In October, the United States is expected to make its first big leap toward transitioning to EMV (or “smart”) credit cards. That month, we won’t be doing the old swipe-and-sign for our Halloween costumes; it’ll be more of an insert-wait-and-sign, instead, all in the name of better security from fraud.
At that time, responsibility for fraudulent transactions will move to those credit card issuers or businesses that don’t take precautions, a change known as the “liability shift.”
Much has been made of EMV technology and its ability to combat fraud, but it’s not a panacea — or especially convenient. There are some things your chip card can’t do, including:
1. Stop your credit card from being used if it’s stolen.
EMV technology protects against one type of credit card fraud, often called counterfeit fraud, according to Carolyn Balfany, senior vice president of product delivery, EMV, for MasterCard. “Skimming” credit card data has plagued U.S. merchants in recent years.
“It is the lion’s share of fraud that occurs in the U.S. today,” Balfany says, which means that the transition to EMV should go far in protecting many of your credit card transactions.
However, it won’t do much to safeguard you if your credit card is lost or stolen. This is because the U.S. is moving to EMV chip-and-signature cards, as opposed to chip-and-PIN, which is considered by many experts to be the gold standard in face-to-face transaction security. With chip-and-PIN, you’re not only protected against skimming fraud by the chip, but you also have to authenticate your identity with a PIN.
Americans someday may be required to enter a PIN after a credit card transaction, but for the foreseeable future, we’ll still be vulnerable to sketchy charges when our cards go missing.
2. Protect you from online data hackings.
Just as EMV chips can’t prevent a stolen card from being used, they also can’t protect against data hackings that occur in online transactions. Moreover, there’s good reason to expect that these intrusions will become more common as in-person transactions become more secure.
“Internet transactions aren’t made any safer by having a chip on your card, and in the UK and elsewhere, criminals were able to make up much of what they lost [after the switch to EMV in that country] by doubling down on fraudulent web purchases,” Wired magazine wrote in 2014.
So cardholders will have to continue to be vigilant when using credit cards online. That means shopping only through secure, trustworthy sites (look for “https” ahead of the URL when you’re about to type in your card information), never sending credit card data over email or social media, and frequently changing online passwords to sites that store your credit card details.
3. Automatically allow you to make a contactless payment.
Media coverage of the move to EMV cards came around the same time as coverage of the expansion of mobile wallet technology. These became conflated in some consumers’ minds, so to be clear: EMV is not a contactless payment system. In fact, it’s sort of the opposite. With a chip card, your plastic will be making more contact with merchants’ payment devices than it does in traditional magnetic-stripe transactions, because the card has to stay inserted in the terminal throughout the payment process.
However, the EMV chip doesn’t preclude you from using your card with a mobile wallet system. Your EMV card can be used with Apple Pay or Android Pay, and you won’t lose any of the security benefits, since these systems use technology similar to EMV to secure your transactions.
4. Allow you to use your chip at any payment terminal.
If you haven’t already received an EMV-chipped version of your credit card from your issuer, you will soon. But that doesn’t mean you’ll immediately be able to use it at every merchant; retailers have to make complex hardware and software upgrades before they can start accepting chip cards, MasterCard’s Balfany says. She estimates about 50% of U.S. merchants will have their chip payment terminals turned on by the end of 2015, with more coming online in 2016.
For EMV technology to protect you from fraud, the card and the payment terminal have to work together. When you use a chip-enabled card’s magstripe to make a payment, there’s no security advantage. So even though you have a fancy new EMV card in your wallet, you may not be able to realize its benefits just yet.
Image via iStock.