August 17th, 2001


Poor Human Interface

The backstory: a few weeks ago, Lori and I went to Kaufmann's (a department store) to do more of our post-wedding shopping, mostly for our formal china. We opened a Kaufmann's charge account in order to try to take advantage of the 10% discount for opening an account. Some stuff we got immediately, the china was going to be charged later when it actually shipped.

About a week ago, then, I got this letter (the letter was in ALL CAPS, but I'm downcasing to spare y'all):

Dear Ralph L Melton,

During your recent shopping visit, we were unable to complete a Kaufmann's credit card transaction for you. While processing your credit request, we obtained information from a consumer reporting agency:

Trans Union Corporation
2 Baldwin Place
PO Box 1000
Chester PA 19022
(800) 888-4213

We do not know if you subsequently made a related purchase in some other way.

You have a right under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to know the information in your file at the consumer reporting agency. If you have any questions concering your report, please contact the consumer reporting agency listed above. The agency did not make the decision to decline your credit request and is unable to supply the specific reason(s) for our decision.

You can obtain, within sixty (60) days of receipt of this notice, a free copy of your report from the consumer reporting agency indicated above. You als have the right to contact the agency to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any information in the report.

If you have any questions about this letter, contact us at Kaufmann's, PO Box 8103, Lorain OH 44055, (412) 471-2498.

Kaufmann's Credit Services

As you have no doubt noticed, this letter is both ominous-sounding and vague. It also raises some puzzling questions: why did I get this letter when we know that I have good credit? why did I get this letter after receiving the charge card? and why does it list an Ohio address but a Pittsburgh-area phone number?

Today, I finally called the Pittsburgh-area phone number. It turns out that what happened is this:
* Kaufmann's created a charge account for me with a $500 credit limit. They processed our initial purchases.
* Then they tried to process a $512 china purchase. This failed because it exceeded the credit limit.
* So the salesclerk entering that purchase voided that transaction, called to get my credit limit increased, and then ran the transaction again.

All this is perfectly reasonable. But when the salesclerk voided the tranaction, the Kaufmann's computer system automatically generated that vague-but-ominous letter.

I suspect that that policy is the wrong choice.

On the plus side, the woman I spoke with at Kaufmann's was entirely clueful about what had happened and sympathetic about the vagueness of the letter. And I get a free copy of my credit report.
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