Marble Falls I went to a Dairy Queen the other day that was on the side of the highway, when I was looking for a bite in the early evening. Strangely, the parking lot was packed with sedans and pickups and, once inside, I felt lucky to get a table a bit after 5PM. We were kind of in the middle of nowhere with no town around for miles, just the junction of two state highways in the Ozark Mountains. Nothing nearby at the crossroads but a Dollar General, a liquor store, and a bar. It was Friday, the end of the work week, and freshly scrubbed farm families seem have made a tradition of this as their version of a “third space” community gathering spot. Some people moved between tables to sit and say hello. At 530 PM, a sixty-something, white-haired grandmotherly type walked in, sat in a corner, and started strumming and signing old gospel songs and folksongs with an Arkansas theme. Sometimes people would clap at the end of song, and sometimes not. I believe you can judge a country place like this by the chicken fried steak, and this one had been a frozen patty of some sort, proof positive that folks weren’t coming for the food, even though the blackberry cobbler was great.
Thinking about these folks, I remembered reading an article in Harpers about this being the golden age of credit card scams. A mid-sixties woman running a home-based catering operation in rural northern California was the lead in the story. She had gotten a call, allegedly from JP Morgan Chase saying someone had used her debit card, and they wanted to send her a new one. Working the scam, to verify her identity they had her read a four-digit code sent to her cellphone, and then they claimed they would send her a new card. This went on for a bit, the new card didn’t show, she called to report that problem, since her US Postal Service deliveries were erratic, and verified again, but unfortunately, she was calling the same person to report the undelivered card. The sad end to this story is that she finally drove forty miles to the nearest Chase branch bank. Once there, she found out that every time she had given the verification number, it was used to initiate a transfer. She was bled dry and put out of business.
“Gullible” was part of the subhead on this story, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. I’ve mentioned before a perhaps too simplistic book by Malcolm Gladwell called Talking to Strangers, where he makes perhaps too much of a case about a “truth default,” meaning our tendency as a people to want to believe others are telling the truth, and how that’s fundamental in a society. It’s likely what tripped up this California caterer, but banks don’t make it easier for these good souls. Perhaps if she had called Chase directly when the first card didn’t arrive, she would have only been ripped off once, and maybe, if miracles never cease, Chase would have made her whole?
Or, maybe not. I’m on the other side of the trust divide, more likely to be suspicious than believing, given the world where I work and the work that I’ve made out of it. As one colleague from Iowa once remarked in a meeting, “Wade, I wouldn’t want to live in your world.” I get that, but that’s also what tricked the caterer and many others. Our banking is with Capital One, like Chase, another big strapping bank. I was checking on a transfer and the available balance on one of our accounts to make sure there was no hanky-panky. In a series of phone calls that I initiated on a Friday afternoon; they hung up on me three times. I got someone once who agreed something didn’t seem right. She promised she would transfer me to someone who could help me, and that person informed me that since it was a business account, they couldn’t do a thing, but I should call back on Monday, since no one could handle any questions about a business account until Monday after 8 AM. I kept on this throughout the weekend, like a dog on a bone, until finally on my sixth or seventh call, I managed to break through and get a supervisor who didn’t give me satisfaction, but did at last finally give me an answer.
I say all of that to say, that even if our California caterer had tried to sort this out on the phone, she might have been caught in the same maelstrom, while the thieves continued to empty her little business account. She eventually found the truth by going to a Chase branch, but that’s also an option not available to most elderly customers in the country. The way branches are being closed in the city, that’s also increasingly true there. Speaking of scams, banks have also reportedly been balking at making good when they are implicated in scams using Zelle, their preferred processor with Venmo and PayPal are not much better.
So, yes, people should not be so gullible, and, no, people should not be as distrustful and skeptical as I am, but banks, credit card companies, and, importantly, the government and its regulators need to do a whole lot more to make sure that these swindles are prevented.