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Having your credit card declined is almost a rite of passage, I suppose, for people who aren't incredibly rich. It's hard to imagine that any adult can go through life without their credit card or debit card being declined at least once, even if it's just a technical snafu. Which is what happened last Sunday, to people of all economic stripes, from those in the top 1 percent of wealth to those scraping the bottom. As you may have heard, a problem on Visa's end meant that for about 40 minutes, from 2:40 to 3:20 p.m., EDT, according to the Associated Press, people couldn't use their Visa credit card or debit card.
I was one of those people
My two daughters and I were coming from a dog park. My 10-year-old, Isabelle, sat in the car with the dog -- just outside of the ice cream parlor we stopped at -- and my 8-year-old, Lorelei, came inside with me. I ordered the girls their ice cream, and after the woman behind the counter handed us our cones, I handed her my Visa bank debit card. That's where the fun began.
"Your card has been declined," she told me.
"What?" I stammered. I had checked my bank balance that morning, and as far as I knew, it couldn't have been declined. I started running through the possibilities of what might have happened, from identity theft to… well, I couldn't think of much else. At that moment, I couldn't think of anything, really. Lorelei, who was listening intently to all of this, was looking up at me, unsure if she should begin eating her ice cream.
Meanwhile, I'm holding my 10-year-old's cone and glancing back at the car where she and the dog are waiting. The ice cream was already just beginning to melt, and it was about now that another 10 people came inside, and I began wondering how much fun it would be, being humiliated in front of a crowd of strangers as they watched my financial problems unfold before them.
Stupidly, I had brought nothing else to use to pay for the ice cream, unless we count one dollar that I had in a pocket and a worthless Mega Millions lottery ticket in the other.
To the ice cream parlor's credit -- it was a Graeter's in Mariemont, Ohio, part of a regional chain that's kind of legendary here in the Cincinnati area -- the two staff members on duty were extremely understanding and didn't try to grab the ice cream back from my 8-year-old (I offered at least twice to give it back), and they didn't make me feel like a deadbeat.
In a nutshell, we weren't creating a picturesque Sunday afternoon memory that I would treasure for years to come, but my kids were able to enjoy their ice cream while my mind raced, trying to think of ways to pay for it. Offer to wash some dishes? Do some shadow puppet theater on the wall for the customers?
Fortunately, I didn't have to fret too long. I was soon told that the next person's credit card had also been declined, and that the problem must be with the store's credit card reader, and that I could go home, guilt-free and with a happy ending.
Later, I learned that it wasn't their fault or mine, but Visa's snafu, and on April Fool's Day, too, a very poor karmic practical joke, if you ask me. (Visa has had a bad week. As you may have heard, two days before that fateful Sunday, along with MasterCard, a security breach had caused them quite a bit of embarrassment.)
I can only wonder how many businesses and individuals were inconvenienced or wound up losing money during that 40-minute period. And, yes, I called Graeter's and offered to pay them $6.75, but I was absolved (I believe by the store owner) and told not to worry about it. All the more reason I love this ice cream parlor.
Anyway, now that I've had some time to think about all of this, here's my three-pronged strategy on what you should do if your credit or debit card is declined and simply walking away (like after a big meal at a restaurant) isn't all that easy.
1. Don't panic
Fairly obvious advice, but it's easy to forget when you have a line of people behind you and a quizzical look from the person at the cash register, and you're looking down at your 8-year-old daughter and wondering how she'll feel handing back her ice cream. I acted pretty calm at Graeter's because I didn't want to worry Lorelei, but my pulse was racing, and I'm not sure how together I would have been if the stakes had been a lot higher than $6.75, like if I had treated some family members to a big meal at a restaurant.
It's one thing if you're at the grocery store where leaving a cart full of groceries may feel demeaning, but at least you can go on your merry way without owing anything or feeling like you've just stolen something. It's a little more difficult to extract yourself from a credit denial situation if you're inside a convenience store and you've already filled up your car with gas, and then your credit card is declined. Still, don't panic. Panic will obviously not get you anywhere. The trick, of course, is to remember that when you are panicked.
2. Offer your identification and suggest settling up later
That may not fly with every store manager or business owner, of course, but that's something that didn't even occur to me until much later. I could have handed over my driver's license and suggested that the staff take down my information, so that they'd know where to find me in case I didn't, say, pay them back within the next few hours.
Or I could have left my debit card information with the manager, so they could try running it through later. That idea came to me courtesy of Alan Gorstein, of Al-Mart Discount Furniture and Bedding, in Oak Park, Ill.
Gorstein says that he always has the customer pay for furniture before he delivers it, or with cash on delivery. Nevertheless, he admits, "I have had a few isolated situations where my customer thought they would be able to charge an amount, and the system won't authorize the credit card being processed for whatever reason. In most of these situations, I have taken down the credit card number to be processed at a later time and/or date for the convenience of the customer."
I realize some people will say that that's crazy, that leaving your credit or debit card information on a piece of paper with an employee is like asking to have your identity stolen later, but store employees around the world see this information all the time, and most of the time, they don't try and rob the customer blind. And if a business is going to trust that you'll pay them even though you're leaving without paying, it seems logical to return that trust that the employee, manager or business owner is going to handle your credit card or debit card information responsibly.
But obviously, you have to follow your own instincts and common sense here.
3. Ask what the store policy is, and then go with the flow
It isn't easy to find out store policies on this situation -- few business owners or executives like to talk about what they do in this type of situation and thus possibly encourage deadbeats to come on over and attempt to get a service without paying for it. But this sort of thing does happen, and businesses do deal with it. If it happens to you someday, you're hardly the first person the business will have encountered that had a credit card declined.
Neal Dennis, the COO of Hwy 55 Burgers Shakes & Fries, a chain popular in North Carolina, says that it's rare to have a customer's debit or credit card declined, but when it has happened, "We have just asked the servers to use common sense and treat folks the way they would like to be treated in that situation."
Translation: unless it appears obvious that you never intended to pay, you aren't going to be slapped in handcuffs and be spending the night in a jail cell or debtor's prison for credit card fraud. Something will be figured out.