Bullied by Visa

I’ve banked with Nationwide for over 20 years.  During that time, I’ve been generally well-pleased with the service they offer.  From time to time the ‘industry’ has ganged up to impose new charges on customers: for example, annual charges to hold a creditcard, charges to withdraw money from each other’s cashpoint machines, or charges to use your card outside the UK.  Nationwide has always remained resolutely free of such things.  Furthermore, they don’t seem to cock up, and they’re the biggest UK bank to have escaped the crisis of the last couple of years without having to recapitalise (or much worse).  All in all, a huge relief compared to other banks I’ve used.

So when they messed up yesterday, my first inclination was to blame the merchant I was trying to use (Nokia).  This is part of shopping before VAT rises, and I was ordering some new kit to the value of over £500.  I wanted to query a couple of points, so I placed the order by ‘phone.  There followed an email confirming my order.  Five minutes later another email from billing@nokia:

Your order (No. 900937209) has been cancelled because we were unable to process your payment on the credit card that you provided.  We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Please visit our online store at http://shop.nokia.co.uk/nokia-uk to replace this order. Prior to re-attempting the order, we recommend that you contact your credit card company.

Sounds like a maxed out creditcard or something?  Nope, it’s about £5000 short of my limit, and is paid in full by direct debit every month.  Thinking the man who took my order might’ve cocked up, I went online and retried.

Same again.

OK, there’s a local Nationwide agency.  Not a full branch, but a little room in an estate agent.  They know me there.  I marched down there intending to give them a hard time until they’d sorted it.

They were closed.  Harumph!

Leaving a message is most likely going to miss the boat for 15% VAT.  Nothing for it, have to use the published ‘phone numbers and hope someone replies.  They did, and they were able to sort it out.  They also told me the Nokia purchase had put a security block on my card, which is what they had to remove!  After that I was able to place the order last night.

But hang on!  This is a purchase of physical goods.  That means there’s a shipping address.  The fact it’s the same as the billing address (which hasn’t changed recently) should be a pretty good indicator that it’s really me, not a fraudster.  What happens next time I need to settle a £500 hotel bill somewhere abroad, and perhaps in a remote timezone when there’s noone there to answer the phone.   Am I at risk of the same thing happening?  What’s the use of a creditcard if I can’t rely on being able to use it?

My strong suspicion is that this is because Nokia isn’t using phished by visa.  To me that’s a plus: I’m placing an order with them, and all is transparent and open (the quirks of Nokia’s system are another story, but no showstopper).  I’m guessing this kind of block might be becoming routine for online retailers who decline to be bullied into it.  Grrr :(

Postscript: as I write, I just had a phone call from the man I originally placed the phone order with, to tell me the order had failed.  Of course I already knew, but it’s good that he took the trouble.

Bah, Humbug.

Posted on December 30, 2009, in rants, security, visa. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. “My strong suspicion is ” … it’s all neural networks and machine learning so nobody knows what triggers what. When you talk to vendors about what triggers rejections on their transaction streams you get all kinds of theories. I spoke to a travel company that reported that many purchases of pairs of tickets where the last names differed were rejected.

    My family has had one or another of it’s cards frozen out four times, and we have had maybe two dozen cases of suspicious transaction query phone calls. Their systems are certainly becoming more and more touchy. These days I often think “Oh, this transaction is going to pull some cord.” whenever I buy something with any attribute that is unusual: neighborhood (down market), commodity (cellphone refills, any store that sells weapons i.e camping equipment), vendor (small website/store). I often get a call after shopping in a new local neighborhood who’s zip code signals that my zip code doesn’t mix socially with it.

    The trip to Africa was nothing but trouble.

    This is the only reason I keep multiple cards in my wallet.

  2. The same thing has happened to me. I don’t remember what I was buying, but apparently my card had been flagged for ‘suspicious’ transactions, and suddenly it wouldn’t work any more.

    Really, there are so many different checks on each transaction. Used to be just that your card number gets checked against a list of cards reported stolen; that was pretty straightforward, and we knew where we stood. But now there’s a whole database dedicated to deciding whether a given purchase is consistent with your usual pattern of purchases. There’s another database recording merchants whom Visa considers ‘suspicious’ for one reason or another, and another one listing people the US Treasury Department doesn’t want anyone to do business with (for whatever reason – maybe they sell Cuban cigars or something). That’s just the ones I know about for sure. There are literally dozens of other dubious agencies that might (for all we know) have wangled themselves the authority to block a transaction – Interpol, the CIA, your own bank, etc., etc..

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s literally impossible, by design, to tell exactly who flagged your card or why.

    Nowadays I carry both Visa and Mastercard, plus EFTPOS and, if I’m going any significant distance, at least $400 in cash.

  3. The absence of phished by visa is unlikely the trigger other than as any statistical weighting placed by the automated checks.

    As basic design issues aside the main advantage of these systems is liability is moved from merchant. So the credit card company likely would make more money even if the transaction was fraudulent, than in denying it.

    High value items easily resold, ordered over the phone, I’d be suspicious. Did you make other transactions with the card immediately before that transaction?

    I get called on my mobile by NatWest (via Mastercard) if they suspect a transaction, do they have your phone number? I also reduced my card limits, since all it takes is a plausible sounding phone call from me to them to get them to accept much larger value transactions. But when it reached >7000 credit I figured that it could end up being more money involved in a dispute for a few months than I could afford if something went wrong.

  4. Um, yes, I didn’t mean to suggest that Phished by Visa was a binary all-or-nothing thing … and yes, a purchase that size is not something I make regularly (though neither is it a first – for example my bike cost substantially more).

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