Eight FAQs about EMV credit cards

The nationwide shift to EMV is well underway.

EMV — which stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa — is a global standard for cards equipped with computer chips and the technology used to authenticate chip-card transactions. In the wake of numerous large-scale data breaches and increasing rates of counterfeit card fraud, U.S. card issuers are migrating to this new technology to protect consumers and reduce the costs of fraud.

“These new and improved cards are being deployed to improve payment security, making it more difficult for fraudsters to successfully counterfeit cards,” says Julie Conroy, research director for retail banking at Aite Group, a financial industry research company. “It’s an important step forward.”

For merchants and financial institutions, the switch to EMV means adding new in-store technology and internal processing systems, and complying with new liability rules. For consumers, it means activating new cards and learning new payment processes.

Most of all, it means greater protection against fraud.

Want to know more about the transition and your new EMV chip-equipped credit card? Here are eight frequently asked questions to help you understand the changes.

1. Why are EMV cards more secure than traditional cards?

It’s that small, metallic square you’ll see on new cards. That’s a computer chip, and it’s what sets apart the new generation of cards.

The magnetic stripes on traditional credit and debit cards store contain unchanging data. Whoever accesses that data gains the sensitive card and cardholder information necessary to make purchases. That makes traditional cards prime targets for counterfeiters, who convert stolen card data to cash.

“If someone copies a mag stripe, they can easily replicate that data over and over again because it doesn’t change,” says Dave Witts, president of U.S. payment systems for Creditcall, a payment gateway and EMV software developer.

Unlike magnetic-stripe cards, every time an EMV card is used for payment, the card chip creates a unique transaction code that cannot be used again.

If a hacker stole the chip information from one specific point of sale, typical card duplication would never work “because the stolen transaction number created in that instance wouldn’t be usable again and the card would just get denied,” Witts says.

EMV technology will not prevent data breaches from occurring, but it will make it much harder for criminals to successfully profit from what they steal.

Experts hope it will help significantly reduce fraud in the U.S., which has doubled in the past seven years as criminals have shied away from countries that already have transitioned to EMV cards, Conroy says.

“The introduction of dynamic data is what makes EMV cards so effective at bringing down counterfeit card rates in other countries,” she says.

Counterfeit fraud rates are already going down in the U.S. thanks to the adoption of EMV, according to MasterCard and Visa. In January, chip-enabled merchants saw a 26 percent drop in counterfeit fraud compared to a year earlier, according to Visa. The year-over-year fraud rate decline may actually be more substantial for EMV-ready merchants, according to MasterCard, as its research puts that figure at 39 percent.

2. How do I use an EMV card to make a purchase?

Just like magnetic-stripe cards, EMV cards are processed for payment in two steps: card reading and transaction verification.

However, with EMV cards you no longer have to master a quick, fluid card swipe in the right direction. Chip cards are read in a different way.

“Instead of going to a register and swiping your card, you are going to do what is called ‘card dipping’ instead, which means inserting your card into a terminal slot and waiting for it to process,” Conroy says.

When an EMV card is dipped, data flows between the card chip and the issuing financial institution to verify the card’s legitimacy and create the unique transaction data. This process isn’t as quick as a magnetic-stripe swipe.

“It will take a tiny bit longer for that transmission of data to happen,” Witts says. “If a person just sticks the card in and pulls it out, the transaction will likely be denied. A little bit of patience will be involved.”

While chip card transactions may take a bit longer than mag stripe transactions, total card processing time will vary between merchants and eventually speed up as the new payment environment is improved.

“It will vary depending on the merchant, the equipment and the point-of-sale system,” Ferenczi said. “I think that time lag overtime will be reduced for those longer transactions.”

4. Will I still have to sign or enter a PIN for my card transaction?

Yes and no. You will have to do one of those verification methods, but it depends on the verification method tied to your EMV card, not if your card is debit or credit.

Chip-and-PIN cards operate just like the checking-account debit card you have been using for years.

Entering a PIN connects the payment terminal to the payment processor for real-time transaction verification and approval. However, many payment processors are not equipped with the technology needed to handle EMV chip-and-PIN credit transactions. So it is not likely you will have to memorize new PINs anytime soon, according to Conroy.

“There aren’t going to be many issuers requiring a PIN,” she says. “A vast majority will be issuing chip-and-signature cards, which aren’t all that different from how credit cards work now.”

As with a magnetic-stripe credit card, you sign on the point-of-sale terminal to take responsibility for the payment when making a chip-and-signature card transaction.

