“Can I See Your Credit Card?” The question has …

“Can I See Your Credit Card?”

The question has become more pervasive than the now defunct “paper or plastic?” My reply is the same, whenever quereied to “see” my card: “Why sure, see, here it is.” I then hold up the card, next to my right shoulder, to which the clerk inevitably (and usually in an iritated tone) retorts: “I NEED to check the signature.” To which I then reply “Oh, I understand. You asked to see my card, but you didn’t a.) ask properly, and b.) ask politely.

I’m a firm believer in voting with my dollar — whether it’s paper or plastic. It’s why I’ve begun to make a list of stores where I won’t shop:

Home Depot
Old Navy

Consistently, the workers at these stores — usually after a curt transaction — blurt out: Can I (or even worse, I need to) see your card.

Well, frankly, no one ever needs to see my card. No great floods or famines, crumbling walls or earthquakes might occur if by chance, someone does not see my card. And honestly, no one really needs to see my card either. Why? Well, the media is rife with scary stories about identity theft, and “stolen” credit card numbers. To that, I say, big deal. Why you again ask? Well, let’s take a look at how credit card transactions were processed 30 years ago, before computer transaction clearing.

Back in the day, the customer would present a credit card for payment. The number of the card was checked in a book that listed the delinquent card accounts, stolen cards, and the like. The booklet was updated once monthly, twice montly during the busy holiday season. After checking the authenticity of the card, it was then placed in an imprinting device, a carbon booklet or triplicate “sales draft” was placed over the card, and the raised plastic number of the card was literally imprinted on the card. Because the technology was not very difficult to replicate, and counterfeit cards were rampant, and could be used for nearly an entire month — before the new verifcation book was printed and distributed. As such, the signature became the only security feature of the card. Most merchant banks required the retailer to “verify the signature” on the back of the card to that presented on the sales draft. If the signature didn’t match perfectly, the retailer was to reject the card, and void the transaction.

The signature verifcation requirement is an anachronistic holdover from that time. For the most part, credit card transactions are now processed electronically, but consumers have grown to equate the signature check with security, and most still expect to have their signature checked. In reality, though, credit transactions are approved (or declined) as well as cleared electronically. Most often, the signed slips wind up in a big disorganized box in the back room of the store where the purchase is made.

So, after the 7 seconds or so it takes the customer to sign, rarely does anyone ever look at that slip again. In rare instances, such as a in the instance of a chargeback, or to trace transactions using a stolen card the origninal sales slip is requested by the merchant bank. In the rare instances when it can the original can be found it is turned over to the merchant bank, though two sources from separate Northeastern regional banks have both independently verified that it is a rare instance when the original sales slip can actually be found. With increasing frequency, signatures are caputred electronically (that is, the customer signs an electronic screen, rather than a piece of paper). In this way, the signature is stored, and no records are stored. Curiously, many retailers still print the entire credit card number on original receipts as well as on the customer copies. I’ve noticed that at stores like JCPenney and the Bon Ton — these charge slips are kept in a small plastic basket next to, or on a shelf under the cash register — I don’t know why all these folks that are identity theft-paranoid, and are scared to death to buy anything over the internet, for fear that some credit card-stealing boogey man is lurking in the cybershadows, seem to be OK with having not only their number but also their signature on a slip of paper, that nearly anyone could walk by and take.

Regardless, the signature requirement has become, in my opinion, a nuissance, and slows down what could be a far more efficient (and fast) checkout experience. So my question: why bother? Why can’t — or why won’t — credit card companies simply let you swipe and go? It’s beginning to happen. On purchases under $20, no signature is required. Great idea. The MasterCard/Visa Pay Pass is a great idea, but the equipment hasn’t yet been widely distributed, and in the five or six times I’ve had the opportunity to use it, the equipment never seems to work.

So, over the past few months, I’ve run a little experiment. I don’t have much fear of identity theft, and I’ve never known it to happen to anyone I know. Not to mention the fact that if my credit card was ever stolen — or even should just turn up missing — I’m only resonsible for the first $50 in purchases after I’ve reported it missing or stolen. So big deal. Is $50 worth losing sleep, buying a paper shredder, and being harassed at the checkout? I don’t think so. It’s also definitely not worth the $60 a year to sign up for credit ‘protection’ services like ChargeGard.

I’ve decided to sign another name when making credit card purchases, I’ve tried: Donald Duck, Mr. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, a dollar sign, an ‘X’, George W. Bush, and a host of others. Never once has my purchase been declined. An in the two or three instances when the cashier has actually checked the validity of my signature she/he has simply shurgged, and returned the card back to me. So, the next time a cashier bluntly says “I need to see your card,” I can answer with a solid “No, you don’t.”