Posts tagged ‘credit cards’

Beware of Scam Calls From (816) 420-4632 or (866) 680-8628

I post this not because the odds are high any of you readers have had this issue but I want these numbers to be found on an internet search.

Both numbers were leaving a message saying they were from "Citi" or "Citicard" calling about my account (and that it was not a sales call).  Since I have no Citicorp credit cards or accounts of any type, and since they were calling a Google Voice number that I would never have put on an account (in fact don't even really use), I was totally suspicious.  When I called them they asked for my account number.  I said I did not have one but was calling to see what kind of scam they were running.  They said they were from Citicard and don't do scams, but could I give them my phone number.  I said I had to look it up, because they were calling a Google voice number I never use.  The moment I said that, they hung up on me, the universal indicator of a scamster giving up.

Update:  There is a legitimate Citi group with the same name.  It sounds to me that these folks at the numbers above are recording the legitimate Citi greeting replaying it on their lines.  But then their physical operator answers the phone completely differently than does the legitimate Citi operator.  The Citi group being spoofed is this one.

Masked Credit Cards

I wrote the other day about shifting to unique passwords for every single web site I visit (there were 300 I had to change!) to limit the damage from a data breach such as that at Adobe.  The irony was that to make this work, I adopted a password vault program to remember all these 300 strings of random characters.  Which means that I am putting a LOT of trust into one site, instead of a moderate amount of trust into multiple sites.

The same sort of approach is being investigated with credit cards, where intermediaries are providing masked credit cards with one-time numbers (hat tip to a reader).  In some ways Paypal has a masked approach where the transaction is settled off the retailer's site entirely, though I am not sure I am entirely comfortable with Paypal's security.

Zombie Earthlink Accounts

I am left to wonder today how much of Earthlink's remaining income is from zombie accounts.  I generally hate the hassle of dealing with a changed credit card number, but one advantage is that I discover some zombie accounts that I have forgotten about and keep charging my card every month.

Today I had an amazing one -- from my old Earthlink dial-up account.  I had thought I cancelled Earthlink something like 8 years ago (I certainly have not used it since about 2003).  That is several credit cards ago and so I have absolutely no idea how they were able to continue to bill me, but they were, right up to this month when my corporate card number changed due to a fraud alert.  It is kind of depressing that I spent well north of a thousand dollars over the years on a service that I would never even consider using again, but that is the danger that comes as a company gets larger and one can't personally inspect every bill that gets paid.

Of course, despite evidence that I never used the account, they would not waive the final month's billing and threatened collections, etc.  They wanted my credit card for one last charge, and then they would cancel.  Which made me suspicious that this is how they got my credit card for the last five years - by asking for it for one last charge and then continuing to bill for 5 years.  So I told them I did not trust them with my new credit card number and to send me a paper bill that I would pay by check.  As a final insult, they said they had to charge me an extra dollar for the paper bill.

If I had time, I would challenge them and give them grief, but sometimes one has to put one's ego away and just move on with the loss.

During the call, it was very, very clear that trying to collect money on zombie accounts that people had forgotten about was very, very typical for their customer service folks.  Leading me to wonder just how much of Earthlink's revenue comes from such zombie accounts.  As a funny side note, they were perfectly fine taking money from me without any identification, but would not cancel the account without an extensive account verification, a verification that is rather hard if one has not used the account in about 8 years.

Shopping with Maxed Out Credit Cards

My Forbes column is up this week and it presents some quick reactions to the Obama jobs speech last night.  A brief excerpt:

Overall, I found the package to be an incredible mish-mash of already tried and failed steps to rejuvenate the economy.   Even if I were to buy into the Keynesian stimulus logic, everything in this package is so under-scale as to be rounding errors on the larger economy.  This is basically a smaller version of the last failed stimulus repeated.

This plan is absolutely in the Obama style, offering goodies to many constituencies without a hint of how they will be paid for.  Presidents often offer a chicken in every pot when they are campaigning, but usually are forced into reality once they enter office.  Not Barack Obama.  Time and again, from health care to the most recent budget fight and last night’s speech, Obama wants to be loved for offering perks, and then wants someone else to take the fall for the unpopular steps required to pay for them.  He is like grandma endearing herself to the grandkids by buying them Christmas presents on dad’s maxxed out credit cards, leaving dad to later figure out later how to pay for them or face the ire of the kids by returning the gifts.

