Friday, February 26, 2010

Some words to the wise

Today was my last day at my temp job at the behemoth-megabank-which-shall-remain-nameless. The job ended up being an interesting and educational experience, but I was glad to be done with it. I do want to tell you about a few of the things I've learned. HOWEVER, I am NOT employed by or associated with VISA, nor am I speaking in any official capacity as an agent of any bank and/or business. These are just some tips I learned that I consider valuable to know, and I want to share them with you. (I hope that's enough of a disclaimer to prevent my getting sued or arrested. I hope.)
I worked in checkcard disputes, handling cases dealing with charges to people's debit cards or checkcards--the kind of card the bank gives you (usually labeled with VISA or MasterCard, depending on the bank) that is connected to your checking account. It was nice to help people out when they'd been unfairly charged and gotten into trouble through no fault of their own.

Still, it seemed like we were always seeing disputes against the same old merchants--Internet merchants like those "make money on the internet!" and "Internet Bizkit" places, or all those sites that sell tooth-whitening kits, or the many software download sellers. A lot of these online merchants are scammers; not all, but many. You'll click OK on something, and then they'll hit your card for $1.99, and then before you can cancel that "trial membership," they've hit your card again for $79.99 about six times, and the transactions are set up as recurring billings, so each month, you're getting tagged bunches of times for fees and stuff. And half the time, the customer has never even heard of the company they're being billed by. That got old really fast, man. There's a lot of bad business happening on those Internets.

I saw scams and stuff happen every day, and it was so disheartening. People will sign up for one thing; then they'll get all these pop-up offers for other products and they'll think they're clicking on "cancel," (at least that's what they always tell us), but suddenly they're getting billed by six different places for phantom services and memberships.There's usually no working phone number to call, and so they call their bank in desperation after losing sometimes hundreds of dollars in charges and NSF fees.

The lesson? Be careful what web sites you enter your credit card information on, people! I always found myself saying, "Stay off the internet if you can't keep your debit card number to yourself!" I usually don't buy anything online unless it's through Amazon; I trust them. I never saw one dispute against them in the entire time I worked at the bank. So if I can't get it on Amazon, I won't buy it online. All those TV commercials where you can buy your ShamWow or your magic litter box or whatever online -- just go to Walgreen's or someplace; they usually have an "as seen on TV!" section, and you can buy the item right there and not worry about who's scamming onto your checkcard number.

And it's not just internet merchants who'll screw up checkcard transactions. Today, I handled a case where a woman had gone to her hair salon, paid the bill for $44, and left. No big deal. The merchant charged her $44, she signed the slip, and she thought she was done. That's usually how it works, right? Well, not this time. Somehow, the transaction went through twice on that day, then at least once per day for the next two days before she noticed she was hundreds of dollars short when she went to balance her checking account. (Checkcards are connected to your checking account, so it's all the same thing--only with your checkcard, you have certain consumer protections granted to you by VISA--or Mastercard, whatever your bank uses.)

So she called in, filed disputes, and today I pulled up her cases. She'd caught most of the first duplicate postings (that's what we call it when the merchant charges your card more than once for the same purchase), but there were MORE charges she didn't even know about yet. I called her and told her about them, and we set up some more cases, each time issuing her a provisional credit for the amount of the charge so she wouldn't be missing that money because of the merchant's errors (something that not all banks do, but you should look into whether your bank does that when you dispute a charge--it's nice, especially when make a big purchase like an airline ticket or something and you get double-billed or something). She was charged a total of nine times before I was able to block her card for fraud and order her a new checkcard.

The crazy thing? Each transaction had the same transaction date (the date they actually swiped the card) but different posting days (the day the bank actually takes the money from your account). How is that possible, you ask? Who knows. That's e-banking for you. It's a mystery.

