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Embossed credit cards, we raised you right, but maybe it’s time to move on

Anna Bleker

In May 2009, New York Times technology columnist David Pogue posted a question from reader Dale Bengston:

“Why are we still squinting to read those raised numbers on our credit cards? Why is our credit card number not printed on the card in a more human-friendly way?”

Bengston explains that he uses his credit card in only three ways:

  1. Swiping its magnetic stripe.
  2. Typing the number into a form on a Web page.
  3. Reading the number to someone over the phone.

Which raises the question: Why DO we still use the ugly, embossed text of the 1960s?

Embossed letters

We have the magnetic stripe. We even have contactless RFID chip credit cards. And, for online or phone purchases, a unembossed set of numbers would suffice.

So why are credit card numbers still raised, bumpy and unattractive?

After a delving into countless credit card forums and credit card company websites, I think I know the answer: Even though electronic credit card processing has been standardized, when the electricity goes out, what do merchants do? They go old school. Writing down credit card numbers is shady, and the only way to process payments efficiently in no-Internet situations is to bust out the old carbon copy card reader.

Those ancient manual credit card terminals (commonly referred to as “knuckle-busters” or “zip zap machines” that emit a noise that Bengston describes as “ca-chunk ca-chunk “) seem obsolete in most stores and restaurants. But, in fact, many places still use the old “ca-chunk ca-chunk” machine: Crafts shows, trade shows, taxi drivers and venues with busted credit card readers frequently use these, because merchants don’t have to, or don’t have the means to, connect to a payments network to accept credit card payments.

unembossed

Visa doesn’t think that raised numbers are necessary, though. Last September, the corporation announced it would let issuers use unembossed credit cards — with numbers simply printed onto the card, not raised up Braille-style. The lack of embossed characters saves production time and manufacturing costs and makes for a smoother card.

It hasn’t caught on. Perhaps consumers are scared of flat cards’ lack of an authentic, credit-cardy feel. Without the raised numbers, they pretty much look like those make-believe credit cards we sometimes get in mail offers.

MasterCard also offers an unembossed card, though MasterCard’s website for merchants strongly urges merchants to use the card only through electronic terminals. If merchants don’t process the credit card electronically, but instead, just write down the numbers, the merchant “could be liable for certain charge-backs by not being able to prove card presence through a manual imprint of the card.”

So, if you’re thinking about getting an unembossed credit or debit card for its smooth, modern look and feel, remember to carry a fat wad of backup cash.

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  • Debbie

    I work at a business that does not accept printed credit cards, they MUST be embossed. We have been burned in the past by people who have printed card numbers on the fake in the mail cards we all get. Unembossed is NOT the way to go.

  • Jonathan

    Umm, Debbie, did the “fake” cards have the proper holograms? Did they electronically authorize properly? If not, I don’t think that is the cards fault, or any reason not to accept *VALID* unembossed cards…

  • Nancy

    For the second time in my history of using credit cards, my number was stolen. The way it was used fraudulently was that one merchant read the card number printed on the front of the card, and/or took an imprint, rubbing or cell-phone photo of it and then passed the number on to another criminal who overwrote THEIR own card, magnetically, with my numbers using an illegally-owned encoding machine. Then, they have their own card with their own name on it (which matches their own drivers license or other ID’s) but with MY credit account numbers on it. As long as card companies DO continue printing the numbers on the cards, they will continue to be used without authorization.

  • Haggy

    I finally got one of these in the mail. I was not offered a choice. It’s a Chase Sapphire card, and if Chase is going this way, I don’t think merchants will get by refusing them.
    I already have problems with cards being refused, not because of lack of bumps but lack of chips. In Europe, “PIN and Chip” is standard. Everything from cashiers to waiters with hand held readers use them and your card stays in your possession. There’s no way to clone them and if stolen they’re no good without the PIN. In an era of cell phones and handheld devices, I don’t think we need to worry about garage sales and craft shows, the latter of which always seems to have a reader anyway even outdoors.

  • Ross

    I just opened a new restaurant and we are a bit worried about the new “flat” cards with no raised lettering. If the power goes out or our card reader goes down, then we have to pull out the carbon copy imprinter to accept credit cards for the meals. If an issue occurs during a rush then we already have many meals underway and so many people these days dont carry cash. If they have a new card how do we charge that card without power? Just trying to find an answer to this issue. Thanks.

  • Carol

    I will not use a flat debit card – I can not tell by touch if I’m pulling out an ID card or an credit/debit card.

  • Me

    I have a flat one and the ATM won’t recognize it as a mastercard WTH? Don’t like it already.

  • Michelle

    flat cards are flat out ugly. the capital one quicksilver one is an example. it simply is an eyesore. the raised imprint gives the card its authenticity for a variety of reasons, all addressed here already, and if i wanna pretend i have a credit line and carry around a play card with me, i’ll peel the cardboard ones off the offers in the mail. it’s stupid that that is what they would model new cards after. i am the last one to subscribe to tradition, but here it’s safe to say that if it’s not effing broke, don’t fix it because you’ll likely just eff it up.
    also, i could not care any less about any big business or credit card company’s plight to save money. that’s a freakin’ joke argument.

  • James

    I just got a cap one card and am thinking of not activating it. Not for the lame reasons like it’s an eyesore or the raised imprint gives it authenticity, it’s because some places do turn it down and I don’t want that to happen. On the other hand, I do have family members who were screwed by someone who got an imprint and charged a bunch of stuff. Ok whatever, it got fixed, also to the business owner who is worried about a power outage, well your pens work right? Write it down on the form, or use your phone to actually call the card company and verify it. I think places turn it down cause they are too lazy to actually check it out. Still, I’m not sure if I want to or not, guess I’ll try it and if it becomes a hassle I’ll cancel it. Eyesore Hahaha really? So better looking cards work better or something? Weak argument. Wahhh, I don’t want credit cause it’s ugly. Lol good God.

  • Sean

    As a business owner the only ways to protect yourself from customer chargebacks is to “swipe” the card through the electronic credit card machine and get a signature, ship the product/merchandise to the verified billing address of the credit card or to get a manual imprint of an embossed card. Businesses are way more susceptible to fraud than the average consumer. The banks are quick to take the money from the checking account and then you have to prove that it was an authorized transaction by one of the three ways above. Take a card over the phone for payment when a customer says grandma’s paying and ship it to a different address and you’re out the money when the cardholder disputes the charge. When we have customers order product online and then come pick it up in our store we have to get an imprint of an embossed card or take a photocopy of these new flat cards in order to prove that the cardholder was present. This can be a hassle and uncomfortable for both parties but its the only way for a business to protect itself from dishonest customers. Internet purchases should require a pin or something as well to protect both the consumer and retailer.

  • Diego

    Hi Anna,
    Where could I find the article or newsreport where Visa announced that it would let issuers ask for a unembossed credit card.
    Thanks,
    Diego M.

  • tim

    I got a cap one quicksilver card and i was kinda disappointed when i received it to see the non embossed letters/numbers. thats what lead me to this site actually. at the end of the day its not really a big deal, but it looks like a freaking dept store card/the “pre-approved” cards you get in the mail. doesn’t look authentic.

  • Darryl Baker

    A late addition. One question isn’t using the old swipe machines now illegal because it keeps the whole credit card number on the receipt as well as the carbons in many cases rather than the legally required only 4 digits?

    Not once in the past five years have I been given the option of not having my card embossed. I really would go with the flat card option. It would do a lot to thin out my wallet. My one flat credit card is my Kohl’s store card.