Don’t take this too hard: Your autograph isn’t worth what it once was.
American Express, MasterCard and Discover have each announced that, starting in April, they will no longer require signatures on any U.S. and Canadian credit card purchases. (Actually, American Express is making the change for transactions worldwide.) Visa hasn’t announced plans to do the same, but there’s speculation it may eventually do so.
That pretty much would fully evaporate what may be the most common reason U.S. consumers still bother writing signatures, which were once the most prominent symbol of our financial integrity and proof of our identity.
“Signatures may be going the way of the lava lamp,” said William McCracken, president of Phoenix Synergistics, a metro Atlanta-based consumer market-research firm focused on the financial services.
The shift away from signatures also hints at the fantasy we all pretended to believe: that signatures actually proved something. “The industry’s unspoken secret is that signatures on a credit card receipt are relatively worthless from a security standpoint,” McCracken said.
Thieves only had to look at the signature on the back of a credit card, practice it a few times and come up with a fake good enough to pass. But even that involves some quaint thinking. Because not many people in places where we shop or dine is even glancing at signatures these days.
Signatures are still used on plenty of legal property documents, government-issued IDs, artwork, acknowledgments of medical privacy notifications, cards to grandma and anything fans can ask celebrities to scribble on.
Yet, in other ways they have been slipping from the economy.
Instead of putting his “signature” on new dollar bills earlier this year, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin used a handwritten mix of upper- and lowercased block letters that could have been thumbed out on a smartphone.
Signatures became less necessary as check writing shrank. And while credit card use continues to grow — there were more than 37 billion U.S. transactions last year totaling $3.27 trillion dollars — most of that is going unsigned. More than 75 percent of face-to-face Visa card transactions in North America don’t require people to sign their name, according to a Visa spokesperson.
Which is just as well. Who hasn’t gone to sign for a credit card purchase using a pen that doesn’t work and “you just scribble anyway,” said Kim Sullivan, senior director of payments solutions for Georgia-based transactions technology giant NCR. Dropping signature requirements should speed up lines at retailers, Sullivan said.
Sullivan guesstimated that eliminating signatures might save an average of three seconds on each credit card transaction. So retailers can increase the number of customers they serve and generate more money, she said.
I imagine some customers may feel a little unsettled with the idea that purchases of hundreds or even thousands of dollars could be made without signing anything.
Security is already the biggest concern people have about using credit cards, said McCracken from Synergistics.
For now, there has been no widespread rush to require use of PIN codes with credit cards transactions in the United States. Other security measures are already in place, such as checking the cards’ CVV number, asking consumers for their billing ZIP code, adding computer chips to more cards and monitoring for unusual purchasing activity.
But the cruelest reality of saying goodbye to our signatures is this: Apparently they already have so little value there isn’t a sweeping rush to replace them with something new.