Italian Rail

After having my car hit 3 times in one week driving in Italy, I swore this time I would do it without the car.  So I tried rail.  I had almost as much trouble with rail as with driving.

First, never, ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  It is way too expensive compared to the train fares.  Its a good deal in Switzerland, so I bought one for Italy before doing the research.  It became a running joke in Italy - every single Italian rail employee we had to show the pass to told us we should not have bought it.  So not only did I pay too much, but I got reminded of it twice a day.

Second, all but the smallest and shabbiest trains require advanced reservations, but these reservations are nearly impossible to make if you are not Italian, because the rail site has some kind of weird block on most all American credit cards (much about this around the Internet).  This means that I can't just have get-on-the train and go flexibility, I have to pick a train I want to use in the future and then stand in line at a rail station to purchase the ticket or reservation.    Lines do not move fast in Italian rail stations.

But the classic story comes from my minor infraction of rail policy that ended up costing me money.  I don't know if this is just government or if it they have a lot of problem with cheating.  Apparently, each day you are supposed to fill that days date in the next slot on your Eurail pass before you get on the train.  I forgot to on one trip, so the conductor insisted I owed a 50 euro fine.  Seriously.  I said, let me add the date right now, but she said no.  They had a couple guys lined up to throw us off in the next random Italian town if we did not hand over the money  (reminds me of this story in England).

I will say, once I calmed down, that in retrospect the lecture from the Italian state employee on why it is important to follow every single rule and to trust our betters in government that all the rules are for a good reason was almost worth the 50-euro price of admission.

It took me a while to figure out what they were afraid of -- I suppose if you did not write the date in advance, and the conductor never came by, you could get an extra day of travel.  Of course, I had paid extra money for a reservation on that particular train, so it was unlikely I was gaming the system (another reason not to get a Eurail pass in Italy, you still have to pay extra for nearly every train).  And it seemed odd that on a 2-hour train ride they thought it a real risk no conductor would come by, though on the very next day we took a 2-hour ride and there was no conductor, so I suppose it is possible.

In that latter case we were in a car where the AC failed on a hot day, and of course it was the only train we rode on the whole trip where the windows did not open.  No conductor took my ticket, but one did stand at the end of the car the whole trip turning away anyone who wanted to get an open seat in the next car -- after all, we were assigned a specific seat and sitting in another would be against the rules.

Hair of the Dog, Part 3

In general, legislative responses to the recent financial crisis just amaze me, and I am a fairly jaded observer of Congress with very low expectations.

First, Congress responds to a crisis caused by too much debt and overleverage by ...borrowing a trillion or so dollars and deficit spending.

Second, Congress responds to a crisis caused by too much subsidiazation of  home ownership by ... subsidizing home ownership

Now, Congress has apparently responded to a crisis where risky debt was mispriced by... passing a law to reduce debt costs for the riskiest borrowers and shift that cost to the least risk.

Nice job.

More Lame Economic Analysis

Kevin Drum and the left think falling savings rates are all ... wait for it you are going to be shocked with surprise ... Reagan's fault.  OK, you are not surprised, since in left-world everything that is not Bush's fault is either Reagan's, Wal-mart's or Exxon's.

SavingRateAug2009

Paul Krugman looks at this chart of the personal savings rate in the United States and concludes that Reaganomics is the most likely reason that it fell off a cliff....

But I'd point to two other things that Krugman mentions: financial deregulation and stagnant median wages.  Those seem like much more likely villains to me.  Starting in the late 70s, middle class wages flattened out, which meant there was only one way for most people to support the increasing prosperity they had long been accustomed to: borrowing.  At the same time, financial deregulation unleashed an industry that marketed itself ever more aggressively on all fronts: credit cards, debit cards, payday loans, day trading, funky home mortgage loans, and more.  It was a match made in hell: a culture that suddenly glorified debt; an easy money policy from the Fed that made it available; a predatory financial industry that promoted it; and middle-class workers who dived in to the deep end without ever quite knowing why they were doing it.So, yeah, Reagan did it.  Sort of.  But he had plenty of help.

