Credit and Debit Card Blocks at the Pump

With gas prices soaring to over $4 a gallon, there’s a little something many consumers are running into that’s never been a problem before – limits and ‘blocks’ at the pump. Issuers and merchants have always had these limits and ‘blocks’ in place, but it’s never been an issue before because gas prices haven’t been as high.

What this means is that issuers and merchants set a predetermined limit that you can spend for at-the-pump purchases. This is usually anywhere from $50-75. When you swipe your card – debit or credit – the merchant does an authorization with the card company. Since the total purchase is unknown at this point, there is a ‘block’ on a specific amount of funds – usually the $50-75, but it can be as little as $1. The problem that people are running into is that since gas prices have increased, so is the amount that folks are putting into the gas tank. When the amount reaches the limit, the pump shuts off. Consumers are left there with their tanks unfilled – already aggravated by the high prices they have to pay.

In addition to the annoyance, there’s something else happening as well. When you use credit at the pump, that hold isn’t automatically released once the transaction is complete. According to Visa, merchants and/or financial institutions – depending on who is holding the funds – have three business days to release the holds. But, for some, these holds can cause all manner of fees to hit their accounts if it causes them to go over their limits or overdraw their accounts. Some banks have it set up where you’re not actually charged that fee as long as the actual purchase clears for less than what you have in the account; however, credit card companies are not always so gracious.

Naturally, the number of complaints to merchants has significantly increased, but in most cases it’s not the merchant’s fault, it’s the card issuer’s fault. The problem is that there’s nothing you can really do about either. These limits are set in place to help avoid fraud. The first thing someone who steals your card is going to do is go fill up their gas tanks. By limiting the amount the fraudsters can get, the credit card company or financial institution limits their liability when you report the purchase as fraudulent.

Fortunately for me I have a small car so this has not been an issue in recent times. However, I did experience this once when I was moving. In addition to using the gas station three times that day, I was also filling up a U-Haul and that ended up sending me over my limit for that transaction. It wouldn’t let me fill up any further and I had to go inside to actually complete the transaction. I didn’t think about it at the time, but there’s another way to circumvent that as well – a second transaction.

These limits and holds placed on the card are only on a per transaction basis. You can complete the first transaction with the hold and then reinsert your card for a second transaction. It’s a little bit of a hassle for consumers to do that, but if you really don’t want to walk inside, you at least have this option. Unfortunately, this option tends to hit merchants hardest because they pay on a per swipe basis. If each customer swiped their card two or three times, that would be one outrageous bill for the merchant at the end of the month. It impacts us because they have to compensate somehow, which is usually in the form of higher prices on gas and convenience items.

Have any of you experienced this problem at the pumps? Do you think the limits should all be raised in light of the gas prices, or left as they are because it’s only a temporary situation?

Hey, I’m optimistic that gas prices will go down!

11 thoughts on “Credit and Debit Card Blocks at the Pump”

  1. I just talked to my brother about this problem yesterday. He is not very happy about it and wants to get a new card that allows him to fill his tank without this limit. But, I think congress has set the limits on the credit card companies, so I don’t think it will change anytime soon.

  2. I think the limits should be raised and the best way to get them to do that is to do the double transaction thing you mentioned. If the merchants are upset about having to pay higher fees they will complain to the credit card companies, and the limits will get raised. (one would imagine)

  3. We’ve had this problem for years since we have a 100 gallon extra tank on our truck. But I don’t think for a minute that these limits were set up to prevent fraud (if that was the case, then the second swipe with the same card should be declined – we have swiped the same card as many as 4 times and were never prevented from continuing, so how would that help prevent fraud?). In my opinion, these limits were set by the card companies for exactly the reason you are pointing out: an extra fee for them to collect.
    And, Curt, if those limits were set by congress, they would be the same all over. We have so far experienced 3 different limits: $50.00, $75.00 and $100. It looks like the card companies are setting the cut-off as low as they can get away with. If a merchant complains about a $50.00 limit they raise it to the next level.
    I expect with rising fuel costs, the limits will also rise as soon as the merchants catch on.

  4. I don’t like these limits at all. I am routinely spending almost $60 per fill-up these days, and it really frustrates me when I get cut off with less than a full tank at the $50 mark.

    Since I use the same credit card to gas up each time, and don’t always get cut-off, I will be paying attention to the merchants who have such limits and therefore won’t be returning to those gas stations again.

  5. Oh my, I’ve been experiencing this since I got my driver’s license back in 2002. My parents had a diesel Chevy Suburban with a 43 gallon tank. I tried to not let it get close to empty, or else it’d be a few card swipes (and a long time!) to fill it up.

    I’m sure people in line were so happy to get stuck behind me… not! My preferred gas station had a separate diesel pump, between two regular pumps. The gas door was on the VERY end of the suburban, so I’d have to pull up super far and completely block off others from using the regular pump in front of me.

    It was even more fun when I could pull up to the first regular pump, but not get close enough to the diesel pump because somebody else was using the other regular pump in front of me. Gotta wait till they finished so I could get close enough to the diesel pump. (And as luck would have it, the diesel pump did not have an extended hose.)

    If somebody behind me also had a gas door in the very back of their car… well, there simply wasn’t enough space for them to pull close enough without hitting the Suburban. Then I’d be hogging 3 whole pumps. And they’d be deluded to thinking that I’m done when I put the nozzle up, get the receipt… wait! Why am I swiping again?! :P

  6. Mastercard Canada yesterday declined our purchase at a gas station twice!! and then put a block on the card because they thought it was an “unusual” purchase even though it’s something that’s done every month — the car was filled up Saturday, then Sunday gas cans were tried to be filled up for a small plane but since they thought it was unusual they blocked it — and this was when my husband would have been travelling from Canada to the U.S. and would have used the card there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. hey did you see what i have trouble with my credit and debit card from u.m.b bank there. hey ! this is riduculous !!!! Im madd .. i called 3times at the number printed on the back there. yep met the c.s.r .. oh gosh for an 30min got my answer there. yep collection..told me this my first ‘suspension ‘ and they charged me 40 bucks extra to boot , i need gas .. for my poor family ..i know i never missed a payment for 4 yrs now they are doing this to MEEE?? UGH please there got .. help there.

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