Alice in Credit Card Land

Sam Vaknin’s Psychology, Philosophy, Economics and Foreign Affairs Web SitesYour credit card is stolen. You place a phone call to the number provided in your tourist guide or in the local daily press. You provide your details and you cancel your card. You block it. In a few minutes, it should be transferred to the stop-list available to the authorization centres worldwide. From that moment on, no thief will be able to fraudulently use your card. You can sigh in relief. The danger is over.

But is it ?
It is definitely not. To understand why, we should first review the intricate procedure involved.

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In principle, the best and safest thing to do is call the authorization centre of the bank that issued your card (the issuer bank). Calling the number published in the media is second best because it connects the cardholder to a volunteer bank, which caters for the needs of all the issuers of a given card. Some service organizations (such as IAPA the International Air Passengers Association) provide a similar service.

The catering bank accepts the call, notes down the details of the cardholder and prepares a fax containing the instruction to cancel the card. The cancellation fax is then sent on to the issuing bank. The details of all the issuing banks are found in special manuals published by the clearing and payments associations of all the banks that issue a specific card. All the financial institutions that issue Mastercards, Eurocards and a few other more minor cards in Europe are members of Europay International (EPI). Here lies the first snag : the catering bank often mistakes the identity of the issuer. Many banks share the same name or are branches of a network. Banks with identical names can exist in Prague, Budapest and Frankfurt, or Vienna, for instance. Should a fax cancelling the card be sent to the wrong bank the card will simply not be cancelled until it is too late. By the time the mistake is discovered, the card is usually thoroughly abused and the financial means of the cardholder are exhausted.

Additionally, going the indirect route (calling an intermediary bank instead of the issuing bank) translates into a delay which could prove monetarily crucial. By the time the fax is sent, it might be no longer necessary.

If the card has been abused and fraudulent purchases or money withdrawals have been debited to the unfortunate cardholders bank or credit card account the cardholder can reclaim these charges. He has to clearly identify them and state in writing that they were not effected by him. A process called chargeback thus is set in motion.

A chargeback is a transaction disputed within the payment system. A dispute can be initiated by the cardholder when he receives his statement and rejects one or more items on it or when an issuing financial institution disputes a transaction for a technical reason (usually at the behest of the cardholder or if his account is overdrawn). A technical reason could be the wrong or no signature, wrong or no date, important details missing in the sales vouchers and so on. Despite the warnings carried on many a sales voucher (No Refund No Cancellation) both refunds and cancellations are daily occurrences.

To be considered a chargeback, the card issuer must initiate a well-defined dispute procedure. This it can do only after it has determined the reasons invalidating the transaction. A chrageback can only be initiated by the issuing financial institution. The cardholder himself has no standing in this matter and the chargeback rules and regulations are not accessible to him. He is confined to lodging a complaint with the issuer. This is an abnormal situation whereby rules affecting the balances and mandating operations resulting in debits and credits in the bank account are not available to the account name (owner). The issuer, at its discretion, may decide that issuing a chargeback is the best way to rectify the complaint.

The following sequence of events is, thus, fairly common :
1. The cardholder presents his card to a merchant (aka : an acceptor of payment system cards).

2. The merchant may request an authorization for the transaction, either by electronic means (a Point
of Sale / Electronic Fund Transfer apparatus) or by phone (voice authorization). A merchant is
obliged to do so if the value of the transaction exceeds predefined thresholds. But there are other
cases in which this might be either a required or a recommended policy.

3. If the transaction is authorized, the merchant notes down the authorization reference number and
gives the goods and services to the cardholder. In a face-to-face transaction (as opposed to a phone
or internet/electronic transaction), the merchant must request the cardholder to sign the sale slip. He
must then compare the signature provided by the cardholder to the signature specimen at the back
of the card. A mismatch of the signatures (or their absence either on the card or on the slip)
invalidate the transaction. The merchant will then provide the cardholder with a receipt, normally
with a copy of the signed voucher.

4. Periodically, the merchant collects all the transaction vouchers and sends them to his bank (the
“acquiring” bank).

5. The acquiring bank pays the merchant on foot of the transaction vouchers minus the commission
payable to the credit card company. Some banks pre-finance or re-finance credit card sales
vouchers in the form of credit lines (cash flow or receivables financing).

6. The acquiring bank sends the transaction to the payments system (VISA International or Europay
International) through its connection to the relevant network (VisaNet, in the case of Visa, for

7. The credit card company (Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club) credits the acquirer bank.

8. The credit card company sends the transaction to the issuing bank and automatically debits the

9. The issuing bank debits the cardholders account. It issues monthly or transaction related statements
to the cardholder.

10. The cardholder pays the issuing bank on foot of the statement (this is automatic, involuntary
debiting of the cardholders account with the bank).

Some credit card companies in some territories prefer to work directly with the cardholders. In such a case, they issue a monthly statement, which the cardholder has to pay directly to them by money order or by bank transfer. The cardholder will be required to provide a security to the credit card company and his spending limits will be tightly related to the level and quality of the security provided by him. The very issuance of the card is almost always subject to credit history and to an approval process in Europe. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about credit card issuers in the USA. This lackadaisical vigilance, the monpolistic practices of certain credit card companies, the Kafkaesque procedures and the arbitrariness of the results – put both merchants and credit card holders at risk. Whatever it is that credit card companies provide – it is not guaranteed payment or secure refunds.


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