This is a great variation of the classic "I know what caused bad trend X -- everything I was against before I learned about bad trend X."  The following was my response in the comments:

  1. The chart on the left starts out at 8%. Drum picked a recession peak as his starting point, a clever trick, but it appears that when Bush 1 left office the number was still about 8%. The largest fall seems to be in the Clinton years. For which, by the way, I don't "blame" Clinton any more than Reagan, certainly not without any real evidence or understanding of the mechanism involved.
  2. Drum's "consumers are all stupid pawns of electronics retailers and credit card companies" wears thin at some point.   It's funny how everyone thinks this is true... of everyone else, but not himself.
  3. Let me posit an alternative. The 1980s and 1990s saw huge percentage increases in asset values, both equities and homes. This began just about at the time the savings rate dipped. I would posit that consumers, in their mental calculation of savings, included paper gains on these assets. These paper gains are not, to my knowledge, included in savings rate numbers (you can be sure that is true because, if they were, savings rates would have dropped in late 2008). Thus consumers saved less money from their paycheck (which is measured, so it showed a drop in savings rate) while they considered themselves still to be saving as much or more as previously, because they were counting paper profits on assets as savings.  The big decreases coincide with the 80's bull market, the 90's bull market / internet bubble, and this decades housing bubble.

My explanation in number three will look even better if we see an increase in savings rate over the coming years as consumer expectations about asset value changes are made less exuberant by the recent burst bubble.  A fascinating chart would be to plot savings rate against some measure of consumer expectations of future asset price increases.  I bet they would correlate pretty well.

Health Care Opposition Not About Being Uncharitable

I have seen several folks of late testing out a meme that opposition to health care reform is mostly about churlish unwillingness to help people.  My sense is that this is dead wrong.

As a strong libertarian, that may well be my motivation.  But the vast majority of Americans accept and support the government safety net and generally will support reasonable expansions of it to address true need.   I think most Americans would be willing to help people who honestly need financial aid to pay the health care bills.  This is particularly true for children -- you don't remember people going ballistic over SCHIP, do you?

I am not representative.  The vast center of this country is willing to accept, even embrace, increased government interventions in the right cause.  I forgot to blog on it, but remember that poll a few weeks ago that a majority of Americans think the government should required that women take their husbands last name after marriage?  I think the notion that there is any kind of sizable block of small government libertarian type folks out there is simply a myth.

So health care intervention and spending can be sold - again remember SCHIP but also the prescription drug bill.  I think the Administration is having trouble selling it in this case for two reasons:

  • They are having difficulty showing people who truly are not getting care.  Sure there are a lot of people who are uninsured, but I think that meme has been around enough for people to deconstruct.  Who isn't getting care?   Sure, for some folks getting care is a real hassle, but there are arguments to be made that accepting charity should not be that easy (remember the old Welfare?)  And sure, some folks have financial straights and can even face bankruptcy over health care bills, but our bankruptcy laws are incredibly generous and when tens of thousands are facing bankruptcy because they bought too many TV's on their credit cards, it almost seems honorable to face bankruptcy over your wife's cancer treatment.
  • The second problem is what I call the public housing problem.  In the late 1960s, Americans were concerned about the poor and homeless and spent billions to build housing projects for them.  It turns out that this doesn't work out so well, but that is not my point.  My point is that Americans could be convinced to spend money to build poor people government homes.  BUT their position would have been very different if investments in public housing required the rich and middle class who were paying for the program to move out of their homes and into public housing as well.That is the fear that I think much of America has today.  If asked, they would likely pay to provide government health care in an instance where it was demonstrated that health care was entirely lacking.  They would likely suspect that such care, like much of public housing, would suck, but as it was being offered to someone who supposedly had nothing, it would represent a net improvement.  But they don't want to move into the projects themselves, and frankly don't understand why agreeing to help poor people afford more health care also means they have to move into the government system themselves.

Double Dip

In 1933 and 1934, America was on a trajectory to recover from the Depression.  But, before recovering, the economy was to nose dive again, and never really did recover until the next decade.  Historians and economists argue endlessly about this, but I am convinced that the arbitrary and capricious meddling in the economy by the Roosevelt administration caused many folks who would have started investing and bargain hunting with their capital to sit on the sidelines.  The National Industrial Recovery Act (thankfully killed by a mercifully non-packed Supreme Court) was just the most egregious example of the US government making it impossible to evaluate long-term business proposals because the basic foundations of the rule of law were shifting so much.

I fear we are facing a similar danger.   Everything continues to tell me that had we taken our medicine late last year, we would be entering a recovery over the next few months.  However, the Obama administrations economic interventions have gotten so egregious that there is a real danger investors are going to sit on the sidelines with their capital.  Who knows when your industry will get targeted with compensation restrictions, or higher taxes, or even forced changes in ownership?  Who could possibly feel comfortable making 20-year investments in this environment?  Dale Franks quotes Thomas Cooley:

Many investors are sitting on the sidelines, as is much money. Why? Because it is impossible to know what the rules of the game are. And that's because the administration and the Congress keep changing the rules in capricious ways in pursuit of larger political objectives.

