Coffee heat rising

For a change: NOT phishing!

Vector illustration of detailed glossy red credit card isolated on white background

Awoke this  morning to find an email from American Express (purportedly) announcing that they haven’t received this month’s payment, and if I’ll just click here I can pay right up.

Well, naturally I figured this was an attempted rip. Pulled out last month’s bill and found a note saying I’d paid electronically on 11/7, with the bank scheduled to deliver the amount by 11/9.

Whoever sent the message had the last four numbers of my credit card number. So I called the customer service number on my AMEX statement and was astonished to discover that it was a REAL message from the REAL American Express. Their CSR asked me to check my bank statement online, to be sure the attempted payment had not been deducted from my account. And no, it hadn’t.

So I sent payment forthwith, and she canceled the late fee. Good thing: AMEX has jacked up its late fee for consumer accounts.

I was surprised they’d send this notice by email, since it looks convincingly like a phishing attempt. Surely there must be enough consumers out here by now who would never even think of responding to such a thing. In most circumstances, I would simply delete the message. The only reason I called AMEX on the phone is that I’m pretty OCD about paying credit-card bills on time.

At any rate, now we know: AMEX does send out phishy-looking notices. If you get one, obviously don’t click on any links or call any phone number given in the message. Get the number from the back of your credit card, or use the customer service number on your statement. Call, inquire, and pay if need be.

Image: DepositPhotos,  © ladyann

Thank You, Costco and Citigroup!

Hot dang! Costco’s move to annoying CitiGroup is going to cut my monthly Costco budget at least in half, and maybe by as much as three-fourths!

Remember how much I guessed I’d have to spend on today’s Costco junket, to pick up meat for the dogs and a few things for myself that I can’t easily find elsewhere? It was ridiculous, as you’ll recall — I guessed that the giant packages of chicken and the pork would each cost about 30 bucks; $15 for the restaurant-sized package of frozen veggies; maybe $10 per package of Campari tomatoes and of Mexican mangoes.

Well. That was all so majorly wrong. Wrong wrong wrong! The chicken came to about $13; seventeen pounds (!!!) of pork, $35.55; the mangoes and the tomatoes, each $4.49.

Now, I did expend the $95 projected for this trip, but only because for the first time since the memory of Fat Lady runneth not to the contrary, the store happened to have a pair of white Gloria Vanderbilt jeans in size 10.

It has literally been years since any of the Costco stores I habituate has had a size 10 pair of Glorias that fit, in white. I know, because every goddamn time I go into one of those stores, I search for them. So, add $14.99: come up with a total, including tax, of $94.23.

Costco Run 7-15-2016

This means the real cost of buying only the food items needed for this trip was about $77.

You realize…that’s about half the $150/month dedicated to Costco in the new budget.

Budget 6-2016 2

And, since the amount budgeted for Costco shopping in the New Regime is itself half the average I found I’ve been spending of late, $77 is a little more than a quarter of the amount I’ve been diddling away in Costco.

Think of that…

A 75% saving on household goods, food, and (monumental) impulse buys, just because Costco switched from AMEX to the dreadful, impossible CitiGroup as vendor for their in-house credit card.

Their loss, my gain.

🙂

I must say, I’d forgotten how annoying and stress-inducing it is to have to write a check while standing in line at a cash register. It’s been a long time since I’ve paid for anything with anything other than a credit card or direct bill-pay.

Shopping at Costco is aversive to start with. It’s crowded, the lines are endless, the insulting shoplift check at the door makes you want to bite someone…ugh. That’s exaggerated at the store nearest to me by cultural issues having to do with personal space: for a middle-class white American female, it really isn’t a very comfortable place to shop.  That’s why, whenever I can swing it, I’ll shop Costco in other parts of town. Not that I don’t love my fellow shoppers, but that I really do dislike people climbing up my rear end or parking their carts crosswise across the aisle so I have to turn around, go all the way to the start of the aisle, go all the way down the next aisle, and then come halfway back into the original aisle to get to the merchandise I want to buy.

