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No, Citibank, TidBITS Does Not Sell Cryptocurrency

It has been one of those weeks where I was busy the entire time, but seemingly not all that much came of it. A good chunk of my week went to resolving a curious problem affecting a handful of TidBITS members. While the initial days of the problem were quite frustrating, the resolution was both gratifying and a testament to how wonderfully helpful TidBITS readers can be.

The first indication we had a problem came from our support wiz, Lauri Reinhardt. She was helping a TidBITS member whose renewal was declined by the bank. He had contacted Citibank, and the customer service rep said the transaction had failed because it was being put through as cryptocurrency. (This was patently ridiculous, especially given our public distrust of the entire field—see “Understand Cryptocurrency, but Don’t Invest in It,” 20 April 2022.) His protestations fell on deaf ears, so he wrote to Lauri. She looked through the Stripe transaction logs but could find no indication of anything related to cryptocurrency. But she did notice an uptick in subscription renewal failures.

When she reported this, our developer Eli looked also and discovered that most of the failed transactions had a transaction_not_allowed decline code, and all of those had come from Citibank. Simultaneously, I heard from one of my TidBITS Content Network subscribers about a failed renewal, and it turned out that he was using a Citibank credit card, too.

It was time to contact Stripe support. The problem might be affecting only 10 people so far this month, but it was just going to get worse, and not everyone can switch to another credit card from a different bank. At the time, I also thought it might be a more general Stripe problem, though that turned out not to be the case.

To make a long story shorter, Stripe’s email support, in the person of a guy named Tristan, was sympathetic but insistent that Stripe wasn’t doing anything wrong. During this time, more TidBITS members were having conversations with Citibank, all of which devolved to Citibank claiming that we were selling cryptocurrency, which Citibank and other credit card companies haven’t allowed for years. (I suspect this may be related to the volatility of cryptocurrency in various ways.) No one was able to get Citibank to back down and approve the transaction, with reader Brian Stone saying that he might as well have been talking to his neighbor’s dog.

I couldn’t find any way to call Citibank myself, not being a customer, so I kept asking Tristan to escalate. Eventually, I used Stripe’s support option to request a phone call and, amusingly, got a call a few minutes later from Tristan, who was on phone support that day but wasn’t expecting to talk to me. He had a strong Irish accent and was very nice, and while he continued to reiterate that he could find no indication that Stripe was doing anything wrong (which I agreed with), he did understand my point that only Stripe was in a position to resolve the problem. He promised to see if he could find someone else who could help. Next, I heard from Tony, and then from Charles, who held the party line in the face of my persistent requests to have someone at Stripe call Citibank. But when I mentioned that I’d be writing about my experience in TidBITS, Charles brought in Matt.

I don’t know if there was background communication that resulted in Matt helping me, but he was a longtime TidBITS reader who knew full well that TidBITS had nothing to do with cryptocurrency. He promised to look for contacts within Stripe who could call Citibank, but before that, he introduced something new to the discussion, the Merchant Category Code. He noted that changes to the MCC can sometimes cause problems like this, but since ours hadn’t changed recently, he didn’t think that was it.

“Hold on a moment!” I thought. I didn’t even know we had an MCC, but if ours wasn’t accurate, perhaps Citibank had changed something on their end such that they had started misidentifying our transactions. According to Matt, our MCCs had evolved through:

  • Computer Software Stores (February 2018 to July 2018)
  • Computer Programming (July 2018 to August 2018)
  • Computers, Peripherals, and Software (August 2018 to October 2020)
  • Computer Programming (October 2020 to present)

Those changes had all been made by Stripe algorithms, and none described what we do well. Noting that sometimes human intervention was necessary to get an accurate MCC, Matt provided me with a list of them. For TidBITS memberships, I chose “Miscellaneous Publishing and Printing” and (the next day, since I missed it the first time) “Digital Goods Media: Books, Movies, Music” for TidBITS Content Network. Matt changed those codes for me, after which retries of the payment requests worked instantly. Finally!

All’s well that ends well, and although I had to be pushier than I prefer, persistence paid off. By getting to a TidBITS reader in Stripe who was willing to share more of what happens behind the scenes, I finally found the key to solving the problem.

In fact, that’s the second time in the past month that a TidBITS reader has helped out. When I wrote about issues associated with Cloudflare’s Automatic Platform Optimization service in “LittleBITS: Website Changes for Speed and Security” (6 June 2022), a TidBITS reader named Jonas, who works on the tech side of Cloudflare, emailed me with some welcome advice. Thanks to both Matt and Jonas! As Eli drily noted afterward, one way to get great support is to spend 32 years building a loyal following. I like to think of it as good karma.