U.S. chip-and-PIN cards will be transitioned in slowly, according to Ferenczi.

“The card production demand today is really based on chip-and-signature cards,” he says. “It will probably take two to three years to fully convert to chip-and-PIN.”

Despite a slow transition overall, those who get chip-and-PIN cards will be able to use them right away.

“If a terminal doesn’t have the ability to accept a PIN, it will then step down to accepting a signature,” says Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance. “There will always be a secondary option.”

5. If fraud occurs after EMV cards are issued, who will be liable for the costs?

Today, if an in-store transaction is conducted using a counterfeit, stolen or otherwise compromised card, consumer losses from that transaction fall back on the payment processor or issuing bank, depending on the card’s terms and conditions.

Following an Oct. 1, 2015 deadline created by major U.S. credit card issuers MasterCard, Visa, Discover and American Express, the liability for card-present fraud shifted to whichever party is the least EMV-compliant in a fraudulent transaction.

Consider the example of a financial institution that issues a chip card used at a merchant that has not changed its system to accept chip technology. This allows a counterfeit card to be successfully used.

“The cost of the fraud will fall back on the merchant,” Ferenczi says.

The change is intended to help bring the entire payment industry on board with EMV by encouraging compliance to avoid liability costs.

Today, any parties not EMV-ready could face much higher costs in the event of a large data breach.

Automated fuel dispensers will have until 2017 to make the shift to EMV. ATMs are facing two fraud liability shift dates: MasterCard’s in October 2016 and Visa’s in October 2017. Until those dates pass, they will follow existing fraud liability rulings.

6. So since Oct. 1, 2015 has passed, the transition to EMV technology is complete?

No.

Although the deadline was strong encouragement for all payment processing parties to become EMV-compliant as soon as possible, not everyone has made the transition yet.

“It’s going to take a little time to adapt,” says Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association.

EMV debit cards in particular are rolling out at a slower pace. Approximately 25 percent of U.S. debit cards were issued as EMV chip cards by the end of 2015, according to Mercator Advisory Group’s Sarah Grotta, director of Debit Advisory Service. That rate is expected to reach 57 percent by the end of 2016, according to a May 2016 Aite Group report.

EMV debit cards are being issued at a slower pace because banks have to prep their software to accept those new cards as well, according to Ferenczi.

So far, the large majority of chip cards going into the hands of cardholders are coming from larger issuers like Bank of America and Chase, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The cost of this EMV transition is causing smaller banks to convert their cards more slowly.

The EMV credit card rollout is progressing steadily. More than 282 million Visa chip cards have been issued in the U.S. overall so far, as of April 30, 2016. Approximately 137.2 million of those chip cards are Visa credit cards. Approximately 68 percent of MasterCard branded cards have been issued with chips so far, as of April 30, 2016. A poll conducted by CreditCards.com in March 2016 found overall, 70 percent of credit cardholders have a chip card in their wallets today.

If all or even none of the cards in your wallet have yet to be issued with chips, don’t fret. Some people may have to wait longer than others before sent a new EMV card, according to Johnson.

“Different companies will have different rollout strategies,” says Johnson. Some will base their actions on card expiration dates; others will work to get chip cards into the consumer’s hands as soon as possible.

7. If I want to use my chip-card at a retailer that doesn’t support EMV technology yet, will it work?

Yes. The first round of EMV cards — many of which are in consumers’ hands — will be equipped with both chip and magnetic-stripe functions so consumer spending is not disrupted and merchants can adjust.

8. Will I be able to use my EMV card when I travel outside the country?

Yes and no.

The U.S. is the last major market still using the magnetic-stripe card system. Many European countries moved to EMV technology years ago to combat high fraud rates. That shift has left many U.S. consumers who have magnetic-stripe cards looking for other forms of payment when they travel.

Since many foreign merchants are wary of magnetic-stripe cards, consumers who hold some type of chip card may run into fewer issues than those without one, according to Ferenczi.

“Just the existence of the chip will likely make European merchants more willing to accept transactions that they wouldn’t have likely accepted if a customer presented a mag-stripe card,” he says.

However, chip-and-PIN cards are the norm in most other countries that support EMV technology. So consumers with chip-and-signature cards may find some merchants who are unwilling or unable to process their card, even though it does have an embedded chip.

But despite any difficulties in the transition, Ferenczi says the change is a step in the right direction.

“Nobody likes to think that his or her card is being secretly used for other purposes,” he says. “So I think regardless, there is a level of comfort knowing that it will be far more difficult to counterfeit EMV cards.”

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