Sociologically it’s interesting and amusing; time-wise and patience-wise, it ain’t.

So add to that the slight — but significant — extra hassle of having to write a check, and I find myself thinking “no, thanks.”

I’ve paid my Costco membership for this year. We will see if it seems like a $50 fee for the privilege of shopping there is worth paying.

The truth is, the things I can’t easily get anyplace else — a whole package of those wonderful mangoes; massive amounts of chicken, pork, and appropriate veggies suitable for processing into dog food; giant packages of high-quality pecans, walnuts, and pine nuts; lifetime supplies of paper goods; the incredible maple syrup at the incredible price; the smokin’ deal on gasoline; the beloved tire shop; the cheap propane — may not really add up to $50 worth of easy shopping or $50 worth of savings on gas and junk.

At any rate, given the hassle involved in writing checks and the general PITA it is to shop there under the best of conditions, you may be sure I won’t be running into Costco every time the whim strikes: not anymore.

I’m hoping to keep the Costco runs down to one a month, ideally; two at most. And if I only spend about $75 or $80 on each such trip…jeez. Costco’s CitiBank debacle will be my profit, to the tune of about $150 to to $225 a month!

Citigroup Charges Costco Bill on Inactive Visa Card!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACostco’s Big Move from American  Express to Citigroup’s Visa card went into effect two days ago.

I detest Citigroup and would not do business with them if they were the last bank on earth. The immediate cause for this disdain had to do with a charge that I needed to challenge, which led me to discover that Citigroup’s customer service doesn’t suck because Citigroup doesn’t have customer service. At that time, I canceled the Citigroup Visa I had and determined never to have anything to do with Citibank or Citigroup again.

So as you can imagine, I was dismayed when Costco announced it was dropping American Express, whose customer service is stellar, and replacing it with sh!t Citigroup Visa. I do not want to lose AMEX, so I sign up with them for two new cards, one for me and one for the S-corp, and figure that after the Costco Amex cards expire, I’ll pay with a debit card or a check if and when I shop at Costco.

Paid the last personal Costco AMEX bill on April 27 and the last corporate Costco AMEX bill on June 2. Balance on both cards: $0.00

Meanwhile, Citigroup sends me shiny brand-new Visa charge cards. The first to arrive, I dropped into a file folder, figuring maybe I should keep it, just in case. The second, for the S-corp, arrived two or three weeks later and got stuck in the pile of paper that mounds up on my desk like a sand dune until I shovel it off. Today I haul out the shovel and what do I find in one stack but this card, still stuck to its piece of paper.

I have never called the 800 number to activate either one of these cards. I decide I should cancel them both, given the ever-present chance of hacking and fraudulence.

But now, naturally, I can’t find the file folder where I deposited the first card. So I don’t have the card number. Maybe, I think, the guys at Costco’s customer service desk have it. Maybe they can even cancel the cards from their end.

Remember: neither of these cards has ever been activated. Hold that thought.

So I schlep to Costco in the 111-degree heat, hike across the 160-degree parking lot, and pounce the unsuspecting Costco CSRs.

😀

Not surprisingly, they can’t cancel either card. But they do come up with the last four numbers of the missing card. With this bit of data, they think, I should be able to cancel the missing card, especially if I tell a Citibank Visa CSR that it’s missing.

That, of course, is assuming I can get such a person on the phone. The piece of paper to which the corporate card is still stuck has NOT ONE CLUE to how to reach a human being. Nor does it show a snail-mail address. But the desk manager there does find a flyer that has a purported customer service phone number.

While I’m chatting with the Costco guys, I ask the manager if the membership fee is automatically charged to your credit card (since I haven’t been dunned at the cash register for awhile, this thought has crossed my feeble mind). He says that can’t happen unless you’ve specifically arranged to make that happen. I don’t recall having done so, but anything’s possible.