The moral of this story is to watch your checking account history like a hawk. Just the other day, I got gas (pay-at-the-pump), used my checkcard as credit like always, and went on my merry way. The next time I went to balance my account, I noticed that the transaction had posted twice! But I had only gassed up once! Lucky for me, the merchant had caught the error and issued a credit to my account via the card number. All this happened without my even realizing it, and I check my account like every other day! Good thing I wasn't down to a few pennies in my account, or I'd have incurred some NSF fees.

Most times, the merchant doesn't catch an error like this, so it's up to you to watch for duplicate postings. Another important thing: if the merchant hadn't caught the error and instead of using my card as "credit," I'd used my PIN number to make the transaction, I would've been out of luck if somehow the computer banking network or whatever (it's voodoo, man) had charged me twice for the same tank of gas. A PIN transaction is just like cash; you have no chargeback rights if the merchant makes an error. If you're lucky, you can show the error to the merchant and he'll fix it. But if not--you have no recourse. ALWAYS use your card as credit.

Here's another important thing: Merchants are NOT ALLOWED, under their merchant agreement with VISA, to charge extra for checkcard/credit card transactions. So those gas stations that charge a certain price if you pay cash and a higher price if you pay with a card? They are violating the terms of their agreement with VISA, and if you threaten to report them (and I mean don't budge on this! and do it BEFORE you let them run your card!) to your VISA and/or your bank, they should back down and charge you the cash price. Same goes for those "minimum amount to use credit/checkcard" signs you see at lots of restaurants and convenience stores; that too is a violation of their agreement with VISA. If they take VISA, they HAVE to treat your checkcard or credit card the same as if you were paying with cash. Otherwise, it's a fine up to $10,000 per occurrence from VISA. Just run that by 'em.

If they still don't budge, LEAVE. Don't pay a penny more, don't agree to a minimum purchase amount, if you're paying with your VISA-labeled card.

Oh -- one important point on the whole watching your checking account history like a hawk: don't mistake holds (often designated as "pending" in your online account history) for actual posted transactions. Many times, especially when you go out to eat at restaurants, the merchant will run your card once for the amount of the meal, and then run it again for the amount of the meal plus tip. Usually, when they're counting out their tills and balancing the day's transactions and stuff, they'll void out the extra hold (either the one with the tip, the one without the tip, or both--and there might even be a third one with your actual tip amount added in). Usually they void those other holds out. But--not always. You'll have to dispute those.

And here's a crazy thing: if you were to check your account online while you were still at the restaurant, you'd see all those holds--all listed as "pending"--and your account would actually show a balance minus all those hold amounts, as though you'd actually paid for your meal however many times! Again, don't ask me why this happens or how -- it's voodoo! But it does. It's kinda like when you deposit a check and it takes a couple of days to clear before you can touch that money. Anyway, if the restaurant does their accounting right, they'll delete all but your actual transacted amount and those holds will be released and that money will once again be available to you. But until then, it's "pending" or on hold. Watch the holds, but don't think they're the same as posts. They'll usually just vanish by the next time you check online.

Once again, the moral: watch your account history.

A few notes on those "consumer protections" I mentioned earlier. Now, the bank I worked for used VISA for all their checkcards, so that's all I know about.

1. Any purchase you make with a VISA-labeled card is usually refundable for 14 days after the transaction date.

2. If a merchant tries to tell you a VISA purchase is not refundable or an item is not returnable, etc., look at your receipt. Does it have that fact stated on the receipt? If so, is it right there near your signature, or is it on the back of the receipt in tiny print? Or maybe the merchant has it on a sign somewhere near the cash register? Remember this: that non-refundable stuff has to be right near your signature in order for it to be binding. If it's on the back of the receipt or not on the receipt at all, you have every right to return an item or cancel a reservation or whatever. Your signature is your agreement to abide by whatever terms the merchant decides--but the signature has to be right near those terms in order to show that you agreed to the terms.

