Why credit card companies tracking purchases is a problem

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File

There are bad people in this world. No one on the planet will deny that. So I get the desire many have to try and stop these bad people from doing bad things.

Yet a push to try and get credit card companies to flag at least some gun purchases isn’t really a way to address the issue.

That’s precisely what a number of New York lawmakers want these companies to start doing.

More than four dozen state lawmakers have penned a letter to Mastercard and American Express, urging the New York-based credit card companies to support a measure that could make it easier to spot suspicious purchases at gun stores.

Credit card companies track spending based on the type of retailer where a card is used — though they do not track the individual items that are purchased. Each purchase is tagged with what’s called a merchant category code, with the master list set by an international standards body. Some categories are fairly broad, such as those for grocery stores and airlines, while others are quite specific. There are unique codes for tent and awning shops, wig and toupee stores — even separate categories for antique shops, secondhand stores and pawn shops.

But there are no codes just for gun retailers.

A Mastercard reference booklet lumps them into a “miscellaneous” category with magic stores, silk flower shops and bottled and distilled water dealers, or a “durable goods” category that also includes lighting fixtures and grave markers.

“I think people would be shocked to find that out,” said State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who spearheaded the letter, which was shared exclusively with Gothamist. It asks Mastercard and American Express to support the creation of a new code for gun sellers.

“I think the public would agree that it’s important for us to keep track of these things,” Myrie said.

Uh, no, I don’t think the public would agree with any such thing.

What these lawmakers are wanting to do is, essentially, force the credit card companies to provide information to the government that would set up a de facto gun registry. Another one, at least.

As the above-linked article notes, financial institutions are already required to notify the government of suspicious activity such as money laundering or funding of terrorism. What these lawmakers are wanting is for these companies to code gun stores separate from other stores, supposedly to facilitate this kind of action on guns.

Yet this has all kinds of issues.

For one, as noted, it essentially creates something of a gun registry by creating data that could, in theory, be used to identify gun owners. While it’s unlikely this would be how a government would go about identifying gun owners, the fact that it could be used in such a way is still a big problem.

Then there’s the problem with “suspicious purchases” as a concept.

With financial crimes, credit card companies know precisely what to look for and identify as suspicious activity. These are financial crimes, after all, so the entire thing exists in the world of digital currency.

But how do you define a gun purchase as suspicious?

For example, I can think of single firearms that cost in excess of five-figure amounts. Not all of them are particularly scary guns, either. Yet one such purchase would look no different to my credit card companies than buying a whole lot of very scary-looking guns.

Then there’s the question of stores like Bass Pro Shops. They sell guns, but they also sell a whole lot of things that have nothing to do with firearms. Is it suspicious if someone at such a store buys a fishing boat? Not really, but it might if the credit card company has them coded as a gun store.

Which would mean individual items would need their own code, which would create new problems.

Of course, they might have criteria in mind for what constitutes a suspicious purchase. For example, maybe the credit card company would flag the purchase of a handgun by a 23-year-old man with a Compton address as “suspicious.”

Do I need to explain how that could be a problem?

These lawmakers may believe what they’re doing would be a huge benefit for everyone, but it’s nothing of the sort. This is an attempt to outsource anti-gun snooping to credit card companies that would rather be left out of this entirely.

And what I’ve outlined here with regard to the problems it would create are only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure these credit card companies already know the problems and would rather just avoid them entirely as well.

Let them.