A fast-approaching deadline is rattling some nerves as ATM owners and operators around the country face a shift in who will be responsible for paying back innocent cardholders when thieves strike.

After April 19 MasterCard Inc. is putting ATM owners and operators on the hook for card fraud losses if their machines aren’t equipped to read smart chip cards issued outside the United States that use the MasterCard-owned Maestro network, the dominant network for debit cards in Europe.

MasterCard set the deadline in 2011 to appease European banks fed up with losing money from fraud when cardholders travel to the United States, experts say. It’s one of the first of a number of deadlines between now and 2017 as the country’s big four card brands — Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover — push the country to migrate from the 1960s-era magnetic stripe technology on U.S. cards to smart chip cards.

“This is the start of the wave,” said Julie Conroy, research director at Aite Group. “We are the last G-20 country to go. Consumers are going to start seeing new things at the ATM and at the point of sale.”

The four big brands all have their own sets of deadlines, but most are requiring retailers to be ready for the EMV chip cards, as they’re known, by 2015.

EMV, which stands for Europay/MasterCard/Visa, is the global technical standard to make sure chip-based cards and terminals are compatible. EMV cards are embedded with an integrated circuit, or chip, that stores cardholder information and processes data. The new cards are considered significantly more secure than magnetic stripe cards, and the U.S. is one of the last major economies to make the change.

The U.S. is seen as a fraud magnet because of its old-fashioned magnetic stripes. U.S. card fraud is an $8.6 billion-a-year problem, according to Aite Group estimates.

April 1 was a major deadline for certain behind-the-scenes processors that work with merchant transactions to demonstrate that the processors can handle EMV chip card transactions. That deadline appears to have been met successfully, said Randy Vanderhoof, head of the EMV Migration Forum, a cross-industry group representing a large number of payments stakeholders working on the switchover.

But MasterCard’s cash machine shift, limited as it is, is raising hackles.

David Tente, executive director of the ATM Industry Association, said he thinks it’s unfair for ATM owners to be singled out for a liability shift before many others in the payments industry, particularly retailers, make the change.

“I’m not aware of any of our members who are ready for it,” Tente of the April 19 deadline. “There’s too much that’s not baked yet.”

Not that consumers will notice. Yet.

The April 19 deadline affects only a fraction of the 400,000 ATMs in operation around the country, only those with significant traffic from foreigners packing Maestro cards.

Generally, the rest of the ATM world won’t be forced to become EMV compatible for another two years. But since it can cost up to $3,000 to upgrade a cash machine for EMV, and the fraud loss could be an even-uglier number, just the limited shift is causing some headaches.

‘Out of Order’ machines

Tente said ATM owners and operators are holding their game plans “pretty close to the vest.” But some larger ATM operators are considering simply shutting down ATMs with high Maestro traffic to avoid potential fraud losses, he said. That raises the unpleasant specter of families at Disney World stymied by “Out of Order” signs.

Wells Fargo & Co., with more than 12,000 ATMs, said it isn’t changing over any of its cash machines for the April 19 deadline. The San Francisco-based lender decided it is more cost-effective to focus on other fraud prevention measures with a greater impact on customers, a spokeswoman said. It will make the EMV changes later. For now, it will eat the costs of any fraud on Maestro cards.

Conroy, at Aite, said she thinks Wells Fargo is the exception among big banks. Most are installing EMV upgrades at their high-risk ATMs to meet the deadline.

Minneapolis-based U.S. Bank, with 5,100 ATMs, said it’s more concerned at the moment about getting its internal systems ready to process EMV cards.

The bank isn’t big on the East Coast, where there is more Maestro traffic, and the bank’s risk is low, said Jeannie Fichtel, US Bank’s vice president of 24 Hour Banking. The ATM issue is “on our two-year road map,” she said.

The ATM Industry Association has sent Purchase, N.Y.-based MasterCard two letters asking the company to push off the April 19 deadline or give ATM operators the right to deny Maestro transactions. MasterCard is holding fast to the deadline.

“Certainly the industry is contemplating its legal options,” said Jeffrey Shinder, a lawyer for the ATM Industry Association.

MasterCard spokesman Seth Eisen said the April deadline isn’t as dire as it sounds and emphasized it is not a mandate. The company has started offering ATM operators free software to help them identify and mitigate fraud, so if an operator isn’t ready yet with the EMV technology it can still avoid liability for losses.

“We’re taking the proactive step,” Eisen said. “We’re seeing progress.”

The cash machines at the Mall of America in Bloomington and the Minneapolis Convention Center are operated by ATM Networks, now owned by Houston-based Cardtronics, the country’s largest owner and operator of independent ATMs. Cardtronics declined to discuss the EMV changeover.

Blake Hermel, owner of A.H. Hermel Co. in Mankato, has 300 machines in gas stations, driver’s license bureaus and bars and nightclubs in five states.

He’ll have to upgrade them all in the next few years, Hermel said, and the new liability and costs worry him. “I have 300 headaches.”