Drinking from the Keg of IT Kindness

Opinion: A Visa capitulation and an especially sleazy Wal-Mart gift card thief raise questions about whether humans are as wonderful as holiday movies suggest.

As a species, human beings are very good at self-preservation, but were not exactly at the top of the class for doing what we should be doing if we dont have to.

This is nothing new. Leaders of various organized religions thousands of years ago figured out that doing good acts because its the right thing to do wasnt going to cut it. Leader: "You shouldnt kill people." Retailer: "Why not? Its a great problem solver." Leader: "Its against the law of our community." Retailer: "No biggie. I know our constable. Ill never get caught." Leader: "OK. Theres an all-knowing God who will punish you for eternity if you do it."

If people are going to avoid temptation and the urge to do things the cheap and quick way, they need a reason to do so and the firm belief that theyre going to get punished if they dont.

I bring up this moral topic not because the holidays are upon us, but because of what is going on in the retail technology world these days. This week, the industry gave us two top-notch examples of why the typical beagle is a lot more trustworthy than a retail executive. (For the record, eWEEK.com is not suggesting that all dogs are more trustworthy. Chihuahuas and Pekingese are definitely the criminal hackers of the canine world.)

The first example came from Visa, which had to resort to cash bribes to get retailers to comply with PCI rules to protect the privacy and money of their customers. In this rare instance, Visa is the good guy. Apparently, barely a third of the largest retailers were determined to be in compliance and for the next rank down—Level 2 merchants—the compliance rate dropped to 15 percent.

Those numbers exist even with the Visa threat of huge fines and penalties. The conclusion? Many retailers felt their chances of being hit with those fines was small—like the chances of getting audited by the IRS—and/or the cost of becoming compliant was probably greater than any fine, which probably wont happen anyway.

So Visa, being reminded what sorry excuse for mammals humans are, opted to offer some $20 million in bribes if retailers complied with PCI card security regulations, which retailers should be doing anyway to protect their customers. Perhaps they figured that the statistically low probability of getting the cash bribe would seem more likely than getting the fines. Think about people who repeatedly play the lottery, ignoring the math realities when the prospect of extra cash is present.

The second event that brings into question how much milk of human kindness weve been drinking comes from a gift card trading site called Plastic Jungle. Plastic Jungle this week was approached by someone offering to sell a pair of $200 Wal-Mart gift cards. As other reports have detailed, the site declined to buy the gift cards directly, but permitted the seller to see if any consumers on the site wanted them.

/zimages/3/28571.gifAs gift cards soar in popularity, the attempts to use them fraudulently have also soared. Click here to read more.

One consumer did. The site ran a check on the gift cards and Wal-Mart verified them as perfect, and the transaction went through. A couple of days later, the card was shut down by Wal-Mart. Apparently, the seller had stolen a credit card, used the stolen credit card to buy gift cards and then immediately sold the gift cards for cash. Its an old trick that law enforcement is quite familiar with.

Trying to rip off the site is one thing, but to use the associated credibility of a discussion forum is not a good way to buck for moving up the evolutionary ladder.

Plastic Jungle has a new policy: Never accept a card for sale unless it was purchased 10 or more days earlier. Not a bad policy, as long as they insist on selling to humans.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.

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