Credit Card Security Must be Strengthened | Commentary

Posted November 17, 2014 at 12:51pm

Congress is back in session and we’re entering what will hopefully be a booming period for America’s small businesses during the holiday shopping season. However, a subtle but persistent threat remains to our long-term economic security posed by cyber-criminals and lax credit card security measures that allow financial and identity fraud to occur. While these cyber-crimes are certainly menacing, they more pose serious implications for business growth by diminishing consumer confidence. And while there are plenty of issues for Congress to debate in the lame-duck session, the importance of preserving consumer trust in financial transactions and protecting consumer information are issues everyone can agree on.

Fortunately, there are steps the nation’s card issuing companies can do to better safeguard consumers.

America is one of the least secure nations when it comes to credit card technology. Consumers are still using outdated and easily counterfeited magnetic stripe cards. Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans expressed concern that their credit card information will be stolen by hackers.

The startling lack of faith Americans express that their financial information will be protected is worrisome. Debit and credit cards have made it easier for consumers and businesses to engage in commerce. And if more Americans grow to distrust these payment methods, there could be lasting repercussions for the nature and frequency of retail transactions. These are pitfalls we must avoid if we want to maintain economic progress, especially as we’re seeing modest growth in African-American and Hispanic ownership of small businesses across the country.

More robust security measures could help restore Americans’ confidence that their sensitive financial information will be protected. The current magnetic stripe card technology is vulnerable and relatively easily compromised, especially when compared to chip and PIN equipped cards, which are far more secure. chip and PIN cards require two distinct security steps to conduct a transaction, unlike the unverifiable signatures often used with cards today.

Given the added security chip and PIN technology provides, and the fact that it can help thwart fraud even if vital consumer information was compromised, it’s not surprising that chip and PIN measures have been embraced by nearly every other developed nation around the globe. Unfortunately, those responsible for issuing cards in the U.S. — namely, big banks and credit card companies — have resisted making such necessary upgrades here at home.

The first step in safeguarding consumer transactions is for banks and credit card issuers to make the long overdue transition to Chip and PIN technology in credit cards. Unless banks and credit card companies embrace this change, consumers could continue to be victimized by criminals who manipulate their stolen information, and businesses will feel the brunt of consumer anger when fraudulent transactions occur.

For most businesses, consumer confidence and a credible reputation are critical to success. Each time a fraudulent transaction occurs in their establishments, they unfairly face the consumer’s ire for allowing the transaction to occur. In reality though, it was the nation’s largest bank and credit card companies who enabled fraud to occur by insisting on outdated cards that invariably rely on magnetic stripes and signatures instead of chip and PIN.

To better protect their consumers and avoid the unwarranted reputational damage, I suspect most retailers and businesses would be willing to embrace chip and PIN technology themselves. But, before that can occur, banks and credit card companies must demonstrate their commitment to enhanced security measures such as chip and PIN technology by making it the standard, not the exception, of credit cards.

My hope is that the country’s largest banks and credit card companies recognize the widely held concerns of their consumers and thoroughly implement the chip and PIN security measures many other countries have already adopted. Otherwise, the lasting effects of their inaction could undermine economic growth for years to come.

Harry C. Alford is the president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.