Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 3:47 am | Fair 54º


Susan Estrich: From a Philippines Call Center, Baltimore’s a World Away ... from Washington, D.C.

Credit-card company's outsourcing leaves a lot to be desired at point of (attempted) purchase

I did something so unusual last week as to trigger the “fraud” section at my credit-card company to freeze my account.

No, I didn’t walk into a Tiffany’s somewhere and try to buy a bauble for thousands of dollars. I wasn’t trying to use my card in a foreign land. It had absolutely nothing to do with paying my bills (which I do on time) or my credit limits (more than I should ever need or spend).

I flew to Washington, D.C., from California to attend the memorial service of a close friend. After landing at Dulles Airport (in Virginia), I took one of the authorized “Washington Flyer” taxis to my hotel in D.C. I took out my credit card and used it to pay the fare, about $60, and added a generous tip because we’d spent so much time in traffic, and I was cold and made him turn off the air, and then it started raining. It was just one of those miserable airport rides, but he remained courteous and good humored and even found some shortcuts. I was almost in a good mood when I got out of the cab, even though I was facing a painful weekend.

And then I went into the hotel restaurant, and that was it.

“I’m sorry,” the waitress announced a little too loudly. “I tried it twice, but your credit card was declined.” She showed me the two charge slips. They hadn’t said to call for approval so they could get me on the phone to make sure I was me. Just DECLINED. Twenty dollars.

I tried it one more time in D.C. Maybe forty dollars. Declined again.

Then I tried it again at the parking lot at the Los Angeles airport when I got home. The attendant looked at me a little suspiciously. “Declined,” he screamed from the booth.

When I got home, my daughter told me that someone had called just a little while ago, while I was in the air, from the “Early Warning” department at the credit-card company. She gave me the number. No answer.

So I did what I suppose I could have done two days earlier — except that I was at a memorial service trying to help my friend’s daughter get through an awful weekend and didn’t have a lot of spare time to fight with a credit-card company. I turned over the card and called the number on the back. After pushing a number of buttons (no, I wasn’t trying to pay my bill, my bill was paid) and saying the number and then punching in the number, I finally was connected to a woman who I could swear said she was in Florida. Maybe her name was Florida.

She explained the problem to me: I had taken a taxi (from Virginia) to the District of Columbia, but the credit card was charged by a company in Baltimore. “Maryland,” she said, as if it was obvious. “Maryland,” she said, “is not Washington, D.C.” Why was a company in Baltimore charging me for a trip from Dulles to D.C.?

“Do you know where Maryland is?” I asked her.

A long pause on her side.

I repeated the question.

That’s when I started to lose it.

She was in the Philippines. Nothing against the Philippines. I’m sure her knowledge of geography would be quite adequate for cardholders in the Philippines — and certainly better than that of most Americans. But I’ve never even been to the Philippines. I was using my card right here in the United States.

I asked to be transferred to a supervisor in the United States. Another long hold. Call dropped. Returned to the Philippines. No supervisors available. I said I’d settle for being transferred to anyone in the United States.

Eventually, I was.

I explained my frustration. Doesn’t the credit-card company understand that even if they are paying lower-wage costs for a call center in the Philippines, they also are losing skills that are valuable to the company; that people like me, who are troubled by the wholesale outsourcing of jobs, who are trying to save the jobs of people like her, don’t particularly enjoy being humiliated in restaurants because somebody somewhere in the world thinks it’s suspicious that you would pay a Maryland company to get from Virginia to D.C.? Don’t they understand that from now on, if I have a choice, I won’t use their credit card because I want to support American workers, that I am ready to vote with my pocketbook and my checkbook and, yes, my credit card?

She thanked me. She got it.

She was in Maryland.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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