How I ended up with another person’s life in my pocket, because bad design

Two people spend each other’s money for a week, thanks to hard-to-read, unremarkable cards

Soup isn’t supposed to be that exciting. It’s hard to imagine a bowl of broth being dramatic. But in making a simple error, a waiter made it a moment.

On a Tuesday, after two distinct individuals finished their own workaday lunches, the restaurant staffer gave them each other’s credit cards. Then a week went by before anybody figured it all out. ‘That Vietnamese combination noodle soup, that’s gotta be it!”

I probably could have gone on charging purchases on this other guy’s dime (at least I think it’s a guy) had I not stopped for gas eight days later on a Wednesday. At the pump, the scratched-up display said “Unable to Auth.” Tried again, and again. Before going in and asking the attendant do the Auth, I turned and looked at that boring, mostly gray card in my hand. That’s when I noticed the name imprinted: It wasn’t mine. This time I would be paying for gas in cash.

Hopping online, I saw right away the banality of this perfect stranger’s life — basic purchases at Starbucks, Ikea, Target, Paris Baguette (near the soup place), gas at 76. Rifling through my latest receipts (everyone keeps these, right?), I tallied up what this someone else had been paying for: tacos; groceries at Trader Joe’s; sundries at Ace Hardware; an oil change and tire rotation; a pink strap at the music store for my kid’s guitar.

The root of the problem — which raises costs for everyone in the economy —
is that the cards are ugly.

I explained myself to four people with the credit-card issuer in a 45-minute telephone call. I even popped back into the eatery in question, and the reactions were consistent across the board: crickets. It took a few retellings to help people understand that there were mismatched cards out there, and that it really was unfortunate, because the root of the problem — which raises costs for everyone in the economy— is that the cards are ugly.

Look at this below, from the issuer’s website via Google Images:

Can you read the name? OK, how easy do you think that would be on a cramped merchant’s counter, in crappy light?

If we’re going to have physical credit cards where not even a signature is de rigueur anymore, can’t their designs be better? It might not be super cheap, but it can’t be that hard for issuers to mix up the colors and patterns so you can right away spot yours, or the one that isn’t yours.

Oh, and under what design rubric is the gray background a good idea?

Follow Anthony Lazarus on Twitter: @Sr_Lazarus