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Jewish World Review / June 16, 1998 / 22 Sivan, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Maybe Big Brother ain't so bad after all

I NEVER GET PREMONITIONS about important things. I never get a feeling that the stock market is about to go down or a plane is about to crash or the cable is about to go out.

There is only one premonition I do get, in fact: When I am out of town, I always know when I should call home and get messages off my voice mail.

I often resist this premonition. I try to resist it when I am in a hotel room because I hate paying the $1 or $1.50 that hotels charge you for every call. I would rather pay the exorbitant price for the junk in the honor bar than pay a hotel its greedy fee to make a phone call.

And when I give in to the premonition and call, the message is often one I don't want to receive.

It is often an editor with a really, really important question like: "Uh, Roger, somebody here thought they heard on CNN that Chelsea was wearing an eyebrow ring, and we thought you could call the White House and check it out, except maybe it wasn't CNN but NPR and maybe it wasn't an eyebrow ring but a nose ring and maybe it wasn't Chelsea but her friend, but could you call us right back with the answer?"

So, often I don't call for messages.

But this weekend, I was in Chicago and about to go out to dinner, and I got an overpowering premonition that I should call home for messages.

So I did, even paying the rotten fee to do it from the hotel room. And the message was a lulu:

"Mr. Simon, this is Evelyn at VISA's Fraud Division. Would you please give us a call? Thank you."

And I thought what most Americans would think: This is a come-on. Somebody is trying to sell me something. Or maybe somebody is trying to pull off a fraud themselves.

But I called the number she provided. And the person on the other end began asking me a bunch of questions. Which made me worried she was trying to pull a scam.

So I began asking her a few questions, the kind of questions that VISA should know the answers to, and she answered them.

What's this all about? I finally asked her.

"You charged gasoline in Maryland last night," she said.

Yes, I said. I often buy gasoline when I want to drive to the airport the next morning. I find my car operates much better when it has gas in its tank. Call it a quirk of mine.

"Yes," she said. "And then, this morning, you charged clothes in Chicago."

Which threw me a little because I had just bought some clothes a few hours before at a store I particularly like on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

That's right, I said warily. I did buy some clothes.

"And then you went to another clothing store and made another purchase," she said.

Yes, that's true, I said. In about 10 days, I'm going to China with the president, and they told us it was going to be hot and wet, so I bought a rain jacket made out of some miracle fiber that will not only keep me dry and cool but make me look like Harrison Ford.

"We thought these charges were suspicious," she said.

Suspicious? I said. Why suspicious?

"Well," she said, "one night, there are charges on your card for gas in Maryland, and the next day, there are charges for clothing in Chicago."

Yes, I said, that's what happens when you fly from Maryland to Chicago and buy things. Is there anything wrong with that?

"We just wanted to be sure it was you who was using the card," she said, "which is why we placed a hold on it."

A hold on it? What's that?

"It means nobody can use the card," she said.

You mean my card is no good now? And if I had gone out to dinner instead of calling home for this message and then tried to charge dinner, the restaurant would have rejected the card?

"That's right," she said. "But now that I know it was you who made these charges, I will take the hold off. You can use your card. Thank you very much."

I have to admit that I was angry when I hung up the phone.

First, who gave VISA permission to monitor my purchases? Second, who gave VISA permission to cut off the card just based on its own unsubstantiated suspicions?

And then, I thought about it a little more. I personally know two people in the last few months who have had fraudulent charges placed on their credit cards.

Neither of these people lost their cards or had their cards stolen. Crooks had just gotten their card numbers. And in both cases, thousands of dollars in illegal purchases were billed to the cards.

So, I told myself, maybe it's a good thing that VISA is watching me. Maybe Big Brother isn't always bad. And maybe the policy will help catch a crook some day.

But most of all, the experience has taught me one thing:

If I ever have to go into a store and buy something really embarrassing, I'm going to be sure to use cash.

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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.