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When Software Fairies Solve Debit Card Problems

[Editor's Note: today's post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. Michelle helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Today's post is a follow-up to an earlier post about prepaid-card payments for health-care expenses; a new payment method that seems more complicated than the previous system it replaced.]

By R. Michelle Green

You may recall Caren, the subject of my last post. Her employer provided United Healthcare Consumer Account Card for Flexible Spending Account purchases failed to function as expected, and she lost money. She has taken advice from our blog host and many of his readers. (My thanks, BTW, to all those who responded!) Unexpected news: Caren may not have lost money after all. Yay for her, right?

Patience, Gentle Reader.

I wrote that United Healthcare believed she had been paid. They produced as proof comparison of her failed charges and a list of completed transactions, approximately 70% identical and clearing 1-2 business days later. Turns out both she and United Healthcare were right. Her credit card statements disagreed with her receipts, differing by the amount of the disputed transactions.

Allow me to illustrate. She goes to the pharmacy, offering her consumer accounts card to pay for a $20 prescription. It fails to take. She offers instead a credit card to pay for the prescription, some groceries and newspapers, for a total of $50, so marked on her receipt. Her credit card statement, however, shows she was charged only $30. And $20 was deducted from her FSA account. Somehow, the transaction that failed to take is magically clarified at a later date. Why didn’t all the transactions match? Some were cash transactions – the other 70% were credit card transactions. (To paraphrase Jimmy Fallon, nobody’s giving back cash.)

Software fairies! They took those transactions that were eligible, and attributed them to the most economic pathway, her pre-tax flexible spending account.

Arthur C. Clarke just texted me, reminding me that it’s likely technology, not magic. I infer a process, I allege a policy. Can we reverse engineer this?

Caren has a unique bar code that gives her discounts as a frequent drugstore customer. The transactions (one failed, one successful) are likely sequential, and thus easily paired in the day’s logged transactions, implying clear intent on the user’s part. Items eligible for FSA reimbursement are indicated on the receipt, care of their own bar codes. Big Brother, Benevolent at last! So: Caren did get the benefit of her Flexible Spending Account. What corporation was thoughtful enough, integrated enough, Jobs-ian enough, to make this happen? No one’s claiming the credit (oops, so much for the Jobs analogy…).

The most likely candidate, the drugstore, steadfastly insists that their retail accounting software cannot and does not do this.

So let’s pick this new conundrum apart, shall we? Let’s leave aside the fact that Caren benefits – ends often do not justify means. Let’s assume that it’s not magic, that there’s conscious programming in play. Let’s also not dwell on how long it took Caren to confirm this (the last time I took OCD joy in checking off each receipt against my credit card bill and stapling the checked receipts to the reconciled statement, I could still ask friends to help me move for the price of pizza and soda).

What’s my beef with the alleged process?

  • Accuracy: have you been offered someone else’s loyalty card at a store so you could benefit from a discount? Is my credit card number now associated with that person’s account? Implied intent does not cut it here.
  • Communication: Caren was totally in the dark. The pharmacy’s employees (including local management) vehemently deny it exists.
  • Policy Transparency: there is none here. How many of you read or saw Terms of Agreement when you signed up for your own frequent customer user card? The average American family is enrolled in at least 14 loyalty programs, and actively engaged in six of them.
  • Privacy: is there a privacy violation in play in the association of two sequentially used payment cards?
  • Legality: can a corporation associate your credit card number with your frequent user number without your knowledge/consent/authorization? I would hope not… What if one card were not hers but her spouse’s? Would this ‘benefit’ have created a fraud in her name?

I have a CVS Extra Care card, and just for giggles, tried to find its terms of use online. I have never linked it to online use, I just flash it at purchases. I found no terms online, albeit short of registering the account.

I have always found conspiracy theories entertaining, while clucking softly to myself about how carried away their creators are, how inappropriately suspicious they are. Yet here I am, waving my own baby Oliver Stone flag. Is this how it begins? Is it paranoia if they’re really chasing you?

Gotta go, I got a ton of credit card statements to check.


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This is very interesting. Somehow, there must be a linkage between the FSA card and the user's credit card. A customer loyalty card may be it? Or, in the application process for the FSA card, a CC number (or associated bank account) may have been required. Having that level of unattended manipulation of the funds and transactions is scary, to say the least.

A customer loyalty card should not have any direct linkage to any financial card or account. That is bad on so many levels.

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