Oh Hugh

This is not about journalistic integrity. Hell, though they won’t let me, I’m not above doing commercials.


I use Gmail, which means I get to stare at ads (if I wish) while I check my messages. I can’t tell you why this particular ad arrived, but it did and it distressed me.

I have watched Hugh Downs most of my life. Though he was a ‘newsman’ on 20/20, he was first Jack Paar’s announcer and a game show host–I used to watch him on Concentration every day. He did TV commercials for Mobil Oil (I believe). He even appeared in an episode of “Car 54 Where Are You,” where he was stopped for speeding on the Hutchinson River Parkway!

This is not about journalistic integrity. Hell, though they won’t let me, I’m not above doing commercials.

I just would have thought at this point in his life, Hugh could sit back and relax and not sell his name to bring credibility to a product.

Maybe I’m just being too judgmental?

No Credit Where Credit Is Due – Southwest VISA Again

Yesterday I got a call from a woman at Chase Bank. They’re the folks who provide my one and only credit card. She was calling because my complaint to the Comptroller of the Currency hit their doorstep.

She didn’t call to offer a solution or explain what was going on. She just called to say they had gotten the complaint and would respond in 7-14 days.

This is probably a legal requirement. No extra points for customer service here.

My Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa has been the topic of many posts here, because it has been such a frustrating experience. Here’s a link to my last screed.

Like I said, I got so upset I wrote the Comptroller of the Currency, the federal agency that controls banks with “NA” at the end of their name.

So, yesterday I get their call and tonight… tonight they turn down the credit card again!

What a suspicious purchase. I was buying gas at a gas station I go to three or four times a month. I was using a Mobil Speedpass which is tied to the card.

I called the number on the back of the credit card and listened as an automated voice asked me if I recognized purchases, some going back two months, without giving me the name of the merchant… only the type of store in “credit cardese.”

Among the purchases they queried was Steffie’s Ipod. Whoa! That’s another purchase they turned down and had me call on in June. Good going. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

And, if there was a question about a June purchase, why not ask me in… June? The fact that I’ve already paid for that purchase without question never entered into their equation.

Oh, the gas station I was at – they had previously declined my card there too!

My account is perfect. My reputation is soiled.

As I walked into the gas station, the clerk addressed me by my first name and then told me they had refused the charge. Will he go home and tell people about Geoff Fox the deadbeat? I hope not, but it’s possible.

What if this would have happened in Birmingham last week?

Earlier this evening I wrote about Southwest Airlines’ policy change for frequent flier miles. I really don’t want to change my airline/credit card allegiance. I know tonight’s problem is 100% the bank and not Southwest. Still, it’s very frustrating.

My sense is, no one at the bank really cares. The sad truth is, in 2005 it’s too expensive to worry about customers on an individual basis. I’m much less of a problem when viewed in the aggregate.

Too Much Information

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the aggregation of information. How databases are compiled and kept on all of us.

I think most people understand their credit histories are sequestered somewhere, but not the rest of what gets kept. So much of what we do now is digitally linked. Use a credit card or a cellphone, buy airline tickets, even go to the grocery store, there’s a record.

I read in an article where it’s claimed Wal-Mart can recreate your sales receipt from any purchase made there. That’s each individual item associated with you, your credit card, the time, location – everything. They keep the data because the data is valuable to them.

We are now entering an era where even more data will be kept.

In my car is an E-ZPass. It lets me buzz through toll booths without stopping. The little plastic rectangle is silently polled and responds to an unseen sensor. My Mobil Speedpass works the same way. I carry it with my keys. I hope the only time it’s polled is when I’m getting gas, but I just don’t know.

Speedpass and E-ZPass both use RFID technology. There’s a little transponder in the device which listens and identifies itself. These two examples are not where RFID will end. The U.S. Customs Service has proposed putting RFID chips in passports. Some cars use them to verify the authenticity of an ignition key.

The use of these devices can be to our benefit. Speedier, more accurate payment. Who wouldn’t want that? But, there’s no way for us to know they’ve been polled… and who has polled them.

The data from any of these sources, by itself, is mostly harmless. But when all of these (and more I haven’t thought of) are put together, the implications are huge.

How much about yourself do you want known and by whom? Our laws are pretty well defined in this regard. Data does not belong to the person described. It belongs to the aggregator – the person doing the collecting.

That’s why newspapers and TV stations can print accounts of ballgames or speeches. The person producing the information is not in control – the person compiling the information has the rights.

That’s one reason a news story from a few days ago is so important and scary.

Criminals posing as legitimate businesses have accessed critical personal data stored by ChoicePoint Inc., a firm that maintains databases of background information on virtually every U.S. citizen, MSNBC.com has learned.

The incident involves a wide swath of consumer data, including names, addresses, Social Security numbers, credit reports and other information. ChoicePoint aggregates and sells such personal information to government agencies and private companies.

ChoicePoint ended up telling 35,000 California residents their personal information was divulged. I’m not sure if there are more… though there probably are. California has disclosure laws which made the notifications necessary. They are the only state that does!

Here’s part of what ChoicePoint has said: