Her credit card didn’t run. Whose fault is that?

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Diana Ospina calls me every day.

Not the same Ospina, and it’s not always a phone call. It’s sometimes an email. But it’s always a Diana Ospina case. A credit card problem that messed up a reservation — usually an airline reservation.

Today, I need to know if I should take cases like Ospina’s. Maybe you can help me figure it out.

Ospina offered Icelandair her credit card information when she made a flight reservation last year. Then, last fall, she needed to make a change to her ticket, authorized the $200 change fee, and offered her credit card information again, this time by phone.

So you can imagine her surprise when months later, Icelandair asked for $200 again, plus a $280 fare differential.

“I was told that I did give my credit card information when this reservation was rebooked last September, but the $200 change fee was not paid was because the security number allegedly wasn’t correct,” she says. “Icelandair told me that they emailed me, but I never received any emails. I have requested that they forward the emails they allegedly sent in September but they are telling me they can’t find them.”

That’s right — it’s the ol’ “your credit card number is invalid” story.

Ospina wants Icelandair to waive the $280 fare difference, which she wouldn’t have had to pay if her credit card had run when Icelandair received it.

This happens more often than you’d think. I rarely cover it because there’s no easy solution. But here’s a 2014 case involving AirTran that got a little digital ink.

So here’s my question: Whose fault is this? And who should take responsibility?

There’s the company position on invalid credit card numbers: The customer is responsible. While we’ll will do everything we can to notify a customer when a card doesn’t run (but please don’t blame us if you use a spam filter!), a bad card isn’t our fault. And it’s not our problem if we have to run the card again and there’s a fare differential.

And here’s the consumer’s point of view: If a company takes a card and offers a receipt, I should have a reasonable assurance that the card worked. If a representative typed the security code in the wrong way, at least do me the courtesy of notifying me. Otherwise, it’s on you, corporate America.

Of course, that lets the credit card companies and banks off the hook. Truth is, the systems are optimized to take money, but deeply flawed and generally unable to help consumers when something goes wrong. Even existing laws like the Fair Credit Billing Act, which banks and credit card companies wish didn’t exist, don’t really address problems like Ospina’s.

In the end, everything gets thrown back on the consumer. Missed one of the 16 digits in your credit card number? Your fault. Forgot your security code? Your fault. Need to pay more for a product? Your fault.

If it were only that simple.

“I want Icelandair to honor the ticket,” says Ospina.

I’m inclined to help her, but I know what Icelandair will say. Not our fault. In fact, I’m inclined to help other customers like her, but I also know the merchant will say the same thing. Go away. It’s not our problem.

But I disagree. I think it is their problem. It’s a problem that belongs to all of us. A fix will have to involve all of us, including credit card companies, banks, merchants — and you.

Should I take credit card billing error cases like Ospina's?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Len Oxman

    You answered your own question! “But I disagree. I think it is their problem.”

  • Rebecca

    How is it possibly the merchant’s fault if the bank denies the credit card? All the merchant gets is an approval or a decline. The merchant has no way of knowing if the information is incorrect, the bank stopped it for security reasons, or there simply aren’t funds available.

    I should add. I guarantee the bank attempted to contact the OP. If the cvv was misentered, that generates an automated call (or text alert if you signed up for them). The bank doesn’t want to risk someone stealing your information, because they can be in the hook. If people made sure their information was up to date, they would receive a call.

    Additionally, a declined charge won’t appear on the OP’s end when she views her account. She didn’t realize for months that she was up $200? Its scary to me to think that people pay so little attention to their bank accounts. It isn’t a lot of money, at least for a lot of travelers or me for that matter, but I would notice if my credit card bill was $200 less than I thought it would be. Because I pay attention to these things.

    Basically, I don’t think it’s fair for the OP to say she ignored THREE signs that something was wrong and then blame the merchant. She “didn’t receive” an email alerting her the card was declined, but she also didn’t receive a confirmation. So she didn’t pay attention to her email. She didn’t pay attention to the bank’s phone call/text or didn’t update her contact info with them. She didn’t pay attention to her credit card statement when there was no charge for the change. But somehow that’s the airline’s fault? Whatever happened to personal responsibility? She must really need a participation trophy.

