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Why embossed credit cards are here to stay

Mobile blackspots, global compatibility, keep bumpy numbers alive

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Embossed numbers on credit cards are here to stay, and probably for a very long time, say the big three credit card issuers.

The raised numbering on credit cards may seem anachronistic given that EMV chips are increasingly being adopted around the world, while magnetic strip cards have been with us for decades.

The long likely lifespan for raised numbers can also look odd given that pre-paid credit cards have already ditched embossed numbering. Those cards have done so because credit card companies don't want you to be able to conduct a transaction for more money than you have stored on the card. Forcing you to electronically authorise every transaction with a pre-paid card means you'll never be able to overdraw such cards.

But credit card companies want to hang on to the old bumpy numbering for conventional cards, for several reasons.

The first is that not every merchant which accepts credit cards has access to online transaction processing facilities. “The genius of our system is global interoperability,” said David Masters, MasterCard's Vice President of Strategy and Corporate Affairs, who points out that merchants in developing nations may not have reliable access – or sometimes any access - to online transaction processing facilities.

Keeping raised numbers therefore means that wherever you take your card, merchants will be able to accept it.

Old-fashioned “click clack” card readers, which take an imprint of the raised numbers on a special form, are also an important backup for merchants.

“Card numbers are raised so merchants can take an imprint of the card to complete a sale,” explains Andrew Craig, of Visa Australia and New Zealand's Corporate Affairs team. “They’re used as a back up in cases where a merchant’s terminal is not working.”

That's a problem that can even strike in developed nations, as mobile merchants like taxis can often enter mobile coverage black spots. When that happens, reverting to click clack readers is convenient for merchant and customer alike.

Embossed numbers also help in other ways, says Fritz Quinn, American Express' Sydney-based Director of Public Affairs and Communications for Merchant Services.

“Writing down card numbers is time consuming and if you’re using this method as a backup, you probably don’t want to slow down the transaction any further,” he says. “Inconsistent or illegible handwriting can cause confusion with manual processing,” he adds, noting also that “In cases where the person processing the transaction has a particular disability (e.g. visual impairment), writing down the card number is not an option.”

Another reason embossed numbers are still with us may be that a click-clack machine is considered more secure than writing down credit card numbers. Credit card companies aren't super-keen on “card not present” transactions that involve card numbers being written down: merchants who unwittingly use invalid card numbers are liable for fraudulent purchases.

Keeping old-fashioned analog click clack card readers alive is therefore a safety net that merchants may appreciate. ®

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