Postscript: There is legislation pending in Congress to restrict the ability of lenders  (e.g. credit card issuers) from changing rates on existing debt.  They ask if it is fair for someone who took on a debt thinking it would be at 15% to suddenly find it is at 25%.  But how are tax increases any different.  I make 10-20 year investments in my company, and the expected tax rate is a hugely important assumption in whether it makes any sense for me to put my capital in a particular venture.   How is a large increase in taxes on returns from my past investments any different than changing the interest rate on an existing debt?

Paypal in Trouble?

A few days ago I posted on the security hole I discovered in Paypal where payments to my email were flowing to someone else's account.  After denying the problem for quite a while, Paypal finally admitted it.

In the last two days, I have had two other problems with Paypal.  The first was that an account hold was slapped by Paypal on my account.  Apparently I accessed the account from an IP address (maybe a hotel on the road?) they had never seen me at before and so they froze my account until this morning when I had to spend an hour convincing them in various ways I really did control the account.

The second issue was when Paypal put a hold on a payment I received.  At first, I was ticked off at the buyer, thinking that person had received the item and then was trying to keep his money.  But it turned out the buyer had nothing to do with it.  Again, the Paypal computers saw the buyer account had been relatively inactive and held the payment until the buyer called in and convinced them the payment was legitimate.

Now, at some level, one can say that Paypal is trying to protect my money.  But if fraud is so prevelent in Paypal that these kind of onerous fraud checks and constant account and payment freezes are becoming the norm, then it may well be that their business model is in trouble.  Like strip searches at the airport, it may increase security but it may also kill the business.

If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said it likely that by 2009, we would have an online payments system that involved some type of digital certificates on individual computers tied to either a payment system or one's credit card number.  My corporate cash management account works this way, but the retail world does not.  Part of the problem is that there is only limited consumer incentive to demand such a system.  Currently, most fraud costs are pushed by card companies unto retailers rather than consumers (who can fairly easily void a fraudulent payment) reducing the percieved cost of low security.

Postscript:  It is always interesting to listen to the tone of customer service agents.  I talked to four different Paypal agents this morning, and the fairly clear undertone of their responses to my rants about these problems was "it's as bad around here as you think it is."

The Last Temptation

Nothing makes purity more interesting than temptation.  This applies to ideological purity just as much as the physical sort.  As a libertarian, my greatest temptation to call for government action comes when I deal, as a retailer, with Visa and Mastercard (V/MC).

This post is not a call for government action, so I guess I am resisting temptation.  But I at least need to vent, sort of like a monk pounding his head on the wall after getting the Victoria's Secret catalog in the mail.  So here is my rant.

First, let's start with how credit card companies make their money.  I will confess that I do not know how the card companies (V/MC) and the card processors (often large banks) split the take, so this is how they make money together.  V/MC and the processors charge fees to merchants.  Typically this is a fixed fee per transaction plus a percentage.  On average, a merchant might be paying 2.5-3.5% of a transaction.  The card companies also make money from card holders, charging annual fees, interest fees, etc.

You will have seen of late that most credit cards offer various loyalty programs, from airline miles to cash rebates.  You might have thought those were marketing expenses paid by the credit card companies.  Wrong.  The card companies simply charge merchants a higher fee for processing transactions using these cards.  In a sense, the card companies have organized with card users to use their power to extract extra value from merchants.

All of this I can generally live with.   Visa and MasterCard, through both their credit facility and their implicit standardization, bring enormous value to retailers and customers.  Its a big circular game anyway -- customers get 1% back and think they are getting a deal, merchants pay this extra 1% in fees, and then add it into the price of what they are selling.  It's a wash, except to the extent that customers with reward cards in the end extract a bit of value from customers who pay cash (for reasons explained below).

For this value one must accept the typically arrogant and indifferent customer service provided by any monopoly  (American Express is particularly awful to deal with as a retailer).   But they are no worse to deal with than the government, so its unclear how the government could make the service any better.

