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Citigroup: Penny-wise, Hundreds Of Billions Of Pounds-foolish

I've been using a Citibank credit card since I graduated from high school (something that becomes obvious if you glance at the card, which features my senior prom photo--they don't ask for a new picture when they issue me a new card). In recent years, I've noticed that Citi has become extremely vigilant about potential theft. For example, last year, they noticed that some London-based outfit had charged my card exactly one cent. They promptly closed my account and issued me a new one, explaining that fraudsters sometimes do this to see if anyone's minding the store. Earlier this year, they shut me down again after the credit-card information at a restaurant I visited was "compromised."

It's a bit of a hassle each time this happens--you have to wait several days before you get a new card, then change all your credit card info wherever it may have been saved, etc. But, in general, I can't say I mind the odd over-reaction if it saves me several hundred or thousands of dollars in bogus charges, or at least the ordeal of having them struck from my account.

That is, at least until today. This afternoon I took my annual (sometimes bi- or triannual) trip to the mall to buy a new suit. The salesman rang up the purchase and swiped my card, then realized he'd forgotten to include the alteration fee. So he cancelled the sale, added in the fee, and rang it up all over again. Apparently the two semi-large back-to-back purchases tripped some warning system over at Citigroup HQ (or, more likely, in India), because they refused to approve the second transaction. The salesman had to call them up and, after passing the phone back and forth, we finally got them to wave it through. The whole thing probably added 20 minutes to the outing and seemed slightly excessive. (Couldn't they have just called me later and asked if it was kosher?)

Then I started thinking about how much money Citigroup has lost owing to a complete lack of vigilance on its own purchases and lending, and it started to feel a little absurd. I mean, if they're going straight to defcon 1 over a measly suit purchase, couldn't some of those credit-card monitoring folks have piped up about a few hundred billion in subprime mortgages* and mortgage-backed securities? As both a taxpayer and credit card customer, I'd have much prefered they short-change me and focus on that...

*Edited slightly for precision. Though please don't read this too literally. I do not, in fact, think Citi's credit card monitors could have helped the bank avoid the brink of collapse. Just pointing out a certain irony.  

--Noam Scheiber