“That Exasperating Zip: Know Its Power”

(Staring mindlessly at the pump, fist clenched, husband’s just another normally-calm man driven to distraction by today’s fail-safe security devices. By the way, see “Express” in the picture? There’s never anything “express” about it when we get gas.)

He’s outside the car now, gas pump in hand, and the battle begins. In recent years, he’s learned to read the computerized prompts but he now faces a new hurdle, for the pump asks “What’s your zip code?” I can hear his frustration…a few choice words…his mounting fury… for he knows he’s dead in the water. I’m sure it’s a scene played out across America.

Here’s how it goes: The gas station wants you to punch in your zip code before you begin pumping gas, and you stand there, wondering “Which one?” Do they want the zip of the station, the zip where I live, or the zip where I took out my credit card (because that’s what some want)?

And if you live in more than one state, you’re in real trouble, since multiple zip codes apply in everything you do.

These same gas station computers boot you off if you haven’t fulfilled correctly in two attempts. They figure you’re a scam artist. You stand there frustrated, unable to go forward in a sequence that begs the question: “Why does this have to be so hard?” It’s a classic case of non-recognition by big national chains of how the system plays on the other end-to consumers.

Sadly, it’s not just gas stations that use this flawed system.

Case in point: A well-known national bank follows the same format. When the customer goes to the counter to make a deposit, she must fill out a form (even if she has a bank card) and the form she must use is dictated by her zip. When tellers want my zip code, I ask “Which state?” That’s important since I opened an account in two states. I would think my bank card would trump all other items allowing me immediate access, but I’ve discovered: What I think almost never aligns with protocol of giant institutions.

Recently I became eligible for Medicare. That‘s right–I turned 65. I got my famous red, white, and blue card in the mail, noting on it nothing more than my number, date of issuance, etc. I had signed up for it in North Carolina, because I figured “It’s a federal program, so I can do this anywhere.” I was right–they let me.

The Social Security office was nearby and I had the time. What I’d learn later, however, is that like banks and gas stations, where I applied would figure as wildly important for I was unknowingly assigned to the pool of “North Carolina residents“–instead of Rhode Island (where I live for 7 months of the year.) Why was this especially problematic? That zip ruled all else going forward.

For instance, I went onto the Medicare.gov website to get information on drug plans during my open-enrollment period (3 months before and after birthdate). The first item I had to answer was (you guessed it) my zip. I pumped it in and then proceeded to fill in all the other information: Medicare number, birthdate, date of card issuance, etc. When I finished, the screen read: “Your information does not match what we have on record for you. Sorry–try again.” They alluded to the fact I may have copied a number incorrectly.

Again and again, I tried…to no avail.

In desperation, I called Social Security and finally discovered that since I applied for my Medicare card in North Carolina, I was now recognized as a North Carolina resident, eligible for their state-approved plans. So when I pumped in my Rhode Island zip code (on the Medicare.gov website), there was a serious disconnect.

It was a simple enough misunderstanding that produced a bureaucratic nightmare. Having never done this before, I never realized drug plans are state-specific (even if some offer national coverage). One must apply for these plans in the state she identifies as “home.” And your Medicare zip better match that “home.”

It took me two days of sleuthing, waiting endlessly on the phone, answering the programmed prompts, finally reaching a person who actually help me. In all that period, no one thought that my living in two states (zip-pegged to the wrong one) might have caused the problem. The zip fiasco had simply followed the ill-conceived plans of many others: It was initially set up as a fail-safe method now morphed into a miasma of misunderstanding.

Biddy sincerely hopes that when such safeguards are put into place (for essential services we must access), they’re “real-people-tested” for usability, and they’re tweaked, too, when problems arise. In the meantime, she fervently awaits voice-ID-ing and touch-screen fingerprinting as methods for validation, but she knows too: Those futuristic methods will probably result in new kinks to drive us to distraction. At present, consumer-usability-testing is the one step major companies (including the federal government) ignore.

(Below is the zip 90210, made famous by the television show that aired in the late 1990’s. The cast and weekly plots made that zip a memorable entity. Do you know which present-day stars got their start via that zip?)


Got your own example of how this bureaucracy (and its failsafe security devices) is driving us all to distraction? Sound off in “Comment” or “Leave a Comment”….Your e-mail address is never given out. Promise.

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A lifetime teacher and realtor who's now a published writer, Colleen Kelly Mellor is a humorist first, ever aware of the thread that connects us all. Her works have appeared in the WSJ, Providence Journal, and CNN and NY Times-acclaimed medical blog, kevinMD.com, to name a few. All material on this blog is exclusive property of the author and cannot be reproduced without this author's express written consent.
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