3. Plane tickets? Not refundable, not transferable. You're out of luck there.

4. Hotel charges for things like smoking in the room, damages to the room, missing towels, etc.? Unless you sign a receipt for the add-on charges, you can dispute them as unauthorized. When you register for a hotel, you're agreeing to pay for a room. Charges they decide to add on after you've checked out and left (and thus cannot consent to be billed to your checkcard) can be disputed by you as unauthorized. Don't get me wrong: You still the owe the hotel for towels if you steal their towels. But you have the right to decide when and how you're going to pay for those towels. Also note that in order to dispute a charge as unauthorized, the bank will usually have to block your card for fraud and issue you a replacement card. So bear that in mind before you go calling all sorts of things "unauthorized."

5. Rental car places have certain things they CAN add on to your bill--because their contracts state it and you've usually had to initial things on the contract like refueling fees, traffic tickets you get while in possession of the car, or late-return charges. However, they can't charge you for damages to the vehicle, smoking in the vehicle, etc. without your consent. Again, you do owe them the money, but you decide when and how to pay it.

6. When you do see something funny on your account history, call the merchant first. Do whatever you have to -- show them a printout of your duplicate posting or whatever -- to resolve the issue yourself. If the merchant is a dick about it, THEN go to your bank. VISA requires you to make a good-faith effort to resolve the issue yourself before you bug them (via your bank) about it. When you go to the merchant, go armed with your receipt, a printout from your online banking, or whatever -- take the necessary information to show the merchant that he/she has made a mistake.

7. If you're paying a bill by phone or online (remotely), any error your make -- entering an extra zero, paying the wrong merchant (it happens all the time!), etc. -- is NOT disputable. That's your error, and the bank can't help you with it because you participated in the transaction.

8. SAVE YOUR RECEIPTS. For everything! Cash, credit, debit cards, checks, whatever -- save your receipts until you've seen the charge clear on your online banking, AND you've allowed a little more time for any e-banking goblins to make merry with your checkcard number. I save my receipts for the month; once I've seen them clear and the month is over, then I'll get rid of them.

9. As many disputes as we dealt with each day, they comprised only a tiny fraction of the number of checkcard transactions that go through without a hitch each day. Until that weird pay-at-the-pump thing happened, I'd NEVER seen anything wrong on my bank account. Of course, I didn't used to check it quite so carefully as I do now! I would just say stuff like, "Hmmm. I don't remember that charge... but there it is, so I must've made it!" I look back at myself and hang my head in shame.

Take care of your money!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

In which I renounce my Jewishness

First, a little background: For many many years now, I've told anyone who would listen that I'm Jewish. Why? because I like the Jewish faith. Their history, their traditions, their mystique--it's really interesting to me, so one day I asked a Jewish friend of mine (a Sabra Jew, no less!) if I could be Jewish too. She may have been humoring me (maybe), but she said I could be a Jew if two other Jews said yes too! Forget that whole mother/father issue; I could be a Jew!

In my travels over the years since then, I eventually found two other Jewish friends who said sure, I could be a Jew if I really wanted to, so since then I've called the Jews "my people." I'm not exactly a devout or orthodox Jew; I don't eat Kosher or go to temple or anything. But I read a lot about my people and our struggle, and I identify with them. Elie Weisel is a true hero. I went to the Holocaust Museum, I study, I learn. I wrap my presents in "Happy Hannukah" paper. Every year at Hannukah, I used to ask Kat for a dreidel! (She and our daughter Em did not recognize my Jewishness, by the way, so I'm still waiting for that dreidel. And the menorah. Hmph.)

So today, as I'm driving home, I'm listening to NPR and I hear a report about the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmud al-Mabhuh. I'd read recently that Princess Sparklepony favorite Tzipi Livni has been saying things like "The fact that a terrorist was killed, and it doesn't matter if it was in Dubai or Gaza, is good news to those fighting terrorism." Okay, I see--so we want terrorists dead. I understand that.

But is Hamas a terrorist organization? Have we established that as undeniable fact? Yes, the guy leads a group that regularly fires missiles into Jerusalem. But the Israelis are always firing missiles into the Palestinian areas, not to mention setting up illegal settlements on land that isn't theirs but the Palestinians.