I drive home through the 111-degree heat and call that number, not expecting much. Citibank’s 3-step MO is to give you a) a recorded message telling you how busy they are (you, of course, being a prole, have nothing else to do but wait on the phone), then b) put you on hold for ten or fifteen minutes, then c) disconnect you. It’s almost impossible to get through to a person, and when you do, the poor wretch usually can do nothing for you.

Don’t believe me? Check it out! If that’s not enough for you, there’s far, far more.

But evidently Citigroup has tried to clean up its shoddy customer-service act for Costco, at least at the outset. It only takes about eight or ten minutes to reach a person, though that’s after I’ve called twice trying to make my way through the punch-a-button maze. This guy indeed is able to close the personal credit card account with nothing more to go on but the last four digits.

I should’ve told him I’d lost both the cards. But nooo…I cannot tell a lie! What is the matter with me?

When I give him the corporate card number and say I want to cancel that, too, he says he has to give me to some other CSR to do that. So again I wait about ten minutes till another guy comes on the line. Again I have to explain why I want to cancel: i.e., “I wouldn’t do business with Citigroup again if it was the last bank on the planet.” This is the fourth time I’ve had to say that today.

He says the card is now canceled, but I owe them $59.73.

Sidebar: Citigroup contrived to purchase American Express’s loans, so whatever might have been outstanding on the canceled Costco AMEX card is now an outstanding debt to Citigroup. Willy-nilly.

I say I don’t think so. The balance on the AMEX card was zero when I paid the bill and nothing has been charged on it since.

He says — get this! — the $59.73 charge is for the Costco membership!

WTF?

That means that Costco was able to charge a bill on a Visa card that has never been activated!

I say, I do not want my Costco membership automatically charged to any credit card and I did not ask to have that happen. Take it off! If (I think but do not say) I actually had arranged to auto-charge the membership fee, I would never have put it on the corporate card, because my son’s membership is on it, too. He is not on the corporation’s board and not an employee or contractor.

He says I’ll have to go back to Costco, have them issue me a refund, and then pay them with some other tool.

I schlep back through the 111-degree heat (the sky is clabbering up: it’s getting humid). I trudge across the 160-degree asphalt again. And I again pounce the customer service desk guys.

It takes some doing to explain to them that Citigroup engrossed this charge after the AMEX card had a $0 balance and so could not have transferred it over as an outstanding debt. It means that the membership fee must have been charged to the Visa card, since there was no way to charge it to the defunct AMEX card. The manager soon sees the issue. He agrees to issue me a refund on a card that has not been activated(!).

Amazingly, this works.

I now try to pay the membership fee on my debit card. But the payment won’t go through. Costco’s swipe machine won’t accept my PIN!

Understand, yesterday I racked up $80 at the Whole Foods on that card, with that PIN. I propose to pay with a check. He suggests I just not enter a PIN and it’ll charge as on a credit card.

Despite knowing that when you choose that option, the credit union’s debit card racks up debt on a Visa card (undoubtedly goddamn Citigroup’s), I decide this is the path of least resistance. I know it’s asking for trouble, because I’ve never once seen a bill from the CU after this has been done. But I think let’s just get this over with!

So pretty clearly I’m not going to be able to buy gas at Costco with my debit card. This a major inconvenience, because they have the best price on gas in town, and because their nearest gas station is much safer for a vulnerable single woman than anyplace else in the central part of the city. Oh well. I guess I can buy a cash card once a month or so and use that.

Or not. There’s a limit to how much unnecessary hassle I’m likely to put up with.

But the point here is that they somehow managed to charge up $60 on a credit card that was never activated.

Entertainingly, I’m not the only one who’s enjoyed this adventure: a current of pure rage is streaming through Costco’s website. A lot of people are saying Citibank is trying to charge them for transactions that they had already paid on their AMEX bills! So I guess I’m lucky $60 is their only unpleasant surprise.

