The United States is the only developed country still hanging on to credit and debit cards with those black magnetic stripes, the kind you swipe through retail terminals. The rest of the industrialized world has switched – or is in the process of switching– to “smart” chip-based cards.
The problem with that black magnetic stripe on the back of your credit card is that it’s about as secure as writing your account information on a postcard: everything is in the clear and can be copied. Card fraud, and the measures taken to prevent it, costs U.S. merchants, banks and consumers billions each year.
The smart cards can’t be copied, which greatly reduces the potential for fraud. Smart cards with built-in chips are the equivalent of a safe: they can hide information so it can only be unlocked with the right key. Because the important information is hidden, the cards can’t be replicated.
But the stripes have been so entrenched in the vast U.S. payment system that banks, payment processors and retailers have failed to reach consensus on how to revamp it, leaving the U.S. behind the rest of the world, says Mallory Duncan, general counsel of the National Retail Federation. “We have far, far too much fraud because we have a very antiquated payment system relative to the rest of the world. This is something they should have fixed a long time ago.”
Yet even here, there are now serious moves to swap conventional cards for smart cards in a few years.
Last month, Visa announced new policies that will give U.S. banks a reason to issue smart cards and stores several reasons to accept them, starting in 2015.
Smart cards are recognizable by the fingernail-sized gold contacts embedded on one side. Through the contacts, a chip inside the card can transmit information to a terminal when slid into a slot.
Here’s how a smart card works in practice: When it’s time to settle the bill at “Le Gaspard de la Nuit,” a tiny restaurant just off the Place de la Bastille in Paris, the waiter brings to the table a wireless payment terminal. The customer inserts his chip-equipped “smart” credit card and enters his code on the keypad.
Voila! The foie gras is paid for without the card leaving the customer’s sight, and the combination of chip and PIN code kept the transaction safe from fraud.
The U.S. payments industry has so far been locked up in a “chicken and egg” quandary, said Eric Schindewolf, product manager for smart cards at Wells Fargo & Co. Stores had little reason to install terminals for smart cards if banks didn’t issue them, and aside from some contactless cards, banks didn’t issue them because stores wouldn’t accept them.
Richard Sullivan, the senior economist in payments research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, says that in 2006, 9 cents out every $100 paid by card in the U.S. ended up in the pockets of criminals. The comparable figure for Spain was 2 cents. Sullivan believes the use of smart cards there is a big reason.