by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Every so often I get missives from my credit card company. My response is to run screaming from the room.
You know that old saw about beer being proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy? Letters from the credit card company are proof that She’s changed her mind about us.
They are never good news. I am old enough to remember when MasterCard burst onto the scene1 and, in all that time, I cannot remember seeing or hearing about a letter from a credit card company that inspired anything approaching celebration.
Your best hope when you open the envelope is that it will inspire ennui:
The following eight pages of impenetrable prose are designed to fulfill our obligation to talk to you every year about your privacy rights. Had William O. Douglas thought for a minute it would come to this, he would have disavowed constitutional penumbras and Griswold v. Connecticut would be a very different opinion. But he didn’t, so we’ve enabled eleven paper mills to continue in operation so we could fill this envelope with a mind-numbing dissertation on the arcane chemical properties of giraffe poop.2
And at the other end of the spectrum is information that can drive you to despair:
We have received your rather strident email insisting your six charges at Gazorninplat Furriers in Dubai last month for a total of $154,272.67 “must be some kind of mistake.” But we have reviewed the charges, and while we have no more idea than you do what you would have been doing in Dubai or how you would have gotten there “without missing a single hour of work or incurring an airfare charge on your freaking credit card,” we are unable to uphold your challenge to the charges . . . .
So opening these things is always an exercise in masochism. I do it only because I’m a rule-follower and the rules say if someone who has the power to squash you like a bug with a few keystrokes and a low FICO score sends you a letter, you open it.
Today’s letter contained only middling bad news. They’re eliminating some of the benefits previously offered with the card.
The worse news is that their lawyers are orders of magnitude smarter than I am.
I know this because rather than sending me a lengthy letter enumerating the benefits they were taking away, they just sent me another copy of the twenty-four-page brochure they had originally sent me describing the benefits of the card and told me I would no longer be receiving most of them.3
That’s brilliant, and I would have applauded that as both a time-saver and a job saver,4 but it wouldn’t have convinced me of their brilliance. Because I wouldn’t have read their letter but I was intrigued by the slick brochure. It was well worth the reading.
It was chock full of amazing stuff. For example, it told me I will no longer have “Damage and Theft Protection.” According to the twenty-four-page brochure, I was previously covered if I used my card to make a purchase of an item that was subsequently damaged or stolen.
But knowing I might try to pull a fast one, the credit card company had limited my recovery under that provision to $1,000 per purchase. What’s more—and this is the genius part—they limited this benefit to $50,000 a year.
So if I reported that one of the furs I bought in Dubai had been damaged when I ran over it with the lawnmower or that my new lawnmower had been stolen, I could make two $1,000 recoveries. But they would close the door on me after 50 claims. “Gotcha,” they’d shout in their letter, “$50,000 limit!”
These are smart people; they know your stuff isn’t being stolen every week. After the first FIFTY unfortunate eventualities, they take action.
Similarly restricted was my “Ninety-day Return Protection.” If I bought something with the card and was unsatisfied with it within ninety days, I could file for reimbursement if the merchant refused to allow me to return it.
But they were wise to my fraudulent ways. They explicitly provided this benefit did not apply to cash. If I purchased cash and then tried to return it as defective and the merchant refused to refund my money, they would not reimburse me.5
Says so right there in the “WHAT’S NOT COVERED” section of the “Damage and Theft Purchase Protection” portion of the twenty-four-page brochure.6 Doesn’t apply to attempts to return cash.
These people are smart enough to foresee fraud in transactions I can’t even begin to imagine:
“Excuse me, I’d like to return this cash.”
“Did you purchase it here, Sir?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And what’s wrong with it?”
“It’s damaged. See, the corners of the bills are bent. This one has a tear.”
“I’m sorry, Sir. We made it clear when you bought this cash that we would not be responsible for creasing or tearing.”
“But my credit card company says they won’t be responsible either. I don’t think they trust me.”
“I’m sorry, Sir; there’s really nothing I can do. I suggest you just try to accept the fact they’re smarter than you.”
And I have.
I feel really bad about losing that benefit. Every time I buy cash, I worry about it now.
But I feel even worse about losing my “Worldwide Travel Accident Insurance.”
The slogan for this one was, “Travel with peace of mind. We are here to cover You7 even if the unimaginable happens.”8
This benefit covered “You, Your spouse, Your Domestic Partner, or Your Dependents”9 “when boarding, exiting or riding as a passenger in a Common Carrier.” If any of these capital Y parties were injured, they could receive up to $250,000.
Unless they were injured in a taxi. You wanna know how dangerous it is to ride in a cab or call Uber or Lyft? The twenty-four-page brochure explicitly excludes coverage “while traveling in a taxi, car service, rental car, or rideshare service.”
The words, “If you’re crazy enough to do that, we won’t be responsible,” don’t actually appear in the brochure, but the implication is pretty clear.
Nor would they have covered me if I had hurt myself “boarding or exiting a Common Carrier while engaging in extreme activities.” So if I tried to hang-glide my way onto an airplane or had myself shot out of a cannon onto a cruise ship, I was outside the parameters of the policy.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be present at the meeting where they discussed what they would and would not cover? I mean, these are some people with impressive imaginations: imaginations that include cardholders who try to return damaged cash to a merchant, who make fifty claims a year for stolen and damaged goods, who leap off bridges onto passing trains.
But they are not just titans of imagination. They are also masters of quantification.10
I know this because the Worldwide Travel Accident Insurance is capped at $250,000. The twenty-four-page brochure lists the dollar payouts for various injuries in an easily-understood table of benefits:
If you die, or lose both hands or both feet, you get the full quarter-mil. Says so in black and white. Remarkably, the very next line of the table of benefits says you get the same benefit if you lose only one hand and one foot. That’s to keep you from fraudulently feeding more appendages to the woodchipper to get a bigger payout.
And it follows as the night the day that if you lose only one hand or one foot, you get half that: $125,000. And that is exactly what the table of benefits shows.
If you lose sight in both eyes, a hand or foot and sight in one eye, or hearing in both ears and the ability to speak, you get the full $250,000.
How in the world do you suppose they came up with categories and quantifications like that? Round-table discussion? Focus groups? Ouija boards?
The table of benefits says you get $125,000 if you lose the hearing in both ears, the ability to speak, the sight in one eye, or the aforementioned one hand or foot. And you get ¼ coverage—$62,500—if you merely lose the thumb and index finger of the same hand.11
Anything else: nada. Nothing. Zip, zilch, bupkis.
Broken arm, fractured skull, damaged kidney . . . talk to your medical insurer and your lawyer. We don’t pay off on those.
“Our little game of crash landing roulette only pays off on the lucky injuries noted above. If the wheel stops on red or most black numbers, you get nothing. But if it stops at amputation of a hand and a foot, you’re a winner!”12
I’m not sure how I feel about losing that benefit. Gambling is only fun if you know you’re gambling, and I had no idea my appendages were in play.
What I do know is that the game is over. Those benefits are cancelled and I can now only use my card to accomplish the same things cash would accomplish. No benefits.
Except, of course, all those wonderful mailing lists I’m now on. I got an offer in the mail just the other day. It said, “Have you recently lost a hand and foot and the sight in one eye due to an accident involving a common carrier while trying to return a defective lawn mower . . . ?”
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.