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:
- Swiping its magnetic stripe.
- Typing the number into a form on a Web page.
- Reading the number to someone over the phone.
Which raises the question: Why DO we still use the ugly, embossed text of the 1960s?
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.
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.