  • Mel65

    Well here’s another case where something was done over the phone, so there should be a recording of the CC information she gave. Can’t Icelandair review it? But almost everytime I give mu CC over the phone they read it back to me. Did they do this? If they did and they read it correctly to the OP then it’s on Icelandair since they must have incorrectly keyed it. If they didn’t, then we don’t know if the right info was given to them. But to play devl’s advocate, did the OP check her CC to see if a charge posted? It’s really easy over the phone for someone to hear a 9 as a 1 or for either the person reading the numbers or typing them in to transpose them. I also have never failed to receive an email from an airline. I’m not sure why so many of the people who write into Elliottt, do. And my SPAM filter is pretty aggressive. Even so, I check my SPAM folder at least weekly just in case something important does get caught.

  • Alan Gore

    “How is it possibly the merchant’s fault if the bank denies the credit card?”

    The problem is not the decline, but notification. Commerce websites should be constructed so that when you wait out the “Verifying your purchase” screen and see a confirmation screen, you know that the transaction went through. Did Icelandair’s site display a confirmation screen for a purchase that was still not final? Did it really try to contact the passenger and be able to back up “We sent you an email” with a log showing that it actually did? Was the phone call for the schedule change recorded, or is Icelandair going to claim ‘losing the tape?’

  • Blamona

    Does she check her credit card activity on line? (We all should always!) did the $200 go through?

  • Zod

    “but please don’t blame us if you use a spam filter!”
    You know…I wouldn’t put it past the airlines to purposefully make the email they send “spammy” just so it DOES get caught in the recipient’s spam filter. I find it hard to believe that the airline does not have the customer’s phone number either!

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    This is on the merchant. When my wife goes to the store, I know how much she spent (and sometimes what she bought) before she comes home if I’m looking at our credit card. The charge posts immediately. If the wrong number was used, the charge wouldn’t post (unless they accidentally typed in a valid number for someone else, but doesn’t the system flag by name also? If not, it should.)

  • sofar

    Exactly. I have had my card denied (presumably for security reasons) for several travel purchases. In most cases, you get a transaction-denied screen right away. In one case, I used a third-party booker. They initially sent me a receipt and all seemed well. The next day, I received an email AND a call notifying me the purchase didn’t go through. Sure, it was a pain, but they made every attempt to let me know as soon as possible.

  • Rebecca

    But that doesn’t address the fact that she wasn’t charged the $200. Authorizations show immediately. For sake of argument, I’m not saying she should have to check her account after every purchase. But she should have noticed before months passed. She also didn’t receive a confirmation. She should have noticed both of those things. Honestly, I am just sick of hearing everywhere I turn that everything is always someone else’s fault. Now that I have kids, I notice it a lot more.

  • Pegtoo

    Yes. She should have noticed her ticket wasn’t changed, as requested. I don’t know why she didnt pay attention to that.

  • Lindabator

    but if it does not go through, there is no charge on the statement – so why would you assume an online purchase went through? Sometimes, the vendor does not get a response back from the bank immediately, and when it is declined, they try to contact you. If they cannot do so, that is not their responsibility.

  • Ben

    I don’t understand how this happened, the airline’s system should have authorized the charge immediately and let the rep know whether or not it worked.

    Since it did happen, their airline owes the consumer more than an e-mail, a phone call is warranted. She shouldn’t be on the hook for the fare difference, advocate!

  • AAGK

    Didn’t she notice when she didn’t receive a new ticket confirmation? That triggers a look at your credit card activity so she was put on notice twice that her flight was not ticketed. A contact from the airline would have been the third notice. What more can be done?

  • vmacd

    Why can I charge a dress at Macy’s and walk out the door a few minutes later with my purchase? If for some reason the charge didn’t go through, Macy’s would have a hard time getting that dress back. The credit card authorization takes place immediately at the store. My assumption as a customer would be that it works the same with a phone transaction. The seller should not hang up the call until my credit card goes through.

  • Michael__K

    How does the phone agent’s script not ask for the passenger to remain on the line until the charge goes through, or else inform the passenger there is a problem?

    And worst case, if the call was inadvertantly dropped prematurely, why doesn’t the phone agent call back? (how is it possible to make an IcelandAir reservation without a contact phone number?)

