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When It Clearly Being A Race Issue Isn’t Clear

, , , , , | Right | October 28, 2021

I work in fraud protection for a department store’s credit card. When our system detects suspicious activity, we have to call people and verify they did the activity in question.

A woman has called in about a blocked card. However, she has failed to pass our verification questions so I’m not allowed to unblock the card.

Me: “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m afraid that isn’t correct. It looks like we won’t be able to verify everything over the phone. However, if you were to come into one of our stores with a picture ID, I’m sure we could get this corrected.”

Customer: “I don’t have time for that. Why can’t you fix it now?”

Me: “I’m sorry, ma’am, but in order to protect your account from potential theft, we are required to verify anyone that calls in to us. Unfortunately, since you were unable to answer our standard questions, the only method of verification left is to ask you to please come into one of our stores.”

Customer: “But why can’t I use my card?”

I’ve already explained this to her three times before, but I do it again.

Me: “Our system detected unusual activity on your credit card recently. To ensure that it wasn’t lost or stolen, we wanted to verify the charges with you.”

Customer: “What charges?”

Me: “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid that, for privacy reasons, I’m not allowed to disclose anything on the account until we have completed our verification process.”

Customer: “This is insane. You’re just blocking my card to harass me.”

Me: “I am sorry, ma’am. I’m just following our standard procedure.”

Customer: “Don’t give me that. You’re doing this because I’m black, aren’t you? Don’t think a black woman can be trusted with credit?”

Me: “Ma’am, I assure you that your race has nothing to do with our standard procedure.”

Customer: “Sure it does. You blocked the card because I was black and you don’t like that!”

Me: “Ma’am, your card was blocked by an automated system designed to detect suspicious activity. The program they use has no way to know your race and does not in any way consider it.”

Customer: “Don’t give me that. You probably blocked it yourself. You would have already unlocked it for me by now if it weren’t for my being black.”

Me: “Ma’am, I assure you that your race does not matter to me. We’re talking over the phone; I didn’t even know what your race was until you chose to share that information.”

Customer: “That’s a lie; you can look it up on your computer there.”

Me: “I assure you, ma’am, that our systems do not record or make available your race, precisely to prevent any possibility of racial profiling.”

Customer: “Don’t lie to me, girl. They asked me my race when I created the account!”

Me: “We do give you the option to provide your race, but that information is only used by our marketing team, and only in an anonymous manner designed to assist them to determine how our products and services appeal to various demographics so we can better tailor our products. However, that information is kept completely separate from all of your account data and cannot be directly associated with a specific account, even by our marketing team, in order to protect your privacy and avoid any possibility of profiling.”

Customer: “You just made all that up so I wouldn’t know you’re trying to stop me. Besides, even if it was true, you could tell my race from my voice.”

Me: “I’m afraid I couldn’t, ma’am. I try not to make presumptions about someone from such superficial details as voice tone or vernacular as such presumptions are often wrong.”

She responds with a snort of derision.

Me: “As an example of how easy it is to misjudge someone’s voice, I noticed you keep calling me ‘girl’ despite my actually being male. I’m also guessing you presume I’m Caucasian despite my being African American. It’s easy to judge these things wrong.”

Customer: “You’re black?! you don’t sound black.”

Me: “I’m sorry I don’t live up to your preconceived expectations as to what I should sound like. However, I assure you that your race was not, and could not, be a factor in our system blocking your account. I am sorry for the inconvenience, but I’m afraid at this point the only way to get your account sorted out would be if you could come by our store with a photo ID.”

Now the customer sounds confused and less certain of herself.

Customer: “Um, yeah, I’ll umm think about it.”

She hung up before I could respond.

For full disclosure, while it’s true I’m male, I’m actually Caucasian, but I figured a little white lie would end the call faster. I think the fact that she couldn’t tell I was lying demonstrates my point that you can’t guess someone’s race just from their voice; I certainly had no idea her race until she told me.

The thing that most gets me about this story is the question of whether she was sincere or not. It’s not unheard of for someone who stole a card to call in yelling and screaming, hoping to upset us so much we make a mistake; as such, it’s definitely possible she was just trying to get me distracted enough that she could trick me into unlocking her account. At this point, I give it an honest fifty-fifty chance she was the actual cardholder. I’m not sure which option I prefer to believe.

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