If I find I can’t use the debit card to buy gasoline, I may look into Sam’s Club. Their website suggests their stores are very similar to Costco’s. Problem is, this area is liberally salted with Costco outlets — there’s one near every one of my beaten paths. To shop at Sam’s Club, I’d have to go quite a distance out of my way.

That might not be a bad thing, though. If you don’t shop in warehouse stores, you can’t spend copious amounts of money in warehouse stores…

 

Life in the 21st Century

DebitCardIt could be argued, my friends, that living in the 21st century is a continual major effing hassle.

You’ll recall that after Costco announced it will drop its credit-card program with American Express in favor of a new deal with  Citibank, I decided I would forego the pleasure of doing business with Citibank, use my debit card to buy at Costco (an activity that has been much curtailed of late, anyway), and replace my Costco AMEX cards with a single new AMEX account unrelated to that worthy retailer.

So about ten days or two weeks ago, I called AMEX and asked for a new account, so that would be in place well in advance of the upcoming jig at Costco.

Instinct told me that doing this would entail some sort of hassle, and so I’d better not wait till the last minute. Boy, was I right!

Yesterday evening comes in the mail a note from AMEX. “Due to the freeze you placed on your credit file, we cannot obtain the necessary information…” yada yada. They want me to call them and give them the password to unfreeze my credit bureau reports!

Yesh. Over the phone!

Well. I’m not sure how to deal with this. I unfroze those accounts and set the unfreeze for ten days. That means it took them over ten days to even bother to get around to opening a new account in my name. Plus they’ve got not one but two credit cards in my name right now, neither of which I’ve ever welched on. Since I’m already a customer, why is it necessary to jump me through a hoop to prove I’m unlikely to do anything different from what I’ve already done?

And I am not happy about giving some phone clerk in a boiler-room the key to unlock my credit bureau files.

The reason I had to freeze my credit bureau accounts was that the Maricopa County Community College District’s incompetent IT department kindly gave to hackers my full name, my address, my phone number, my date of birth, my Social Security number, my entire employment history dating back to 1967, my entire educational history including a list of every single college-level course I’ve ever taken with the number of credits and the grade I got, the name of my credit union, and the routing number and account number of my checking account.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect American Express to respect what little I can do to stop hackers from using that data to frickin’ ruin me.

If I’m going to do this at all, I’m going to have to wait ten or fifteen days, then go back to Equifax and hassle around with changing my password. But since AMEX doesn’t seem to be able to get off its butt in any given two-week period, that may be counterproductive.

I still have the Citibank credit card that I stopped using. Didn’t close the account (you can’t; you can’t reach a human being there to speak with), so I suppose I could just leave that one on the books, use the debit card for everything, and just not bother to use a credit card at all.

You pretty much have to have a credit card. You can’t book a motel room without one, to say nothing of buying your favorite junk form Amazon. But God, I hate doing business with Citibank.

No matter which way you turn these days, you’re hemmed in by hassle.

Simplifying My Financial Life: THANK YOU Costco!

So word comes down that Honored Purveyor of All Possible Lifetime Supplies — i.e., Costco — will sever its relations with American Express and make all its customers use CitiBank Mastercard, if they are to charge things. That means the beloved Costco AMEX card, yea verily the Card of the Gigantic Annual Kickback, is going away.

Well, I have this to say about that:

If Citibank were the last financial institution on the planet, I would be doing business with a tin can buried
in the back yard.

Helle’s Belles, I think. Both my business and my personal charge cards are Costco AMEX cards. A ton of things are auto-billed to these cards. Now I need to make a switch.

So I call AMEX and get started on the process of opening a new no-annual-fee card, so that I can shift my monthly charges over in a timely way (i.e., now, while months remain to untangle the inevitable snafus). Kay, the friendly and truly helpful CSR who answers the phone, explains that I have to talk with someone in a different department to establish a new no-annual-fee bidness card for The Copyeditor’s Desk. So we proceed with the involved process of opening the personal charge.

