Guardian Technology Pages
28 September 2006
“Your card has been declined.”
“What? No way, there’s plenty of money in that account!”
“I’m sorry, madam, but it’s refusing the transaction.”
“It’s your card reader, that card worked fine in Boots five minutes ago.”
“The card has been declined. Do you have another one?”
The casual eavesdropper might infer that I – the protesting woman in that dialogue – am financially irresponsible, that my credit card is maxed out or my debit card has reached its overdraft limit. In fact, it’s far more likely that the reader on the chip and pin machine is throwing a strop. There is a machine at WH Smith in North End Road, Fulham, that hates my debit card and never accepts it. I’ve given up trying there. But it’s not the only one.
Self-service machines have sprung up everywhere, sprouting card readers and keypads. But watch closely and you will find that more often than not, there is an angry person muttering and swearing at the machine while a queue forms. Watch a little longer and you’ll see that queue evaporate – and reform at the counter in front of a human being.
This happened to me and my partner in France recently when we pulled into a petrol station in Epernay. In our desperation, we pulled up at an empty pump, wondering vaguely why it had no queue while others did.
Why? Because before it would dispense petrol, it wanted a credit card and pin. We fed it mine and I keyed in the number, only for it to be spat out with terrifying admonitions in French about the card being refused. I wiped the strip and tried again. Same reaction, causing a moment’s panic: we’d spent a bit on that card – did my bank think it was stolen? Was it blocked?
So we tried my partner’s card. Same thing. And then the penny dropped that the pumps with the queues were the old-fashioned ones where you fill the car up and then pay at the till. Clearly the locals knew all about these pumps.
Mind you, it was a miracle we got to France at all. When we arrived at the Eurotunnel terminus we joined a queue of cars for the automatic check-in. I am not the most patient of queuers and within a short time I was railing about how slowly it was moving. A man in a bright yellow jacket was buzzing about from car to car. Finally we got to the head of the queue and fed in the card that was used to book the shuttle online.
It didn’t want to know. It spat the card out. We tried again and got as far as tapping in our reservation number. It spat it out again. The chap in the high-visibility jacket buzzed over to us and rolled his eyes, saying: “It’s been playing up all day.” He went into the booth with the card – and then we heard him saying over his radio that the whole system had gone down in protest.
As an idea, the technology is great. In practice, we have a long way to go before we can dispense with human beings who can override systems when good card readers go bad. Kate Bevan
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