Do You Have A High Credit Card Balance?

If the answer is yes, don’t pay it off too fast. You could be considered a suspected terrorist or something.

The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522.

And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges’ behavior was found questionable.

And all they did was pay down their debt. They didn’t call a suspected terrorist on their cell phone. They didn’t try to sneak a machine gun through customs.

They just paid a hefty chunk of their credit card balance. And they learned how frighteningly wide the net of suspicion has been cast.

After sending in the check, they checked online to see if their account had been duly credited. They learned that the check had arrived, but the amount available for credit on their account hadn’t changed.

So Deana Soehnge called the credit-card company. Then Walter called.

“When you mess with my money, I want to know why,” he said.

They both learned the same astounding piece of information about the little things that can set the threat sensors to beeping and blinking.

They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn’t move until the threat alert is lifted.

Apparently the Department of Homeland Security has caught all the obvious Al Qaida terrorist cells so now they have to resort to fishing trips that could snare thousands of unsuspecting Americans.

It is stories like this that make me doubt the sanity of people on the Left when they say things like, “Well, if the government takes over health care they will cut down on the administrative costs.” A test so simple as this has got to catch lots of people which means that lots of resources get sucked up and used chasing down frivolous and nonsensical “leads”.

Eventually, his and his wife’s money was freed up. The Soehnges were apparently found not to be promoting global terrorism under the guise of paying a credit-card bill. They never did learn how a large credit card payment can pose a security threat.

Well its simple you see, by paying off the balance early the credit card company can’t charge high interest rates. This means lower profits, and that is bad for these big businesses so lets pass a law where if you do pay off your entire balance you get flagged as a possible terrorist. See, isn’t it obvious.

Stupid politicians.

Update: A co-worker just made a cogent observation: Now we know why the federal government couldn’t get anybody into New Orleans and the surrounding area to help after Katrina…they were all too busy looking at credit card billing histories. I tell you, the level of stupidity is simply amazing.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    Welcome to Bush’s America. You guys have been cheering him as he goes, what’s the problem?

  2. I pay my credit cards off every month. I think in the last twenty years there have been two time I missed, both associated with a mental lapse on getting the bill. While traveling for business, I have run up and paid off credit card bills larger than those discussed here. Since my history is to not run a balance but to pay it off every month, I assume I would not be tagged by this filter.

    I can see the value of this from a security standpoint. What they are looking for is unusual activity. We already have laws requiring reports of cash deposits in excess of $10K. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/02/28/MNW87715.DTL As soon as you have a law saying $10K is the trip point, you get people trying to avoid the trip wire by going under the limit.

    If we knew the names of the terrorist, we could do a rifle accurate search. If we don’t then we need to cast a wider net. Since we don’t know what we are looking for, you need to collect lots of “dots” before you can really start connecting them.

    Why would this be considered an activity related to terrorists? I don’t know. Maybe they had some previous example of a terrorist paying off a large credit card balance just before dropping out of sight. It may be one thing to avoid the FBI, but those credit card companies can be vicious if you stiff them for big bucks.

    I don’t think I really want to know, because if I can know, then the terrorist can know and they can try to avoid the trip wire. We know that there are still terrorists out there, they still want to do us harm and so far we have been a combination of lucky enough and good enough to keep them from hitting us again like 9/11. While I would expect internal reviews to question the efficacy of stuff like this, I don’t want the press to be the watchdog because of the problem of also informing the terrorists. I would look to the officials I elect to be the watchdogs.

    There will always be a tension between being to careful, looking at to much and burdening peoples lives without an adequately compensating increase in security vs not being careful enough or being penny wise and pound foolish.

    My father flew fighter’s off of carriers and islands in the Pacific for 22 months. He flew a lot of combat air patrols and missions that turned up nothing. He also flew missions where he fought the Japanese. Perfect hind sight would point out which CAP and missions were not needed and which were. Since my understanding is that you were more likely to die from an accident flying off a carrier than combat, you could question the wisdom of the missions that didn’t yield anything. But of course, we don’t have perfect hindsight. And in the shadowy war on terror, we aren’t even facing an enemy wearing a uniform or flying a marked airplane.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    John,

    I agree that using unusual credit card purchases/payments is possibly one indicator of a problem…but the only indicator?!?!?! Unless this guy works in an industry that usually deals with sensitive material or some such this is just idiotic. The signal to noise ratio would be quite high (especially with the recent spate of refi’s I would imagine).

    Anjin-san,

    Right, the Clinton Administration never did anything dumb (Hillary Care). Nope, every move (Hillary Care) was shrewd and well thought out.

  4. John Burgess says:

    Steve, the “one indicator” may be all you get; the 9/11 bombers all flew in under the radar.