What tends to tick me off, though, are rules and restrictions.  Like the creeping work rules in the UAW contract, these are in many ways more insidious than the service and pricing.  Here is what set me off today, from one of my card processors  (in this case Bank of America, which, to be fair, is someone I would recommend for merchant account processing).  Click to enlarge.

visa

So, why are businesses breaking these rules so often?  Let's take a look:

  • No minimum transaction. Remember that V/MC charges a minimum fee, from 10-40 cents or so, per transaction.  So if someone buys a pack of gum in our store, likely 100% of the sales price is going to V/MC.  Typically it takes at least a one dollar total sale for there to be any money left over beyond paying cost of goods sold and the credit card folks.  So merchants logically want to set a minimum.   V/MC hates this practice, but it is rampant.  I plead the fifth on our own practices.
  • Surcharging. Credit card customers cost more than cash customers.  Sure, we get some non-sufficient funds checks, but the eventual cost of these is nowhere near 2.5% of sales.  Merchants logically don't like having their cash customers having to subsidize the frequent flyer rewards of their credit customers.  However, unlike transaction minimums, card processors have mostly been able to drive out cash discounts.
  • Requiring ID and Fraudulent Transactions. I will take these two together, since they are so ironic one after the other.  V/MC is telling merchants that they can't check ID, which is the only reasonable approach to limiting fraud, but that they can't submit fraudulent transactions.  You say that the text says "known fraudulent?"  Well, read on --

To the latter point, I think most people assume that the credit card companies are absorbing the fraud, which is how they justify the fees they charge.  Wrong again.  Credit card companies only absorb credit risk.  Over the last 10+ years, they have pushed fraud back on the retailer.  If a consumer claims fraud on his card with some transaction, then the credit card company refunds the customer and takes the money from the merchant unless the retailer can absolutely prove he made delivery to the consumer personally (which he can't prove because he can't check identification) .  Merchants bear the cost of fraud, not card companies.  Which I could accept (since I have more ability than the card companies to control fraud) expect the card companies ban me from controlling fraud.  So I have to take financial responsibility for something I am not allowed to prevent.  And that really ticks me off.

Anyway, maybe someday we can organize a large merchant boycott, where, even for a day, we all refuse to accept Visa and Mastercard.  Of course we would be breaking the rules, because that is not allowed by our V/MC agreement.

Postscript: I suspect that a few retailers with some power are starting to crack this, at least for themselves.  Costco only takes American Express.  Sams Club only take one card (MC, I think).  My guess is that both, with their large size, bargained for exclusivity in exchange for concessions on fees and/or terms.

Postscript #2: I expect comments like, "Well so-and-so always makes me show an ID."  I don't doubt you.  I am merely saying that by doing so, they have either negotiated an exception to the V/MC agreement (very unlikely, as V/MC holds to these rules like the Maginot Line) or the retailer is breaking the rules.

A Last Case for Payday Loans

Well, we have upheld the ban on payday loans here in Arizona.

The payday-loan industry, which flourished this past decade on Arizonans' almost-insatiable need for quick, short-term loans regardless of their high interest rates, may have to close down in Arizona unless state lawmakers can be persuaded to ignore voters' wishes.

Voters last week overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 200, a ballot initiative financed and written by the loan companies to allow them to continue charging high interest rates on small loans. That decision placed Arizona among a growing number of states that have effectively shut down the payday lenders.

So, payday loans from company A to person B are really popular with both A & B, and the industry has "flourished."  But persons C, who don't participate in this market, have decided that, for their own good, A & B need to stop engaging in this behavior.  One such third party explains it this way:

Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, opposed Prop. 200 and has steadfastly fought payday lenders. She sees no need to let payday lenders continue to charge higher interest rates than other lenders.

Her and voter's actions have effectively limited payday loan companies to charging total interest and fees equivalent to no more than 36% annual interest.  OK, you say, this seems like a really high rate.  That should be enough, right?  Well, the problem comes with fixed costs and loan size.  Lets look at an example.

A typical payday loan size and term is about $400 for 18 days (pdf).  A typical fee for such a loan is $50, which includes both fixed costs and interest.  Wow, annualized that is 250%.  Usurious!  So would you personally go out and get a payday loan?  No way! And that is why voters vote to ban them - they are not good for me personally, so they must not be good for anyone else.

But here is the problem.  How do you maintain a storefront and trained people and all the documentation and collection apparatus for less than $50?  The same loan at 36% would allow a fee of only $7.20.  That barely even covers paying someone to originate the loan at the counter, much less pay interest and a risk premium.

Try going to the bank and getting a home loan or some other type of loan for only a $50 fee.  Granted those loans are more complicated, but in turn you will likely get charged hundred and probably thousands of dollars in fees.  There is a large fixed cost component to the act of lending which we tend to ignore on larger loans, but is there none-the-less.  In fact, just try to go to a bank and get a loan for $400 at all.  They don't make them, outside of the credit card industry, which solves this problem in part through economies of scale and in part through cost-shifting costs to merchants, options not really available to payday loan companies.

And so far, we are only talking about fixed costs, not the underwriting risk of extending loans to about any person who wanders in the door and can sign his/her name.  Anyone remember sub-prime mortgages?  Maybe there is a justification for large risk premiums, after all, on loans to under-qualified borrowers.  Particularly when you consider that most payday loan customers could not qualify even for a sub-prime mortgage.

The best equivalent to a payday loan offered by banks is overdraft protection, where the bank will go ahead and pay out on checks where there are insufficient funds, though they will charge a $20-$30 fee per check paid.  As you can see, these fees are very similar in magnitude to those charged by payday loan companies, particularly when you consider that these fees are generally charged on checks that average about $150.  Also, folks who get one overdraft fee usually get several in a row.  People are willing to pay these fees because they are in fact lower than the fees of actually having a check bounce, which can incur similar fees from merchants as well as hurting one's credit.

So, you just had to write three checks to get the power and water and telephone turned on, and you are pretty sure the money is not there in your checking account.  You are facing $80 in bounced-check (NSF) fees or overdraft fees.  Now might you consider a $400 loan for a $50 fee?  Well, probably the answer is still no, you would put it on your credit cards.  But everyone doesn't have credit cards, or doesn't qualify for them, or don't have a lifestyle that allows for them.  Where do they go, short of Tony Soprano?

Update: A reader sent me a link to this report, comparing payday loan rates to overdraft protection, and finding them of similar magnitude.  The author calculates an average $28.61 overdraft fee on an average $155 bounced check yields an APR of 478%.  There is a fixed cost to lending, and small very short term loans cost a lot of money, no matter how you get them.

I will remind folks not to be fooled by 18% or 23% rates on credit cards and set that as the market rate for small loans.  First, this misses annual fees for the cards.  But more importantly, it misses merchant fees.  Merchants pay between 2.5% and 3.5% of everything you charge to the credit card companies.  This helps to subsidize rates and, particularly, subsidize the fixed costs of small lending transactions.

Pining for the 1950's

The Democrats of late seem to be pining for the "Ward Cleaver" economy of the 1950's, lamenting that a) the middle class is worse off today financially, b) it takes two income earners to "survive" today rather than one and c) the middle class faces more risk without any additional reward.  Rather than refute all this mess in detail yet again, I will leave you with this quiz, via TJIC, from Tamara K:

1) The balance on Ward Cleaver's three most frequently used credit cards is?

2)
Does Wally have an Xbox3 hooked to a flatscreen TV in his room, or is
he making do with an old Play Station hooked to a hand-me-down 19" Sony?

3)
In addition to electricity, water, and the telephone, the Cleaver's
largest monthly bill is: a. Cellular Service, b. Cable TV, c. Broadband
Internet Access, or d. Late Fees At Blockbuster.

4) The Cleaver's timeshare is in: a.) Destin, or b.) Gatlinburg.

5) June's bread maker was made by: a.) Sunbeam, or b.) Krupps.

6)
The amount of money Ward loses annually playing Powerball, Online Slots
at home, and Texas Hold 'Em on vacation in Branson, Missouri is: $____
(Round to the nearest dollar.)

Ethics of Frequent Flier Programs

Am I the only one who gets ethical qualms about frequent flier programs?  If your job was to buy supplies for the company you work for, and a printer company offered to give you and your family a Hawaiian vacation if only you would have your company buy their printers instead of the competition's, could we all agree that would be a kickback or bribe?  And that it would be, if not illegal, certainly unethical?

So why don't the same rules apply to airline travel?  When buying an airline flight for business, you are acting as a purchasing agent for your company.  And the airlines, in the form of frequent flier miles, are offering you [not the company] something of value to steer your corporate purchasing decisions to their product.  Frequent flier miles are a blatant kickback.  Informal poll:  How many of you have purchased flights that are a worse deal for your company but a better deal for your frequent flier account?

