Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Criminal Libertarian Mind

Happy Holidays!

   It's that magical time of year when we, as Americans, celebrate hyper-consumption and the miracle that is "online shopping". At least, I know that I am personally celebrating the miracle of online shopping. Why? Well, it may be the best example of the theory that competition drives prices down. Of course, it's also the best example of how limited regulations, or difficult-to-enforce regulations, make it more likely that you will be disappointed in your purchase. Disappointed with the quality, the delivery, the service or even the total ripoff and destruction of your credit rating and ability to make future purchases. It's that last item that has always prevented me from immediately hopping on the keyboard in search of the best "deal" on something electronics-related. But this year, I discovered the "Visa Gift Card".
   "Ding Dong"...I just answered the door and lo and behold, my Postal Delivery Person just handed me the weekly RedPlum, the first of many tax return documents to come and a small package. Only 4 days ago, I made my first-ever online purchases. I received three items purchased from two websites in 4 days and paid no shipping fees. One item, a package of three USB data/charger cables for an old Cect i9 (iPhone clone I got for free), was unavailable in any store. It's a clone, but they changed the data port to avoid patent/copyright law. Anyway, a price comparison is irrelevant, but they ARE very cheap. I got 3 of them for $7.98 and they all work. I powered up the clone for the first time in 3 years and it was like opening a time capsule. "So this is what I wasn't missing". Needless to say, technology has advanced quite a bit and so have the clones. But it puts to rest that nagging feeling that I had. The feeling that a free iPhone was sitting in my desk drawer and it's been well-worth the $7.98 to bring that to a conclusion! I'll stick with my Gravity Smart after all.
   But the other items I purchased, I was able to make "in-store" and "online" price comparisons. I suppose I could have actually listed prices with the sellers, but I'll generalize because that's quite sufficient and a heck of a lot easier. I bought two laptops off of Craigslist and decided to get extended capacity batteries for both. The lowest prices I could find for immediate pick-up were $129.98 and $119.99. After just a few hours of online comparison-shopping (and no gasoline), I purchased the batteries for $37.34 and $30.83 respectively. Both qualified for free shipping if I was willing to wait 7-10 days. Now that I've received all three items at least three days earlier than expected and they all work as expected, I'm feeling pretty good about online shopping. And the beauty of the Gift Card? Not once was my birthdate or Social Security number or even checking account number involved in any way. I could order the items under any name if I chose to do so. Which is really awesome!
   Of course, I couldn't help but give this anonymous aspect a bit further thought. Where there's the potential for anonymity, there's usually a high probability of some kind of criminal opportunity. My first thought was money laundering and/or passing counterfeit bills. Then I got to thinking..."what happens to all those small ending balances?". The average Gift Card recipient probably doesn't spend down to the last penny. In fact, it's discouraged. If you use the card as "partial payment", you must tell the cashier prior to payment and identify exactly how much the card is worth. That's not a huge hassle if you're wired in by smartphone and a good data plan, but for most people the last two or three dollars are more than likely going to be tossed into the ether along with a few candy bar wrappers.
   As I was driving along the river, I couldn't help but imagine that somewhere, someone is developing code to skim ending balances. What kind of criteria would be important? Hmm, the age of the card. The card should be at least three months old. The balance should be kept low...even at pennies for the first few skims. But eventually, I'm thinking up to $3.00. Most people would assume some kind of hidden fee had gobbled up three dollars and just pass it off. If you want to write the best code, include some kind of official fee title to the transaction and plug in the last vendor's name as the issuer of the fee. I'm not suggesting I have any idea how much money could be skimmed this way, but I'll venture a guess that if the database for these cards were accessed, it would amount to a "whole lot". Just imagine if there were no regulations regarding secure databases and securing private information? But hey, I've got some good ol' fashioned "common sense" from the Libertarian that resides in all of us to some degree.
   "Who really gets hurt?". In the above scenario, the cardholder may not even know the money exists, or even care. The card is either lost in the sock drawer or buried in a landfill, right? And if the cardholder doesn't take the issue to court, do they really "own" that money? Who's money is it? The card issuer's? Maybe it's in the agreement (of course it is), but from a principled perspective, do they "really" own that money? Isn't the final decision in the hands of the cardholder where those last few dollars end up? See? It should be perfectly legal for me to take that money and if there's a dispute, take it to the Justice System! That's a MUCH better system!
    It might seem like a weak argument, but if you really think it gets weaker. But if you remove the ability of the Federal Government to establish any laws regulating e-commerce and go for that "economic freedom" line of malarkey, it starts to make perfect sense!
   In the final analysis, I highly recommend going the Gift Card route if you're a bit paranoid about online purchases. My first experience has been a stunning success in savings and satisfaction. The really cool part? I retrieved my ending balance from my "Manage Your Giftcard" page and I made another donation to the President's campaign...right down to the last cent.