    While I’m sure that the Soehnges are very nice people, not a drop of terrorism in their blood, do you know that for a fact? Do you know that they are whom they claim to be? Could that account not be a bogus one, set up to look like decent, God-fearing, patriotic citizens? Do you want credit card companies to make that call? They obviously don’t want that responsibility.

    Money-laundering these days isn’t so much a matter of flashing millions of bucks in a few seconds through the Caymans, Singapore, Luxembourgh, and the Jersey Islands. It’s small amounts moved quietly that aggregate to cover operational expenses. It’s done through dry-cleaner payouts for damaged goods, through a slight mark-up in the price of a videotape or a jar of honey.

    Did the Soehnges actually suffer any damages? Were they charged additional interest while their payment was being investigated? If so, they certainly have a cause for action. If not, then they were inconvenienced at just about the same level as an airline passenger, i.e., not a whole hell of a lot.

  5. anjin-san says:

    Steve,

    Did I say Clinton never made mistakes? Nope. But as least under Clinton we had a government that was competent, paying the bills, and not that unduly interested in our personal business.

    I also give credit to Gingrich for injecting some sensible policy making. Divided government seemed to work better then “absolute power”.

    I can see why you would rather do a bait & switch using Clinton’s name then discuss the endless string of disasters under Bush.

  6. TJIT says:

    Right on schedule we have two commenters who support anything done in the name of preventing a terror attack. I supect most of these people would support having everyone go to work naked if some authority figure said it would help prevent a terror attack.

    They ignore a little thing called signal to noise ratio. Scooping up all available information without any intelligent weighting of what is likely to provide the best results increases the chance of important information signal being drowned out by all of the noise of things like credit cards being payed off early.

    Please recall that the flight school operators told the FBI they had suspicious students. FBI agents tried to get their superiors to pay attention to their suspicions about the flight training but nobody connected the dots until the 9/11 attacks made them pay attention.

    So what was the political response to the screw ups by the FBI, CIA, FAA, etc. Give the agencies that screwed up in the first place more power and less responsibility.

    There was a comment regarding airport security so lets talk about that.
    After 9/11 airport security was turned over to a new US government agency, and clearing security got to be a lot more obnoxious, what with the frisking of the blue haired grandmothers and the seizing of fingernail clippers, the fondling of the women with underwire bras, etc.

    What was the technical result? When security was audited post 9/11 it was found to be no better at keeping contraband off of airplanes then it was before the 9/11 attacks.

    I am utterly sick of no one in the government having to pay a penalty for the security incompetence before and after 9/11. I sure don’t see the benefit of giving them even more authority given the poor job they have done so far.

    My guess is there is about an 80 % chance that if another terror attack happens it will turn out that Homeland Security, FBI, etc had all the intelligence signal they needed to prevent the attack. But the good intelligence information was drowned out by the noise of looking at things like paying off credit card bills.

  7. TJIT says:

    anjin-san,

    After all of the Democrat caterwauling over the patiot act you know how many democrat senators actually voted against the patriot act? That would be the massive number of ten. Excuse me for being unimpressed by the Democrat Senators support for civil liberties.

    As a bonus Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein fought to get the Combat methamphetamine act provisions into the new Patriot act. This portion of the new patriot act will give sweeping new powers for government agencies to create data bases, collect information, and prosecute private individuals.

    When the Democrats start supporting civil liberties you can honestly bitch about George Bush’s America. Until then democrat supporters look like democrat politicians when it comes to civil liberties, nothing but loud mouthed hypocrites.

    Sorry about the harsh tone but I’m getting sick of Democrats bitching about the erosion of civil liberties in one breath. And in the next breath they are coming up with new ways of eroding civil liberties and voting for them.

    TJIT

  8. Steve Verdon says:

    I can see why you would rather do a bait & switch using ClintonÂ’s name then discuss the endless string of disasters under Bush.

    Anjin-san you are just simply a partisan hack. Your comment about “paying the bills” points this out. Typically our government runs a deficit, trying to put a partisan spin on it is somewhat dishonest (blaming Bush for the size of the deficit is much more reasonable).

    John B.,

    Steve, the “one indicator” may be all you get; the 9/11 bombers all flew in under the radar.

    My understanding was that most of them were on watch lists with customs/immigration, so this line of defense strikes me as just silly, and your comment about the Soehnges is actually rather disquieting. Try not to let the paranoia run too rampant.

    TJIT,

    You hit the nail on the head. Building up a gigantic hay stack then diving in looking for the needle is stupid, and that is what using a single indicator would do. I would hope that there would be multiple variables at work here and not just one. Then rank order the results using some sort of probability function or something.

  9. Jonk says:

    I don’t see an issue unless the money was in limbo and not available to earn interest. Cost of doing business post 9/11.