A further rant: OK, if you are not turned off by that rant, here is a related one about Visa cards that give out frequent flier miles.  As mentioned earlier, these are hugely profitable for credit card companies, so much so that they create much of the value in modern airlines.  Credit card companies, perhaps the only stable monopoly I have seen in my lifetime, have perfected the art of forcing retailers to subsidize their credit card users. 

Now, a fairly rational person would expect that a cash transaction is cheaper than doing one on credit.  However, due to the very strong position of MC and Visa processors, credit card customers actually get a lower price than cash customers.  Here is why:  Credit card companies have taken to giving their users a rebate on their purchases, either in cash or frequent flier miles or some other compensation.  These rebates are funded by charging higher interchange fees to merchants (basically a percentage of credit card transactions cleared).  The magic occurs because merchants, in their processing agreements, are generally banned from giving discounts to customers for using cash.  As a result, the higher credit card interchange fees are spread among all customers, cash or credit card, equally.   The result is that credit card customers pay lower net prices than cash customers, when the rebates are factored in.

Though our trade association tries to seek government action of some sort, I am neither confident that this will help or philosophically inclined to ask for such help.  Right now, I am working within the association to try to build support for some sort of one day boycott against accepting credit cards as a starting point to trying to build up some group negotiating power vs. the credit card processors.

ATM Cards More Expensive to Process than Credit?

Does this make any sense:  It costs us a lot more, for small transactions, to process an ATM / debit card with the pin pad than a credit card.  Bank of America charges a flat 60 cents per ATM card / PIN pad transaction in our stores but charges 10 cents plus 2% on credit cards.  So, on a typical $5 convenience store purchase, BofA charges $0.60 or 12% to process a ATM / debit card but $0.20 or 4% for the credit card.

I understand the difference between value- and cost-based pricing, but in an economy of scale transaction processing business with a lot of competitors, I would think debit would be cheaper to process, even without the credit risk issues. 

Customers give me feedback that I am a neanderthal for not accepting ATM cards with a pin pad at the registers.  This is the reason.  Its cheaper for me to provide an ATM and then have them pay cash - that way they pay the fee, not me.  Also, their fee is lower.  Even if they only take out $20 and pay a $1.50 fee, they are still only paying 7.5% vs. the 12% typical I would be paying.  If anyone knows a company that offers a better deal, the comment section is wide open!

Update:  A couple of notes based on the comments.  First, I do indeed understand that prices are not cost-based.  The notion that pricing should be cost-based is one of the worst economic misconceptions held by the average person (behind the commerce is zero-sum myth).  When prices don't make sense to me, I don't run to the government asking for Senate hearings so corporations can "justify" their pricing, I just don't buy from them. 

Second, to another commenter's point, most card processing agreements and some state laws prevent merchants from passing card processing fees onto consumers in a discriminatory way - ie they can be built into the general pricing but you can't charge one person one price and another a different price for the same item based on what kind of payment they use.

Customer Loyalty Programs

Courtesy of Business Pundit, this article on customer loyalty programs and whether they actually increase profits.

To me, you can make a good case for them in commodity undifferentiated products like commercial airline service, but now it seems like every store, from Best Buy to Barnes and Noble have them. It strikes me that stores like these should have plenty to differentiate them without a loyalty program.

I'm no psychic, but I can probably guess what's in your wallet. Chances are it's stuffed with loyalty cards from this airline and that hotel, not to mention a handful of point-accruing credit cards. And your key chain probably has a few hanging versions of the same"”video store tag, gas station "quick pass," grocery store card. You probably belong to more loyalty groups than you can count.

Do you really think your customers are any different? It's hard to expect your affinity program to inspire loyalty when all of its members carry your competitors' cards as well.

Face it: Loyalty programs have reached the saturation stage. The first-mover advantage gained by the pioneers in this field is long past. Now as common as kudzu, affinity programs have lost their distinction and, as a result, much of their value.

I am actually sick of these programs. It increasingly irritates me to have to carry 354 pieces of plastic in my wallet to get the best prices every where I shop. I am old enough to remember when you had to have every stores proprietary charge card to shop there - so you had to have a bunch of department store cards and gas cards, etc etc. I am thrilled nowadays to shed all that crap in my wallet and just use my Visa card everywhere. Now, though, we are rolling back the clock to plastic proliferation. I find myself actually growling at the poor Borders Books checkout person when they ask me if I have (or want) a Borders loyalty card.

Coming soon, I hope, is the backlash, with stores competing with a saying like "you don't have to have a special card to get our best price".