Broken Capital One MFA Locking Up Points

I just got a frantic text from a friend today. “Capital One won’t let me transfer my points because I switched mobile phone carriers! I’m going to lose the award inventory, and they’re telling me that there’s nothing they can do. My points are locked up for an indeterminate period of time.”

Your Capital One points may end up in a weird AI-generated jail if you switch mobile phone companies

This is the first time I have heard of this problem, but indeed it’s true. Capital One has been notoriously fussy about its 2FA verification. They use a “data quality” service (such as the Phone Verification tool provided by Experian) to check whether a mobile phone number appears to be suspicious, and they can get back a lot of data from these services (mobile phone carriers and app providers can and do sell everything about you to data brokers, including carrier billing data and your approximate real-time physical location).

And that comes down to assumptions, and who is making them. To me, this has missing cultural context written all over it. Capital One has fired much of its US staff and moved a significant percentage of software development offshore. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a software job in machine learning, try looking in Bangalore. A carrier-authenticated mobile phone number totally makes sense for identity verification in a location like India, where everyone has a national ID card called an “Aadhaar” and real-name registration is required with mobile carriers using this national ID (I’m sure this capability is never abused).

This is not the case in the United States, where we don’t have a national ID, real name registration is not required for any form of telephone service, and data quality is inconsistent at best. First of all, the lines are blurred between mobile phones, VoIP services and land lines here: you can port to and from any of these and some services ring multiple devices on multiple networks at the same time. People don’t always register their phones with the carrier at all, or if they do, at the location where they live, or update the billing address when they move (most people get their bills online and pay automatically). When switching carriers, it can be weeks or even months before carrier data is updated, and billing data can be verified from the new carrier. So when you’re designing a system like this, and you have cultural context of how things operate in the US, you will understand that a mobile phone number isn’t authoritative and there should be other ways to verify a customer request.

Capital One, unfortunately, isn’t doing that. There is a whole Flyertalk thread of people complaining about this issue. If Capital One’s system can’t figure out how to send you a text message, you’re out of luck and you can’t transfer points. They’re in jail, customer service is a brick wall, and there are no alternate procedures. Nobody will help you and Capital One won’t even say where the failure is so you can try to get it corrected. That’s another hallmark of customer service in both American and mainland Chinese banking: if your situation doesn’t fit the script, nobody knows what to do and nobody will help you. Your job as a human is to figure out how to fit within the system as it’s (poorly) designed, and bend to the will of a computer.

My friend ended up completely stuck, and used some American Airlines points he forgot he had to book a different flight. For my part, I find it completely astonishing that Capital One has designed such a completely inflexible system for something as time-sensitive as points transfers. I totally get that SIM swapping is an issue, and that stolen credentials are a problem. There are, however, other entirely reasonable alternate verification methods that aren’t immediately obvious to someone in Bangalore. If any product managers are left in the US at Capital One, maybe they can help their offshore colleagues.

The jetBlue Pricing Twilight Zone

I just got off a call with jetBlue which made me feel like I was in the twilight zone. This February, I’m planning a visit to The Bahamas, my 78th country. I was able to find an outbound flight relatively easily with AAdvantage points, but the return is on a US holiday and that’s proving to be a challenge to find at any reasonable price. WestJet has a flight that gets back really late, and I can book it at a somewhat reasonable cost using points (via Qantas, of all airlines), but jetBlue has a better schedule.

My first call was to Qatar. It’s possible to use Qatar Avios to book jetBlue flights. I tried looking on their Web site first, but availability was limited, and they didn’t allow searching online for flights between Nassau and Vancouver. Usually the pricing isn’t very good, but availability is pretty generous and given that it’s a peak holiday travel date, availability matters. I figured that if the flights priced out at the usual 18,500 Avios between Vancouver and the east coast, using Avios would be a good potential option. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any availability using Avios.

OK, fine. jetBlue allows you to book any flight they sell through their TrueBlue mileage program. Better yet, there’s a 25% transfer bonus from Chase Ultimate Rewards to jetBlue, and I have some jetBlue points. Why not check their program? Well, that’s not quite as easy a proposition as it sounds. jetBlue doesn’t have the best IT (this is an understatement) and even though you can buy flights from Nassau to Vancouver on their own Web site via Google Flights, you can’t search for them on the jetBlue Web site. I know it sounds crazy but here’s how it looks:

You can find an itinerary from Nassau to Vancouver on Google Flights
You can even purchase it directly on jetBlue
You can’t search for the flight from their homepage, though!

Obviously this doesn’t work, because it would involve paying actual money for these flights. We try to avoid paying cash at Seat 31B, so I picked up the phone and called jetBlue. If the Web site isn’t cooperating agents can usually figure out how to piece an itinerary together, and sure enough, the guy I called (who sounded like he was in the Caribbean) was able to figure it out.

There was only one problem. He couldn’t give me a price, because my account didn’t have any points in it. Could I transfer in some points so that he could price out the itinerary? Wait, what? That’s like handing a store your money (in a non-refundable way) before they’ll tell you the price of anything. “That just doesn’t make sense to me,” I replied. “Can you just give me a temporary credit in my account, or use a test account to search?”

I hit a brick wall. Eventually I escalated, and was routed to someone claiming to be with technical support in New York who also acted like a brick wall. “It has been this way for years” she emphasized, which didn’t make this insanity sound any more reasonable. I offered the same options – could they temporarily credit me some points to get around the IT issue? Could they use a test account? Nope! The only solution was to give them the equivalent of a $20 bill to find out whether I wanted to buy a ticket on their airline.

Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. By all accounts, jetBlue isn’t a very good airline (their operational reliability is spectacularly poor, and they charge for carry on bags) so flying WestJet probably makes the most sense here. Still, I feel like this policy is straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. jetBlue knows they are doing this. They have been doing it for years. And it’s absolutely not normal, in any reasonable sense.