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No more signatures for credit card purchases, and it's still safer than ever

POSTED January 19, 2018 9:31 a.m.
You are at the checkout at the grocery store. You pay with a credit card, and the machine asks for your signature. At this point, do you A) actually sign your name, B) mark an ‘X,’ C) write your first initial with a long squiggle after it or D) just scribble.

It is a rare shopper who actually tries with any sincerity to write an actual signature at these point of sale machines.

I purchased the bulk of my Christmas gifts online and — surprise — never signed my name once when using my credit cards. That’s why we should all be shouting hallelujah that credit card companies are doing away with the inane in-store signature ritual all together.

Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover have announced this April that in-store signatures will become optional. The companies say this is the next step to enhancing security and convenience at the point of sale.

Convenient? For sure. But I’m guessing some readers may wonder if eliminating the signature may mean it could be easier for someone else to steal your card and use it.

Let me explain why that is nonsense. In the two years since Visa switched to EMV chip technology in the United States, fraud has declined 66 percent at stores with EMV chip-enabled readers.

Some people might still be a bit fuzzy on how the chip cards work. Each time a shopper uses a card at a chip-activated terminal, it generates a one-time code that approves the transaction.

You may also hear the term "tokenization." This is the process of replacing the account number with that one-time code, called a token. Visa says this feature is virtually impossible to duplicate in counterfeit cards.

Discover says these new methods for transactions, like tokenization, multi-factor authentication and biometrics are all more secure than requiring a signature. Besides, when is the last time you had a cashier ask to see the signature on the back of your credit card to check it against your signature when you buy something?

Philip Andreae, a consultant in the digital payments industry, says many cardholders never even sign their cards. He tells creditcards.com, “If merchants were doing what they are supposed to do, then maybe it has added a level of security. Otherwise, as it is today, there is no value.”

Merchants may have to (once again) update their point of sale systems in order to help us all abolish the signature portion of our purchase. And American Express notes that some stores may decide they want to continue to have customers sign, and that some locations may be required by law in some jurisdictions.

Now that we have rejoiced over the elimination of the credit card signature, let’s refresh ways you can make sure your unsigned credit card transactions are safe.

Make sure you only shop on secure websites.

If the URL doesn’t start with “https,” then don’t enter your credit card information. If it only starts with an “http,” that means the website is not encrypted. You can also look for a little padlock in the address bar that shows the site has encryption.

Never shop on public wi-fi.

Go ahead and log in to free public wi-fi everywhere you go, just never enter sensitive information while using it. There’s no way to know whether someone is tracking everything you type. It’s just safer to wait until you get on a private network to click "buy."

Use a credit card, not a debit card.

If a bad guy gets ahold of your card information, you’ll be better protected with a credit card. As you know, debit card transactions come directly out of your bank account, and hackers could drain it pretty quickly. Credit card companies generally do not make their customers pay for fraudulent purchases. By law, credit card companies cannot hold cardholders responsible for any more than $50. But for debit cards, customers could pay up to $500 if they don’t report the loss or theft within two days.

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