Plastic doesn't always mean elastic

Changing your life pattern isn't easy -- especially when you're not really in charge.

April 11, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

Sometimes you wind up in a Dunkin' Donuts at the Baltimore Travel Plaza calling your credit-card company because it won't cover the price of a round-trip bus ticket to New York and you think to yourself: "It's come to this." And you look at the sky and make gestures seen in Yiddish theater and you say: "What, what, already?"

Because the round trip is maybe $48.50 and you know there's plenty of room on the credit-card limit but the woman at the bus terminal takes your credit card and passes it through the machine and makes a face like she just smelled a bad herring. She passes it through again, makes another herring face and hands back the card.

Declined, she says. They're saying the charge is declined.

So you're standing there with video games blasting away and a dead credit card in your hand. Fortunately, you have the necessary cash, which you pass to the woman, whose face has resumed its normal expression in which it appears to have merely smelled a customer.

Something must be done. Because this has happened before. The credit gods are at it again. Months before, a telephone call comes a day after my return from a business trip to Aspen, Colo. A cross-country ski place calls to say the ski-rental charge, maybe $20, was declined by the credit-card company.

A phone call later, the woman from the credit-card company is explaining how the sequence of charges that week in Aspen did not fit my "pattern." This raised a flag. For my own good, the charge was refused.

Who knew? I have a "pattern." My "pattern," it appears, has great meaning. It means that someone in an office somewhere who did not know I was on a business trip at company expense looked at a computer screen and saw that someone with my credit card was in Aspen doing something totally out of my "pattern," such as visiting a classy place and having a good time. It's clear what they're thinking.

"Wait a minute ... look at this. The guy's in Aspen? What's this? Over $200 a night for a room? And look here: bills for dinner at three restaurants that we happen to know use tablecloths. He's having what, a life? This can't be right. Somebody must have stolen the card. Somebody who actually knows how to live is romping in Aspen while Mr. Lucky sits there in Baltimore sorting through that mound of Pizza Boli's discount coupons. ..."

They have computers to do this sort of thing, some branch of artificial intelligence technology that actually learns as it goes along. My credit card uses a computer company in Omaha, Neb., to track my purchases and find the "pattern" and keep an eye on the pattern like a nurse watching monitors in ICU. One too many blips out of rhythm and whammo! -- they rush in with the credit industry equivalent of a STAT team to stop the bleeding.

Sometimes they just shut you off. More often, a message pops up on the card machine in the store: "Call issuer." The gods wish to speak. They want to know it's really you stepping outside the dreary limits of your particular pattern -- "What's up with the Versace? Suddenly you have taste?" -- or if it's someone else.

There are patterns and more patterns. There is your personal pattern, and then there are general patterns of credit-card fraud, says Robert B. McKinley, president of CardWeb.com, a firm that monitors the credit industry. Let's say you notice somebody using a credit card to buy $2 worth of gas, then the next charge you see is $2,500 for an Armani suit. Chances are someone just stole or found a card, went to the gas station to make sure it was still active, then went "Wheeeeeee ..."

It all depends on the "pattern." But the precise outlines of the "pattern" must remain unknown. I make a few calls and talk to some very nice people at the bank that issues my credit card. They tell me just so much but they cannot say more. The ways of the gods are nothing if not mysterious.

"I can't get into that," says James Cosman, executive director of consumer credit at BankBoston. "We don't want to publish that."

All right, but what was up with the bus ticket? After I paid for the thing in cash, I had a few minutes to kill, so I called the credit-card company. It kept me on hold so long I almost missed the bus. So it's still a mystery. Cosman says he'll see what he can find out.

His assistant, Judy Lamarre, calls back to say that the bus ticket purchase apparently triggered a "fraud alert," which happens "if they see unusual activity on a card."

Unusual activity?

"The day before, you purchased a plane ticket, Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale," she says.

Correct.

"I think they just thought it was unusual," says Lamarre. "One day you're in Fort Lauderdale, the next day you're in Baltimore."

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