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Microchips photo-bomb customized cards

Fred Williams

Call me sentimental, but I’m not ready for an EMV chip card yet.

My Capital One Visa has a custom image on the front that makes it unique. It features Bertha, my dear old cat, now departed, napping blissfully on a pile of sweaters. I uploaded the photo using a tool on the company’s website a couple years ago.

Recently Capital One sent me a notice that the microchip coming to my next card might interfere with the picture.

Boy, does it ever. When the new card comes, Bertha will seem to be nuzzling some metallic foreign object. According to diagrams that show where the chip will go, the fingernail-sized microprocessor will hover beside her head like a UFO.

I know this isn’t a big deal in the scheme of things. The fraud that EMV chips fight hits about 13.5 million credit card transactions a year, the Federal Reserve estimates. Card issuers cover the bogus transactions, but we all pay for them through interest rates, annual fees and so on. EMV promises to slash those costs by thwarting card counterfeiters.

Then again, having a personal connection to their cards is important for many people. I couldn’t find the number of cards with personal images out there, but in general, affinity cards — to which cardholders have some personal connection such as their college, labor union, etc. — are widespread. They make up about 25 percent of cards held by Americans, according to a 2011 study by card processor TSYS.

“There are folks that are very interested in aesthetics, and what their card says about them,” said Jonathan Gelfand, managing director at card industry consultant Partner Advisors LLC.

There are practical benefits to a custom image as well. It’s easy to spot Bertha in the sheaf of credit, debit, gift and other cards in my overstuffed wallet. When I tab out at a bar, the bartender quickly plucks my “cat card” from a stack of generic plastic left by other customers. And if I leave Bertha behind at a restaurant, waiters always remember seeing her.

Not all cards let you co-brand their card with your own picture, but a Web search suggests that several major issuers besides Capital One are on board. Wells Fargo says it will let you upload your own picture. Chase lets you pick from preselected Disney images. For debit cards, Bank of America has a selection of company-provided images of animals, college logos, pro baseball team insignia or other interests to personalize your card.

All this personalization isn’t easy. In addition to the cost of making the custom card, companies have to review the images. Capital One has a long list of things that are forbidden, including celebrities, other companies’ logos, lewd or obscene pictures, and so on.

“There are people who visually look at it, and they have to make judgment calls,” Gelfand said. “If you’re a hunter, can you put a dead animal on your card? Is it OK if it is stuffed, but not bleeding?” The effect that the image will have on people who see the card has to be considered, he said.

Why do banks bother? They are competing to be the card you reach for first — and the one you cancel last. Providing a unique design that you selected — or snapped with your own camera — is a way to stand out from the crowd. Cards that allow a personalized picture see a 30 percent increase in transactions, higher balances and fewer account closings than generics, the TSYS study found.

EMV chips aren’t the only thing threatening image cards. Uber and other popular apps let you use your card without ever pulling out plastic. Digital wallets such as Android Pay do the same thing on a larger scale, at a growing number of merchants that have compatible technology.

If plastic remains hidden in the wallet, will image cards go obsolete, joining album art that used to adorn record covers on the list of amenities that were shunted aside by technology?

Industry experts don’t seem to think so. “I think custom image cards are still a very viable solution for issuers even with EMV,” Madeline Aufseeser, senior analyst at Aite Group, said by email. “These cards engender a terrific amount of affinity and loyalty with cardholders … [who] keep them in their wallets forever.”

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