And sure, the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization but, in my opinion, the Bush-led U.S. was a terrorist government (and we still have Abu Ghraib and Gitmo to deal with, by the bye; they haven't gone away), so what does that label really mean? Sarah Palin has called President Obama a terrorist, so really--what does that label mean? What's the difference between someone who's just trying to defend himself and his people and someone who's actively trying to hurt innocent people and bring down their governments?

I've listened to the back and forth as the hugely outgunned and outmanned Hamas-led Palestinians fight for a bit of their homeland against the military behemoth of Israel. Who's the terrorist in that fight? Quite frankly, I think it depends on your point of view.

So back to the NPR story. The reporter interviewed a few Israelis who are actually proud and telling jokes about the assassination. People who happen to have a vague resemblance to the people who've been accused of being involved with the assassination are living it up, enjoying their look-alike celebrity.

Um... someone's dead. Have the Israeli people really gone so far down the "eye for an eye" path that they cheer when others are killed? They tell jokes about it?

Imagine that some U.S. operatives killed an important Iranian, someone who wasn't in a government position but was nonetheless the visible leader of an Irani movement. Would we Americans laugh and regard those U.S. operatives as heroes? Would we tell jokes about the assassination? Imagine we killed effing Fidel Castro. Would you or I really make up jokes about that?

I think there are a few Americans who might laugh and celebrate such an act. But I think they'd be likely to have a sticker like this on their gas-sucking truck:

and they'd probably look like this:or this:
So, as much as I've enjoyed lighting up my little Jewish candles and wearing my Happy Hannukah socks, I'm not so thrilled with my people right now.

I just don't know if I want to be associated anymore with people who would cheer a political assassination, no matter whether the victim "deserves" it or not.

P.S.--I hope none of my Jewish readers are offended by my desire to be Jewish and calling Jews "my people." And I hope no one's offended by my daring to question the actions of Israel and Israelis. It's just how I feel.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Seen at work returns!

After a long hiatus during which I couldn't find my USB connector for my phone, I bring you an action-packed Seen at Work!

First up: It probably doesn't come as a surprise to you that bank workers generate a lot of documents containing highly personal information--things like your bank account numbers, your balance, specific transaction details, your debit card numbers, etc. Each day, I probably generate at least seven or eight such pieces of paper that need to be shredded. We have big shred bins with locks on them, and we have big shredders around the building in case you feel a DIY shred moment coming on.

Still, who would've known we'd have the actual shredder that tried to eat Whoopie's character in Jumping Jack Flash?

You can even see a piece of her dress--the one that gets caught in the shredder!--still on the shredder! Every time I pass, I remember my mom's favorite scene, the Diana Ross "You Can't Hurry Love" lip-sync scene! It's obvious they spared no expense at my bank. I'll be watching for other movie memorabilia around the building. Maybe I'll find Obi-wan's light saber (for scanning MICR codes on checks?) or the evil copy machine from Office Space.

Next, we have this:This was seen in my work parking lot, but it counts. Other stickers on the (of course) mega-truck included "Rick Perry 2010," "Freedom isn't free," and one of those Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) rip-offs in which Calvin pees on some other truck logo. Needless to say, I think this sticker pretty much tells you all you need to know about the driver of said mega-truck.

On that note, it seems like a good time to tell you that I'm leaving Texas! I've finally scraped together enough money to move back to Pennsylvania so I can be with my girlfriend. I'm really looking forward to being back up north, which is something I didn't think I'd be saying. But after the California FAIL, it'll be nice to get back to the last place I truly called "home." I'll be driving up the first week in March. Then it'll be mad job-huntin', much drinking of the sorely missed Yuengling Lager, and tons o' canoodlin' with AB. Can't wait!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Congratulations, Saints!

Finally, no more 'Aints. Not a dry eye in the house watching Brees tear up while holding his son.