Pity the poor credit card companies.
No two plastic card outfits are alike in the internal rules they throw in front of customers seeking to dispute charges on their cards. Their ultimate goal is to reduce disputes to zero. It’s fun watching the tricks they find.
No credit card company wants to handle disputed charges. They cost money. They force employees to sit on long, painful calls — amid mournful wailing — about that accidental double-charge on their card for a cup of coffee. Or the restaurant that intended to bill for two more glasses of premium wine, only to discover that sloppy fingers had pressed the button for “bottles,” not glasses.
The card companies live on the millions of tiny cuts — commissions — they get each time a card is used.
The latest crisis for the plastic card industry comes from the movie and television industry and its streaming of shows and films. Seems the FUBOs, Hulus and Showtimes are shameless in selling online memberships. They often make it artificially tough to cancel. Theoretically, they can just charge customers forever for memberships. This can continue long after they die, passing fees on to offspring.
Take Google, one of the most profitable tech companies. They find a service for which they can induce a sign-up. Now let’s suppose the customer can’t find a way to later cancel.
Usually you’d expect the credit card company to back the customer. Not so fast! Much of the credit card industry has invented a new policy requiring customers to prove they canceled. That’s great. … Except when they can’t cancel, or find that a technical glitch has cut them off. And they can’t phone for help.
“No such number, nobody home.” You know the tune.
This sort of hide-and-seek can’t spell immediate disaster for the companies that practice it. But time can rot ill intent.
American Express for years proudly trumpeted its customer service. Amex swore it would always stand behind its customers. Seems we’ve forgotten about the Boston Fee Party.
The Fee Party was one of the first effective mass uprisings to bite a credit card company hard. You have to look back to 1991, but the bite was delicious to behold, dripping with national publicity.
Amex charged more than competing companies to merchants whose customers used its card. This led shopkeepers and restaurants to freely prefer to put charges on some other card. Amex would retaliate by refusing to let offending outfits accept Amex cards.
This policy exploded when it reached Boston’s restaurant association. One merchant took a large butcher knife, cut up the Amex card and said he’d no longer accept it for payment.
The entire association, like the front row at a Boston Bruins’ home game, followed suit. They published ads in leading newspapers announcing their boycott of American Express. Some say the firm never recovered fully from the long knives.
America Online, the precursor to modern internet providers, made it impossible to cancel online access by having its reps browbeat customers while never processing a cancellation. That went on until a customer taped one phone call with an AOL rep and sent it to a network evening news anchor.
Today’s streaming companies are gaining reputations for oily cancellation policies for online subscriptions. Customers thought they were getting a “free week.” But it came in a later time period, after the customer wanted to cancel.
Google’s YouTube TV is generally a good product. It’s an online replacement to a cable company’s monthly TV lineup. It comes by computer, so isn’t wedded to a single residence. The $65-a-month service caught on because of its portability. But “portability” may bite Google in the face.
Google has no live customer service phone number. It has no easily-reached selection board featuring the word “Cancel.”
If it wanted to, it would.
With a package, a sender must prove the package arrived. Not online outfits. Lazy credit card companies require customers to prove they canceled a service that was interrupted or not as advertised.
Observers are laughing, awaiting the day Google’s policy blows up in its face.
We once ranked companies on the reliability of their services. Now, we’re switching to a much darker and ruder yardstick: Which credit card company, bank or merchant ended up placing us in harm’s way?
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and his column appears here on Sundays.