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Comments About No, Citibank, TidBITS Does Not Sell Cryptocurrency

Notable Replies

  1. Oh, good grief. You were a lot more patient than I would have been.

    As an aside, the MCC is an important item for some bonus categories with some credit cards, and (as far as I can tell) it’s almost impossible to learn it in advance. For example, I had a card that paid extra points when I charged “dining” to it. It turned out that a charge at The Crumpet Shop in Seattle, where I ate on-premises, returned a text category that looked like it qualified (I don’t recall what it was, but if someone asks, I’ll try to find it) but the 4-digit code indicated Bakery and so it didn’t qualify. I have yet to meet the customer-facing retail store employee who knows what the store’s MCC is.

  2. Why does Citibank think that Computer Programming means Cryptocurrency? If the MCC changed in 2020 why did you start having problems now?

  3. I think Brian was being very unfair to his neighbour’s dog, comparing it to IT/bank helplines!

  4. TidBitsCoin cryptocurrency is nice branding and could create another revenue stream. (I’m kidding…who wants a negative revenue stream?). Lately, my mantra has been: Life is short, the day is long.

  5. It sure seems to me that Stripe (and all other payment processors) should inform you and have you verify the MCC!!

  6. Even though I was not personally affected by this problem, I greatly appreciate the work and time you put into this problem.

    This is one reason I will continue to support TidBits!

  7. We’ll, there was an article on the site about crypto and investing in crypto, but it was way too long to read. Just reject the transaction to be on the safe side. I mean, it’s not like they’re a customer. Or even a rich customer.

    I wonder if crypto exchanges purposely use bad MCCs to get around the issue of buying and selling crypto with credit cards. They’ll claim they’re a programming site that sells computer books.

  8. The automated categorization is definitely something to follow up on, but what if it was stupider?

    What if… it was because there’s BIT in the name?

    (Edit) FWIW I did see that the problem was resolved and the payments went through, but like Beatrix W. above, it seems very strange that “computer programming” would be taken to mean cryptocurrency to me.

  9. There’s no way of knowing what the real reason is. Modern anti-fraud systems are complicated beyond the ability of even the sites own engineers to understand.

    I’ve frequently has transactions blocked (by big-name companies like Dell, Paypal and Amazon), all without any explanation. And even after hours of calls to tech support and escalation all up the chain of command, nobody has ever been able to give a satisfactory explanation why.

    In my case, the banks always say they never received a charge request, and therefore never denied anything. The merchant then says something like “something about your purchase set off a fraud alert”, but they are unable to tell me what it was. Apparently, Dell thinks it is suspicious that you might want to buy a computer from them.

    When pressed, they usually end up providing an obvious BS argument. Most recently it was “your e-mail address doesn’t include your full name”. As if no honest person ever uses an e-mail address without his full name it it, and no fraudsters would ever create a bogus mailbox with my name at some popular free-mail site. And the fact that I had used that e-mail address in the past from that same merchant, didn’t matter at all.

    Then they inevitably start making insane demands like asking me to send them notarized documents that prove my ID. The kind of documents that would be worth a small fortune to an identity thief, and which even the bank issuing my home’s mortgage didn’t ask for. At which point, I tell them to take a flying leap and usually never do business with them again.

  10. Oh jeez, that in conjunction with the Computer Programming MCC is as good an explanation as anything else.

    At least one of the TidBITS folks I talked with had that happen too.

  11. A few decades ago, it wasn’t unusual for my credit card to stop working at inappropriate times because of fraud detection.

    I was helping my son get setup in Houston for an internship. I was in Target getting him stuff he needed for his new apartment when my credit card stopped working. Then the hotel called me and told me the hold on my credit card was rejected.

    I called my credit card company, and they explain there were a bunch of recent unexplained charges on my credit card. For example, there were these plane tickets from New York to Houston and all of these charges for Houston for a hotel and then a large purchase at Target.

    I explained that it was me, and that I was helping my son settle in Houston. No problem they told me. They’ll call me at my home number. I can answer it and they’ll remove the lock from my credit card. I explained I wasn’t home, I was in Houston about 1500 miles away. Can my wife answer my phone. No it has to be me because it was my credit card. I explained I couldn’t even get home if I wanted to because I couldn’t buy a ticket for a return flight.

    I frantically worked with my wife to forward our home phone to my cellphone, so my credit card company could call me and unlock my credit card. We finally got it to work. My credit card called me on my home phone, I answered on my cellphone, and my credit card was unlocked.

    Unfortunately, I suddenly realized I couldn’t call my wife back to tell her how to stop forwarding the calls to my phone. We couldn’t get that done until I flew back home.

  12. Financial institutions eh? They’re just not geared to resolve anomalies. I think their employees have the same training as politicians (well British ones at least). Never accept there’s a problem. Ignore all evidence. I think it’s called lamplighting.

    On the issue of banks not allowing credit cards to be used to buy cryptocurrency. I don’t think it’s anything to do with volatility. Neither can you use them for gambling debts or any other cash-like transaction. For those you have to withdraw cash and use that—paying the issuing bank a handsome fee for the privilege, plus a hefty rate of interest starting from the moment of withdrawal. Otherwise you’d be using credit to buy cash. This is considered, probably with some justification, as a very slippery slope by central banks.

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