Only certain generations of readers will remember the knuckle-buster.
Those of us who were of shopping age before the mid-1980s can recall the manual device cashiers would rack back-and-forth to make imprints on special paper of the embossed account information on a credit card. The cashier would keep a copy for the store to manually process the transaction later, and would ask if you wanted the carbon paper copy made by the device. Most people didn’t bother.
Back then, thieves would sift through dumpsters outside of stores, retrieve the discarded carbon copies and use the information pressed into them by the knuckle-buster to commit fraud. My parents never failed to take the carbon copies. Turns out we were practicing state-of-the-art financial data security!
Times have certainly changed in payment security, and our behaviors as consumers have had to follow suit. The transition to chip-enabled credit and debit cards, for example, dramatically enhanced the security of paying with plastic by making it near impossible for a criminal to clone stolen account data and go on a shopping spree. That improvement was not without friction, however, as we all had to break the habit of “swiping” a card in favor of “dipping” the chip into a terminal.
Similarly, the security innovations behind Apple Pay and Samsung Pay – combining biometrics, sophisticated cryptography and advanced hardware engineering to create “digital wallets” – turned our mobile devices into what is widely considered to be the safest way to make a payment. While use of these technologies is growing, it has not been as fast as was predicted: Many consumers simply don’t have enough trust in these new methods – despite their benefits in convenience and security – to easily abandon stalwarts of our physical wallets like cards and cash.
My first taste of a new security technology disrupting my idea of a “normal” payment experience happened three years ago during a stop to make a large purchase on a family road trip. At checkout, my credit card was declined. In the past, my choices at that moment would have been to either find a different card or leave empty-handed. Instead, I received a text message from my bank asking me to verify the purchase. After responding, my card was unblocked instantly and I completed the transaction. In all, it took less than 20 seconds and the effort of multiple companies and technologies to ensure I wasn’t a victim of fraud.
To that 1980s-era cashier wielding a knuckle-buster, this is the stuff of science fiction. But thankfully, it’s our reality today. Innovation in payments pushes us as consumers to change not only behavior, but also to step out of our comfort zone and place our trust in changing technologies. Adapting won’t always be easy, but the pay-off in enhanced security will almost certainly be worth it.
Lastly, whether you swipe, dip, or scan your credit card, you may, on occasion, have a credit card dispute from an authorized charge or you may need to dispute a billing issue. For more information on credit cards, visit the Fairfax County Consumer Affairs Branch for helpful consumer advice.
The writer, who resides in Mount Vernon, serves on the Fairfax County Consumer Protection Commission.