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Seeking Ali Bris

·6 mins
A mechanical credit card imprinter

I’m pretty careful with money. I always pay off credit card bills in full when I receive them — but first, I go through the transactions and make sure there aren’t any that look fraudulent. Sometimes this involves consulting my wife to ask if a particular transaction sounds legit.

A few months ago I was skimming through credit card transactions when I found one that said Ali Bris followed by a number.

Who the hell was Ali Bris? It sounded to me like the name of an Arabian mohel, but that seemed implausible for several reasons. Web searches were no help. I asked my wife, and we thought about it for a while before suddenly she had the answer: it was Alibris, the used book marketplace.

So the mystery was solved, mostly. But it got me thinking: who decides what goes in the description on your credit card bill? What are the weird abbreviations like PY * that sometimes show up? And why are the descriptions sometimes so cryptic? I fell down an Internet research rabbit hole…

The text messages that turn up on your credit card bill next to the amount you forgot you spent are known as “billing descriptors”, “statement descriptors” or “merchant descriptors”. They are intended to include information about the transaction — roughly what it was for, and who charged your account.

Generally the following are involved in a credit card transaction:

  • The issuer, the company that issued a card to you, usually a bank.
  • The vendor, the store or other business that charged your card.
  • The payment processor, the company that the vendor used to handle charging your card.
  • The network, generally Visa, Mastercard, Discover or American Express.
  • The consumer, you, the person who’s going to have to pay the bill.

So, how does the text end up on the bill to tell you what you’re paying for? Specifically, how do weird things like Ali Bris show up?

Credit cards as we know them today date back to the start of the 1960s, so as you can imagine the technology involved isn’t particularly cutting edge. They can only contain Latin characters in the US — no quotes, apostrophes, asterisks, < or >, or backslashes. I was tempted to write “ASCII characters” there, but in all probability there’s a mainframe involved and it’s EBCDIC rather than ASCII. Also, the text is upper case only, and limited to between 5 and 22 characters, depending on the payment processor, network and issuer. In Japan you can use Japanese text in descriptors; no idea about China, Russia, or any other country that has a non-Latin alphabet.

When you first spend money with a credit card, a “soft descriptor” is used while the transaction is pending. Once it has been processed, that’s swapped for a permanent “hard descriptor”. That’s why sometimes a pending transaction will have very little detail, but later on when it ends up on your statement it will say what it was for.

Some businesses use what’s called a “static descriptor” — just the name of the business, so it’s up to you to work out what the purchase was. This is generally what you’ll see if you pay bills by credit card, where it’s the same transaction every month. So Backblaze shows up as “BACKBLAZE.COM SAN MATEO CA”, they figure I’ll know what it’s for.

Where it gets interesting is the “dynamic descriptor”, which is intended to contain information about the actual product purchased. Cramming that and the vendor name into 22 characters is done by splitting the field into a prefix and suffix. The prefix is as little as 2 characters, and no more than 10, and is intended to indicate the vendor. Then there’s an asterisk, which is why asterisks aren’t allowed anywhere else. The rest of the text is the suffix, which is supposed to indicate what’s purchased.

The payment processors generally recommend that business include their business name, phone number and web site in the descriptor. Hoping to cram that into 10 characters strikes me as optimistic.

Anyway, that’s the first part of the puzzle: it wasn’t Ali Bris, it was ALI BRIS. My credit card company had attempted to make the text more readable by automatically correcting the capitalization of each word, assuming that it was the name of the company and therefore that each word should start with a capital letter and then be lower case.

In some cases, a business’s payment processor will put their business name as the prefix, and the actual business name as the suffix. That’s why I get thinks like NBS*KWIK TRIP 104 6DULUTH MN on my credit card bills — NBS is National Bank Services. This doesn’t leave a suffix for the actual transaction details, but in this case I can likely guess.

Similarly, businesses using Paypal to process transactions will end up with PAYPAL * at the start of the transaction descriptor, then possibly their name, and a Paypal transaction number. TST is a payment processor called Toast, BLS is BLS International. I’m guessing CKO is, IN is Ingenico. There’s one with the prefix PY, but there are a dozen payment processors with “pay” in their names for some reason, so it could be any one of them. There’s also one that appears as FSP, my wild guess would be that it’s Fiserv Payments.

For some reason any transaction carried out using Apple Wallet seems to get APLPAY stuck on the front of the descriptor, even if it doesn’t involve the Apple Card or Apple Pay. My guess is that Apple’s doing that when they map the temporary card number back to the real one to handle the transaction.

So there’s one last mystery: why did Alibris choose to appear as ALI BRIS?

My guess is that it was a mistake when they set up their merchant account. Perhaps a typo, but given that the business was set up in the late ’90s, it’s possible that they filled out a paper form or sent a fax and someone at the bank misread the company name and added the space.

As to why they are still appearing as Ali Bris, presumably fixing it involves dealing with their payment processor. It would probably require multiple telephone calls, sworn affidavits, contract review, that sort of thing. Too much work for too little gain. Probably most people don’t check their credit card transactions, and the ones who do and who buy books from Alibris likely work out who Ali Bris is pretty quickly.