Time to Human vs. Time to Sentience

With debit card fraud on the rise, banks are getting way hardcore about putting stops on accounts if they notice any slight deviation from normal activity. Unfortunately, their customer service desks haven’t kept pace with the uptick.

From a reader:

“I’ve been reading your articles about tracking the time it takes to reach a human with some interest. I run an internal service department for the company I work for and in our business it’s important for me that our internal customers get someone on the line to resolve their problems as quickly as is physically and fiscally possible. But today I was reminded viscerally that getting a warm body on the other end of the line isn’t as important as getting an intelligent and capable brain to deal with your problem…”

Joe continues:

    “Today I went to lunch and stopped in at the local Rubio’s. I placed my order and handed my Wells Fargo check card to the cashier. The payment for my order was declined. Since the cashier hasn’t got a phone (or much inclination to call a bank over a declined charge for a $4.79 taco combo meal) and I didn’t have any cash on hand I had to bow out of the line and go hungry. I called Wells Fargo to find out what was up. I got a human right away, but she was unable to tell me anything. All she could do was transfer me, which she did ineptly, to the Check Card fraud division to see if they’d put a hold on my card. Instead of transferring me she hung up on me, and since she hadn’t given me, or even offered, the number to call these folks back at I had to start the process all over again. This time I got disconnected by the menu when I tried to select 0 for a live CSR.

    Out of time I had to head back to work hungry. When I got home there were three automated messages from Wells Fargo’s fraud division. This is the third time in a month that I’ve had such messages on my answering machine and each time they make me want to punch kittens. The automated message system they use assumes it is talking to a person when it connects with your answering machine, so it spews a useless message that identifies where the call orginates from and instructs you to press 1 on your phone to speak to a representative. At no point does this message give you the phone number you need to call back.

    I eventually managed to find the correct number and to talk to a CSR in Fraud Prevention. It seems that Debit/Check Card fraud is on the rise so steeply that Wells Fargo have decided to address it with a sort of “burn the fields and salt the earth” tactic. Each time that my card has been disabled by their automated system it has happened, well, basically because I have used my card. Today I paid my Earthlink bill ($21.95 to maintain my old email address for a year), bought a latte at Starbucks ($3.00) and tried to buy a couple of tacos at Rubios ($4.79). This apparently qualifies as suspicious activity. When I tried to challenge the CSR I was speaking with about their tactics he basically told me to suck it. When I suggested that WFB is basically discouraging their customers from using their Debit cards as check cards he parrotted a very well rehearsed line about how Debit card fraud is on the rise and they have to do something about it. When I suggested that what they’re effectively doing is wiping out the usefulness of the VISA portion of the Debit card program he was stumped.

    Honestly, I’d have willingly waiting for hours on the line for someone who could have actually provided some intelligent help. As it stands I probably won’t use my check card now unless I absolutely have to. Seems to me that WFB is going to lose a lot of business over this.”


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  1. mschlock says:

    Interesting. My Wells Fargo credit card was frozen for potential fraud a few weeks ago (appreciate the thought, but to my discredit, I actually did spend that much money on DVDs). However, when they froze it, a real human called me, they left a real phone number on my answering machine, and the relevant phone number was also shown at the top of the screen when I logged into the WF online banking system.

    Weird that the experience would be so different for a debit card vs. a credit card. FWIW, I also use my debit card constantly and that’s never been frozen (knock wood).

  2. billhelm says:

    An unfortunate situation. Banks are constantly trying to balance the fraud situations with the needs of the consumer. Having helpful reps that can do something about it is key.

    My Wells Fargo Check Card number was swiped about two years ago legitmately, used once for 280 at a home depot in flordia (I don’t live anywhere near there) and flagged immediately.

    The money was back in my account within 3 days, and the fraud folks were very helpful. So I guess it goes both ways.

  3. Timbojones says:

    I just want to step in right here to ring the credit union bell again. Screw banks; credit unions are better.

  4. Jillsy says:

    Ooh I love it when the credit card company puts random fraud alerts on my card! The card gets declined, I get all embarrassed in front of the merchant, I call Shittybank Mastercard, and they ask, “Did you make a purchase from a MetroCard Vending Machine?” And I say, “Yes, just like I did 30 days ago, and 30 days before that, and 30 days before that…”

  5. OkiMike says:

    I posted earlier about the blocked credit card whilst shopping abroad to furnish my new apartment.

    So long as it only required a phone call and my consent to “unblock” the card from Japan, I have no qualms with the service.

  6. Tex says:

    Whoa. I haven’t been online much in the past week I guess and missed that my tale of woe was actually shared with the readers at Consumerist. Neat.

    Anyway, I’ve thought about this a lot in the past week and a half and realize that what is happening is that petty theft risk used to reside in the hands of the individual – you walked around with a wallet full of money and crooks mugged individuals to get that money. Since the advent and popularity of ATM/Check Cards most folks don’t walk around with cash anymore, so the business of mugging became a bad deal for crooks who switched to identity theft and card number theft to get the goods. This transferred the everyday risk of petty theft from individuals to corporate entities; namely banks.

    Individuals didn’t like getting mugged, and now banks don’t like it. So the banks have become very risk-averse. But what this is likely to do is cause people to start walking around with cash in their wallets again, thus making themselves targets for crooks once the crooks figure out where the easy pickings are. The banks are just transfering the risk back to their customers.

    I know that since this incident with WFB I haven’t used the Check Card features of my Debit card once. I’ve used it as a debit card plenty, but I’m no longer using it as a check card, and I’m also canceling my membership in the rewards program that WFB sold me on last year as an incentive to use my check card more.