As trendy as this elegantly thin metal card appears to be, it’s utterly manipulative.  For starters, just holding the card in your hand sets you back $450 a year.  Then you’re encouraged to spend $4,000 in the first three months to qualify for 100,000 reward points (recently sliced to 50,000).  You’re also tempted by an instant $300 travel credit – which can only be used through Chase’s partners – as well as credits towards Global Entry, TSA Pre, and airline lounge fees.

No matter how you justify the rewards of Chase Sapphire Reserve you’re still spend-spend-a-spending to recoup the costs.  Consider Sapphire points are valued at 2.1 cents each.  The best-case scenario therefore – spending on travel or dining – still needs to add up to $15,000 before you’ve paid off the $450 annual fee.  Too rich for me.

Las Vegas is getting in on the rewards game too.  Sin City’s legendary “free drink” is about to enter the history books.  Slot machines now include small colored lights, easy to spot by the passing cocktail waitress.  If you’re “red” she’ll walk right past you without so much as a smile.  If you’re “green” you’ve fed your machine enough to earn a “free” drink.  The same goes for casino parking lots; spend enough inside the building and you’ll earn a voucher for outside.  Is it any wonder gambling is no longer the biggest source of revenue in Las Vegas (in favor of hotel, restaurant, and bar purchases)?

Despite these trends, I’ll keep playing the rewards game and very occasionally cashing in on anything “free”.  But I’ll also be wary of the subtle manipulations.  Just yesterday I received my umpteenth Southwest Airlines’ Visa card offer.  All I must do is spend $2,000 in three months for 50,000 points and no annual fee.  That application goes straight to the shredder every time.  My one and only Visa card with its no-frills-no-cost rewards program suits me just fine.