Ever since I opted out of receiving preapproved credit card offers, I’ve stopped getting credit card spam in the mail (yay!). But companies I have an existing relationship with still have the right to send me various offers and updates, and there’s nothing I can do about that (except throw said offers in the trash after inspecting them and deciding that, no, I do not want to purchase the premium yacht travel insurance policy that comes with a bonus free set of matching lawn gnomes and a voucher for a buy-one-get-one-free meal at the Olive Garden). Discover Card is one of these companies, and the clever devils regularly take advantage of my amicable nature by sending me all kinds of wonderful offers. Take for instance the one I received yesterday, which starts like this:
You’ve worked for years to provide a better life for your children and prepare them for a successful future. Now that they’re in college, the overwhelming cost of higher education shouldn’t stand in the way of their success. We’re ready to help.
This is undoubtedly a very generous offer, but it comes at an inconvenient time for me, because, as it so happens, I don’t have any children right now–let alone college-aged children who need their father to front them some money. Somewhere, somehow, it seems Discover Card took a left turn at Albuquerque, when all along they were trying to get to Pismo Beach:
Of course, this isn’t a case of human error; I very much doubt that an overworked analyst is putting in long nights at Discover combing through random customers’ accounts looking for purchases diagnostic of college attendance (you know, like Ritalin receipts). The blame almost certainly rests with an over-inclusive algorithm that combed through my purchase history and automagically decided that I fit the profile of a middle-aged man who’s worked hard for years to provide a better life for his children. (I suppose I can take solace in the fact that while Discover probably knows what brand of toothpaste I like, it must not know my age, given that there aren’t many 31-year-old men with college-aged children.)
Anyway, I spent some time pondering what purchases I’ve made that could have tripped up Discover’s parental alarm system. And after scanning several months of statements, I’m proud to report it almost certainly has something to do with the giant monthly rent charge from “CU Residence Halls” (my wife and I live in on-campus housing). Either that or the many book-and-coffee-related charges from places with names like “University of Colorado Bookstore” and “Pretentious Coffeehouse on CU Campus”.
So that’s easy enough, right? It’s the on-campus purchases, stupid! Ah, but wait! That’s only one part of the mystery! The other, perhaps more interesting, part is this: who exactly does Discover think my college-aged child is, seeing as they clearly think I’m not the one caffeinating myself at the altar of higher education? Well, after thinking about that for a while, another clear answer emerges: it’s my wife! Discover thinks I have a college-aged daughter who also happens to be my wife! There’s no other explanation; to my knowledge, I don’t live with anyone else besides my wife (though, admittedly, I don’t check the storage closet very often).
Now, setting aside the fact that such a thing would be illegal in all fifty states, my wife and I are not very amused by this. We’re mildly amused, but we’re not very amused. But we’re refraining from making too big a fuss about it, because we’re still hoping we can get our hands on some of those sweet, sweet college loans.
In the interim, here are some questions I find myself pondering:
- Who writes the logic that does this kind of thing? I’m not asking for names; no need to rat out your best friend who works in Discover’s data mining department. I’m just curious to know what kind of background the people who come up with these things have. Artificial intelligence? Marketing research? Dental surgery?
- How sophisticated are the rules used to screen customers for these mailings? Is there some serious business logic operating behind the scenes that happened to go wrong here, or is a well-meaning Discover employee just running SQL queries like “SELECT name, address FROM members WHERE description LIKE ‘%residence hall%’” on their lunch break?
- Do credit card companies that do this kind of thing (which I imagine is pretty much all of them) actually validate their logic against test datasets (in this case, a large group of Discover members whose parental status has been independently verified), or do they just pick some criteria that seem to make sense and immediately start blanketing the United States with flyers?
- What proportion of false positives is considered reasonable? Clearly, with any kind of program like this, some small number of customers is almost invariably going to get a letter that makes some very bad lifestyle assumptions. At what point does the risk of a backlash start to outweigh the potential for increased revenue? Obviously, the vast majority of people are probably going to chalk this type of thing down to a harmless error, but I imagine some small proportion of people are going to get upset and call up Discover to rant and rave about how they don’t have any children at all, and how dare Discover mine their records like this, and doesn’t Discover have any respect for them as loyal long-standing cardholders, and what’s that, why yes, of course, they’d be quite happy to accept Discover’s apology for this tragic error if it came with a two-for-one gift certificate to the Olive Garden.
- Most importantly: is it considered fraud if I knowingly fill out an application for student loans in my lovely wife-daughter’s name?