Periodically I have my resolve to pay off credit-card debt renewed. So often it comes from something that happens to me as a consumer, or when I have those frustrating moments of realizing just how much money I send out of my community through cards, rather than spending it here in cash.
But last month re-invigorated my resolves. It all started from my experience as a small business owner grappling with the world of credit-card processing. In the eight years that we have accepted credit cards at the bookstore, we have really only had five problems with incorrect charges on customer’s statements. Basically, that averages to less than one a year. However, four of them were in 2013. Two of them were in one weekend. It is a nightmare when these things happen.
To begin with it is so rare that it takes me by surprise. But in its throes, I just groan, knowing what I am going to have to go through with the bank to get it fixed. I thought this might be a good time to let Live Local readers know a bit about how credit cards work for merchants.
If you charge something on Saturday morning, we don’t get paid for it until Tuesday, even though your account shows the charge immediately. Why? So they can go ahead and start charging the daily interest on it, and the bank holds it on their reserves before sending it over to us so that it’s available to them. So, if you contact us on Sunday or Monday about an incorrect charge, we can’t even pull up the information on our account to see it ‘til Tuesday. Getting anyone at the bank to respond is like running an obstacle course. Here is my usual coping pattern:
I e-mail our merchant-processing person who is less than useless. I copy one of the VP’s on the e-mail, which at least will get a reply (sometimes) from our merchant processing person in a more timely manner. As is the case with most people, it is the merchant processing person’s assistant who actually knows anything or gets any results, so I copy her, too. I do this merely to create a paper trail; I know no “real action” comes from this, but I want proof that I am addressing the problem.
Then, I begin phone calls. The first answer is always the same: “Oh, if it is a double charge, it will probably drop off in about five days.” Amazingly, this is not actually what either I, or our customers, want to hear. We both want action. That response does not constitute customer service in any universe except for banking and finance. When I make that point, the next response is: “Well, it’s not up in your pending yet, so we can’t do anything about it.”
After much discussion I usually get the privilege of leaving all the information I have about the transaction in question (which I had previously e-mailed as well). This is met with promises to look into it. I hang up and fume.
A few hours later, I call back to follow up, because I care about our customers and take these things seriously. I am told the problem has been solved but the customer might not see it today. In fact, it usually takes three to five business days for these things to work out on the other end. Again, this is not customer service.
These things do get worked out, but one has to wonder if they are necessary. In the wake of reportedly 40 million people having their credit card and debit card information accessed by thieves at Target stores during the holiday shopping season, I have to admit I hope it will be a wake-up call to people to start paying with cash. There are so many wonderful reasons to pay with cash. To begin with, it does prevent identity theft and bank-account tampering. Also, it protects our privacy. In addition, by paying with cash we do not give a percentage of the transaction to a bank that clearly (as demonstrated above) does not earn it—nor who treats its client (or fellow human being, for that matter) with due consideration. We work hard for our money. Why, oh why do we give it away to a faceless corporation with an overseas call center? Spending it here, with a business that gives back to this community and values you like a person, should be a higher priority.
I am happy to report that since my ongoing credit-card battle, I now paid off two! Admittedly, they are the two lowest balances but also the two highest interest rates. It is a huge step forward for me. The big goal is to get one more paid off this year. That would be huge.
When I called to close the account of one of my credit cards, I got to talk to some nice people in India. The other actually sent me to someone in Arizona (I was stunned!). Of course, she had a script she had to read, aimed at trying to talk me out of closing the account. I kept saying, “No, I wasn’t going to keep this open—I am getting out of credit-card debt.” At one point she just stopped and told me that she wished she could do the same—and she was very happy for me.
Pay cash, keep your privacy and protect yourself and your loved ones from identity theft, while investing in your community.
Gwenyfar Rohler is the author or ‘Promise of Peanuts,’ which can be bought at Old Books on Front Street, with all monies donated to local nonprofit Full Belly Project.