  • Michael__K

    How does the script used by the agent at the merchant’s call center not require them to stay on the line until the charge is completed? Or at least require them to notify the customer that the charge has yet to go through? And if the call was dropped, why wasn’t the customer called back? (I don’t believe Icelandair accepts reservations without a contact phone number).

    BTW, I’ve had my CVV misentered and received no alert. And I know the alerts work because when I travel away from home (even domestically, with flight, hotel, and rental car booked through the same card) I often get a fraud alert (via both text and email) the first time I spend a small amount at a local store. [Incidentally, I’ve tried to preclude this by calling in advance of travel, but they don’t take travel notifications for domestic travel…]

  • Rebecca

    I think I know what happened here. And can address why the merchant wouldn’t know immediately that the charge was declined. The bank probably approved it. The merchant’s own system will verify that the information they have matches exactly the information the bank has. When you enter your zip code at the pump or order something online and they match the address, this often happens. The merchant’s fraud system then rejects the charge. While it was authorized, it never posts. The person on the phone in the call center has no way of knowing this.

  • Rebecca

    Because it probably DID go through. I saw this a million times. The bank approves the charge. Later, after close of business, a report is generated in the merchant’s end showing any approved charges where information doesn’t match. Those transactions are usually cancelled by the merchant (sometimes the contact the customer, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t go into a spam folder or they don’t have an old phone number). So it could be authorized and the call center rep would never know.

  • Michael__K

    If it did go through and the agent confirmed it, that’s a big problem then. It should be either the merchant’s or the bank’s responsibility to notify the customer if later action was taken to cancel the transaction after it was reported going through.

    Consumers do need to review their card statements to make sure there are no unrecognized charges. But it’s asking an awful lot to expect them to cross reference every single purchase (including phone transactions for which there’s often no receipt) and make sure that no transactions are missing.

  • mbods2002

    Wait, months later Icelandair asked for the change fee and increase in ticket price? Didn’t Ospina check her credit card statement online to see about charges? She would have noticed that the change fee wasn’t showing up, right?

  • Éamon deValera

    Did Ospina get a receipt. That seem critical here. If she got a receipt then the charge wasn’t declined or the merchant made an error in issuing the receipt. Had she not received the receipt the consumer would know to follow up promptly. A receipt has a specific meaning, it means the payee received the funds from the payor. If the payee made an error but issued a receipt none the less it can’t be the payor’s problem.

    Imagine if the customer had paid by cash and received a receipt, then the airline threw the cash away. The airline couldn’t demand payment again because they acknowledged receipt of the payment. The Uniform Commercial Code applies in this instance.

    I truly doubt she was issued a receipt.

  • Rebecca

    It’s 100% on the merchant. The bank has absolutely no way of knowing why it was cancelled. It happens all the time. For example, a hotel holds a room deposit, a shipment is cancelled due to an item being backordered or the customer changing their mind. All the bank knows is not to post the charge and to release the available credit.

    I do think the airline should have contacted her. It’s just that I believe they did. If an email went to her spam folder and they didn’t have a valid phone number, it happens. The vast majority of the time, it is so automated, it really isn’t the merchant’s fault. Do cases fall through the cracks? Absolutely. But that’s just life, not someone being deliberately wronged or ripped off.

  • C Schwartz

    If one makes a change and pays a fee one should always get a revised itinerary and receipt sent via email. I would have been concerned had I not received such documentation.

  • Michael__K

    How did it go through if the security number entered was incorrect? If so, shouldn’t the card be rejected immediately? That’s been my experience….

  • jmiller45

    She made the flight change by phone so she wouldn’t have seen a confirmation screen or credit card denied screen on the airline’s website. I do not disagree with others here that she should have been checking for a conformation email or noticing that her credit card had not been charged for the $200 fee change. I would have thought that the Icelander agent would have been able to tell her whether her credit card charge was approved or declined.

  • judyserienagy

    Travel providers should be required to obtain acknowledgement that a “declined credit card/void purchase” communication has been received by the customer. It’s not enough to “leave a message”. Chase regularly declines purchase on my visa for no discernable reason; I have no idea that the charge didn’t go through until I stumble on the situation. Sometimes I get an email, sometimes nothing. It’s maddening. Travellers should check their details often, but most don’t know to do that.