  10. John Burgess says:

    Steve, a couple of the 9/11 perps were known and on watch lists. The majority were complete unknowns, including all the Saudis.

    I don’t know a thing about the family involved in the credit card problem other than what’s in the news report. Neither do you. That is a good reason why neither you nor I are charged with watching for financial malfeasance, but several federal agencies, with budgets, are. And, instead of looking at everybody, those agencies look at methods and systems that give indicators–not proof, just indicators.

    Going back to the mid-80s, I’ve had friends and colleagues blown up in car bombings and on airplanes. The number is pushing two dozen now. I did a lot of travel–along with my family–in places and at times where our passports were enough to get us killed. We lived in places where things were likely to blow up (or be blown up) for many years.

    I don’t take security threats lightly, but I think I’m also somewhat realistic about it. I know that no security system is fail-proof and also know that nearly all security systems can be breached with enough determination and resources.

    That does not make me a lock-step marching Morlock, enthralled by whatever the latest “security wisdom” is today. It does make me aware that compromises and balances are being made all the time. Some are overkill, no question. But even with a diplomatic passport–which should care some presumption of trustworthiness, I never bitched at having my luggage screened, my carry-on hand-searched, or sometimes even frisked. (BTW, try Israel’s version of TSA if you want “intrusion.”)

    I now know how to dress and pack so that I’m through TSA’s screening as fast as the line can move. And I still get pulled over occasionally for SSS. Big deal.

    If that catches one person who will do grave harm, I’m fine with it.

    There are many financial transactions that I could once do without a blink of anyone’s eye that are now either impossible or monitored. I can’t go to Western Union with $10K and have them send it anywhere in the world, no questions asked. If I’ve got a lot of money flowing through Ebay or PayPal, it’s going to set off lights on somebody’s console.

    Terrorism, of course, isn’t the only activity behind this monitoring; so is money-laundering for other evils, like coke and gangs. The FinCen at Tysons Corners, VA was set up long before 9/11. And they–and other counterparts–are the ones who are watching those credit card payments, bank transfers, PayPal accounts.

    Is this a nibbling away of my privacy? I guess one could see it that way. But it can also provide a net gain to my lifespan. Call me selfish, but that’s a trade-off I’ll make.

    So most of the screening ends up catching nothing. There’s a lot in life that ends up catching nothing. That’s a pity, of course, as wasted resources are gone for good. But all it has to do is extend my life by one day and I’m not going to raise a major beef.

    This, I realize, is as irresponsible as all those patients who want hyper-expensive, end-of-life medical treatment. A waste, but we certainly seem to be hard-wired to demand it, even if it includes certain kinds of intrusive behavior from others.

  11. anjin-san says:

    Steve,

    No surprise you have to resort to namecalling, given the weakness of your argument. Under Clinton, our county’s finances were immeasurably better off then they are now. We actually ran a few surpluses and we were paying down the deficit. The flow of red ink under Bush staggers the imagination.

    As for my partisan hackdom, I guess that explains my praise for Gingrich as well as the good work our government did under a Democratic admin and a reform minded GOP congress.

    Really Steve, is that the best you have? If so, run along and play with the kids.

  12. fw says:

    So you pay off a big credit card balance and it raises a red flag; no big deal, but last night you called your buddy in England and talked about how bombed you were at the party Friday night. That raises a red flag on the conversation for the NSA and requires a human to listen and clear the conversation; but this month you bought an unusual amount of, well we don’t know what ( that is a national security secret; maybe gasoline, maybe talcum powder, maybe pickled eggs) so your purchases raise another red-flag. Now try to get on your flight home for Thanksgiving.

  13. Steve Verdon says:

    Anjin-san,

    No surprise you have to resort to namecalling, given the weakness of your argument. Under Clinton, our countyâ??s finances were immeasurably better off then they are now. We actually ran a few surpluses and we were paying down the deficit. The flow of red ink under Bush staggers the imagination.

    No name calling, merely statements of fact. Yes, the budget was much better under Clinton, but there are several reasons that it is ridiculous to put a partisan spin on things.

    1. The economy does what it does with only little influence from the President. President’s like to take credit when things go well, but over all President’s don’t have much power to affect the economy.

    2. This was true under Clinton (the economic expansion started before he was President). He and his administration did an okay job not mucking things up, but I don’t think they planned on budget surpluses, more like mostly good luck with some influence of some good policy.

    But what really makes you a partisan hack is your comment that the deficits staggers the imagination. There have been budget deficits that have been far, far larger in the measure that really matters and quite a few of similar magnitude, as a percentage of GDP. If we were to use your yard stick FDR would be the worst President ever both historical and in the future. Somehow, I don’t think you’d agree with this, and it is that point the makes you a partisan hack. Facts don’t matter to you unless you can twist and distort them.

    John,

    Your trust in government is rather disquieting.