While we’re jumping through these hoops, it dawns on me that really, the business AMEX card only has one or two permanent recurring charges set up on it. And otherwise, it’s a cold day in an Arizona July that I charge anything on that card: the occasional lunch or meeting over coffee with a client or subcontractor; the monthly AT&T wireless fee for the iPad…and…and what on earth ELSE?

Bloody little, that’s what else. Now and again I’ll charge up a vast quantity of paper or some pens or a computer gew-gaw, but not often. So…..sooooo….WHY do I have a separate AMEX card to have to reconcile and pay every month? Why can’t CEDesk pay its charges on the new “personal” AMEX card whenever they’re rung up?

Haven’t run this past WonderAccountant yet…but I do fail to see why I need a separate account if the bidness just pays its own way directly into a given AMEX account.

This would decomplicate the bookkeeping: only one account instead of two. And since I rarely have any need to go online with the iPad when I’m not in the house, the reasonable thing to do would be to cancel the ATT subscription for that thing, thereby saving about 15 bucks a month.

Costco, as it develops, will accept debit cards, even at the gas pump. And I do have a debit card. So as soon as they take away the AMEX cards, I’ll be down one card and happy to say so.

Cash vs. Credit Redux…already!

Did you see Kara’s comment on yesterday’s post about the cash/debit/credit chestnut? Among several issues, she touches on the hot button of AMEX’s outrageous fees.

Well…I don’t know if she’s prescient or if she just works for The New York Times, but presto-digito! This very morning up pops a report that ought to get the attention of us consumers: a group of businesses are on the verge of winning a class action asking that American Express allow them to pass transaction fees along to their customers. They also appear to be winning against the other two major credit card issuers.

What this will mean for you and me is higher prices at the cash register if we choose to buy with a credit card. In the AMEX action, American Express proposes an agreement that will let merchants soak customers for the transaction fees as long as the same amount is levied on other credit and charge card users. Since American Express has the highest transaction fees in the industry, that means you will pay a premium price to use your Mastercard or Visa. Unless, of course, AMEX chooses to lower its transaction fees. Either way, it’s going to cost more to buy things with a charge card.

That brings us, then, to the next question:

If you had to pay for the privilege of buying things on a credit card, would you continue (assuming you’re in this habit) to buy every little thing on the card and then pay it off at the end of the month? Or would you move to cash or debit card?

Presumably, that lovely kickback American Express shares with its customers each year would be eaten up by the transaction fees, especially if, as I do, you charged virtually everything and hardly ever used cash. In the absence of that benefit, AMEX looks a lot less attractive.

You do need it to buy gas at Costco…or so it seems. In fact, you can go into the store and buy a cash card, which works just fine at Costco’s gas pumps. And presumably, in the coming brave new world of credit-card surcharges, it will work without dinging you an extra little gouge.

Personally, I empathize with the business owners. It’s ridiculous that they should have to support a huge, outrageously profitable industry so that their customers can enjoy the perceived convenience of paying with plastic. And as a matter of fact, when my clients decide to remit payment to me through PayPal, I do add the PayPal transaction fee to their bill. PayPal is more convenient for me, too — depositing paper checks is a damn nuisance. But not so much that I want to pay extra for that convenience.

Still, clients don’t seem to mind. Many actually seem to expect to cover the PayPal fees.

So…where do I come down on this? Squarely on both sides of the fence!

If a court ruled that I could charge clients for credit-card transactions, my order for a Square would be winging its way toward that worthy vendor as we scribble.

On the other hand, you can bet I’d pay for a lot more things in cash. In fact, I’d probably use cash for everything but large-ticket items and products that might need to be returned. And even a large-ticket item can be paid for with a check, if you have the cash in your account. Travel reservations, I assume, could be made with a debit card. And one thing you do have to say for cash: it makes life a lot harder for hackers.

How about yourself? When merchants can pass credit-card transaction fees along to you, will that change your choice of payment method?