Sunday, 29 April 2018

Ding! (But also a cautionary tale)

I was at Lytes Cary Manor this afternoon, a smallish but pretty National Trust property in the south Somerset countryside, not far from Somerton. It's one of a local cluster of nice NT properties that I've been to, the others being Tintinhull Garden, Montacute House, and Barrington Court. The old great house is the chief draw with the last two, but all have decent gardens, Lytes Cary perhaps more so than any. Chatting with one of the room guides, I learned that the new Head Gardener at Lytes Cary is a man of energy and has great plans for the already excellent gardens there. So do give it a visit.

Anyway, I was in the Lytes Cary tea room and it was nearly half past two, a bit early for afternoon tea. But hey, it was a dry but chilly day. I fancied black coffee and a slice of cake. My choice made, I presented Tigerlily to the credit card terminal and - DING! - the transaction went through almost instantly on Google Pay. The woman behind the counter very nearly clapped her hands. Even the man next to me, who had his own phone ready (an older iPhone, on which he had Apple Pay), said he was impressed and congratulated me: his phone was never so quick and slick. (And perhaps Apple Pay didn't make such a loud DING! either)

I'm getting used to reactions like this. It's still a novelty for me, and still a lot of fun. In fact I look forward to opportunities to use Google Pay. That doesn't mean I'm spending more - just that I never now pay in banknotes or coin, if there is a chance of doing it contactlessly with the phone. It's made paying for things rather fun.

And I'm thinking that, to earn such applause, and such admiring commentary, paying by phone must still be fairly unusual. Indeed, the lady just in front of me had paid contactlessly too, but all she did was tap her credit card against the terminal. Blink and you would have missed it. There was no preparation, no big performance, no theatre, no DING, no 'transaction confirmed' message flashing up on the screen, nor an on-screen notification soon after, which, if you tapped on it, revealed an electronic receipt. The phone way is not only a fast way, it's also definitely the more entertaining way! I was given a paper receipt, but since I had that electronic receipt, I really I didn't need it. (I'd obviously make an exception for items carrying guarantees, or if I might need to return them)

Suddenly the payment landscape has changed. I'm now waiting for Google to enhance their app so that I can send and receive money from friends and family. Over the phone.

Goodness knows what some of the people I've known in the past would be making of all this. People now in their eighties, mainly, but some younger ones too. Do I hear dark mutterings? Well, the times they are a-changing, and one needs to keep up.

Besides, all this contactless stuff leaves an electronic trail - it perfectly suits born record-keepers like me. Cash left no trace of its departure, unless I got a receipt.

Might the stick-in-the-muds say that waggling a phone at a terminal makes paying far too fast and easy, so that money drains away without a thought? Well, anyone living on a fixed income will testify that you know exactly what money you have and how long it needs to last. The particular payment method doesn't change the ingrained habit of thinking about the affordability of every purchase. I think the 'reckless spending' notion applies only to people who would be reckless anyway. It may for some be hard to part with physical notes and coins, and for them that is a salutary brake on spending too much; but for me, if my Money Diary spreadsheet tells me I mustn't spend any more than planned, then I take heed and don't. I hate those figures looking bad. The slippage is recorded for all time, a stain on my powers of self-control, a reproach to my common sense. That's disincentive enough.

If for some reason I couldn't use my phone, then I would use chip-and-PIN. It's become the old-fashioned payment method now. But I suppose the PIN bit does add an extra level of security, and the credit card companies must like it better for that reason, and will always let the transaction go through. After all, who ever hands their card to another person and tells them the PIN? (Yes, yes, I know it happens...but this lady has never yet, and wouldn't ever, part with her credit card, let alone the PIN! I'd risk giving offence rather than do that)

But a little story now, to show how going contactless might lead to a glitch.

I had to use chip-and-PIN the other day at Waitrose in Gillingham, but not because the shop's card terminals were behind the times. It was because two attempts to make payment by phone had failed to go through. Twice I got a 'transaction confirmed' message from Google Pay on the phone screen, but the shop's own display nevertheless said the payment had failed. The bill for my groceries was £44.10, a typical spend at Waitrose.

There was no obvious reason why the payment process had hit a rock. After all, I'd used the phone a lot over the previous week or two, and indeed several times already that same day.

We tried chip-and-PIN as a last resort. (Actually I had plenty of cash with me, and that cash was the real 'last resort') Ah, success! It went through that time. Well, great...but why had Google Pay not worked? It had been a rather embarrassing experience!

I soon found out why. Back at Fiona, and still in Waitrose's car park, I got a phone call from my credit card company. Having gone through an extended series of security questions and answers to establish that I really was Lucy Melford, that well-known lady of leisure (and recently-embarrassed old dearie), the young man explained to me that their algorithms had picked up that my credit card was getting more use than normal, and consequently it had been specially monitored. After the morning's transactions (which included buying the new Pittards bag) an automatic block had been placed on further transactions until I could be consulted. That was why the first two attempts to pay at Waitrose that afternoon, both using Google Pay in conjunction with my credit card, had failed to go through. It was OK with Google, but the credit card company hadn't given their approval. They had sternly said no.

The block was put in place in case my card had been stolen and somebody was having a spree with it. Well, it was nice to think they were on the alert like this. I assured the young man that all that spending was indeed mine, and I explained about starting to use Google Pay two weeks earlier, with the effect that most things I might have paid for in cash were now being charged to the credit card instead. This was the new normal. He noted what I said, and seemed to understand perfectly. He said something about giving me 'a £200 a day allowance' for contactless paying using Google Pay, for the next two weeks anyway. This sounded like a short-term restriction, but I may have misunderstood. It was, anyway, unlikely that I'd be paying any really big bill in a contactless fashion until mid-May, when Fiona would be having her annual service and MOT: and so a temporary £200 daily limit was presently no hindrance.

So this is something of a cautionary tale. They are watching you, and if you do something uncharacteristic, or depart from your established track record, they may withdraw payment approval until a check has been made.

It's hard to argue with this cautious approach. After all, if my card had really fallen into somebody else's hands, I'd want them to pick that up pronto and stop the thief having a good time.

And after all, the thief would be spending the credit card company's money, not mine, so it seems reasonable for them to protect themselves from such a loss. (Possibly inconvenient for you or me, of course, until that check is made)

Well, I'd better buy more bags, so that they get used to the idea that now and then I treat myself to more than just groceries, diesel and the odd afternoon tea!

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