Rock ‘n rollers of a certain age may remember a TV ad from the dawn of the cable era. MTV was in its infancy then and was having a hard time convincing cable companies to include a channel featuring non-stop music videos in their basic line-up. So they turned to the fans. They blanketed the air waves of broadcast television with rock stars demanding “I want my MTV!” and asked viewers to contact their cable company and repeat the demand. And y’know what? It worked.
I’d like to try the same thing, only this time the target is the credit card companies and the demand is for chip-and-PIN technology.
If you don’t know (and because credit card companies have been dragging their well-shod feet, you very well may not) chip-and-PIN technology is the next step in credit card security. A chip-and-PIN card, as the name suggests, has a computer chip embedded in it and on that chip is a PIN (personal identification number). For the card to be used, the user must punch in his or her PIN. One result is that a stolen or lost card is useless to a crook because he won’t know your PIN.
If you’ve ever had your card lifted and the thief ran up a huge bill before you even noticed it was missing, you will instantly recognize what a great idea chip-and-PIN cards are.
These highly secure cards are the norm in most of Europe and in neighboring Canada. But in the United States?
The United States, which likes to fancy itself the world leader in high-tech, is woefully behind the curve in this area. Why? The credit card companies will tell you it’s because consumers don’t want them. Baloney! They just don’t want to spend the money.
On a recent trip to France, I ran into problem after problem because my fancy-schmancy American Express Platinum card was useless at a frustrating number of merchants. Getting gas was a particular headache. Many gas stations are unattended and require a chip-and-PIN card to operate the pumps. At one place, I had to go into a neighboring supermarché and ask if I could “borrow” someone’s credit card, paying them in cash. Great for practicing my French, but embarrassing and inconvenient as all get out.
And would you like to try out Paris’ nifty Velib system of bike rentals? Without a chip-and-PIN card you can fuggedaboutit, as they say in New York. Adding insult to injury, some establishments won’t honor your card, even though they could, because they fear it is less secure!
So that’s the genesis of my campaign. Opening the window, sticking your head out and yelling, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” might make you feel better but it won’t accomplish much. Here’s a better idea.
Call the customer service line for your credit cards (it’s listed in minuscule type on the back) and tell them you want a chip-and-PIN card because you travel internationally and that you don’t expect to pay any more for it than you are already paying for your current card (more on that later). They will probably tell you that they don’t have such an animal, or that it’s being considered. Of course, the customer service rep might very well not have any idea what you’re talking about. Ask them to pass your request along to upper management. They might. I’d like to think that these major corporations are smart enough to want to collect this kind of marketing data, but I wouldn’t count on it.
So it’s probably a good idea to ask the rep who in the corporation you can write to with your request. If they can’t come up with a name, write the president. Then, of course, you have to take the time to actually write. It’s a hassle, I know, but it’s a noble cause.
Travel agents should advise their clients traveling abroad about the problems they are likely to encounter. Advise them to carry enough cash to cover most eventualities, bearing in mind that a tank of gas can cost nearly $100 in Europe. Tell them to make sure they’ve set things up with their bank so they can use their ATM card overseas without problems; some banks require that money be withdrawn only from checking accounts, for example. Then you can enlist them in “The Cause,” encouraging them to call their credit card companies. If enough people demand “I want my chip-and-PIN” things might change.
To give the credit card companies their due, there are indications that things are changing, albeit slowly. A very few high-end cards, the kind that require annual fees of up to $595, do provide chip-and-PIN cards. When I called Amex, I was told that Platinum card holders would be able to request chip-and-PIN cards as of November 21, 2012. Holders of other Amex cards are out of luck because, if you believe Amex, only high rollers travel abroad and need the technology. That’s nonsense, of course, as readers of this blog know perfectly well, but that’s the spin Amex is putting on its foot dragging. That’s why I think we should all demand chip-and-PIN cards as a basic amenity, not an expensive add-on. After all, your Canadian neighbors don’t pay extra, why should we?
Unfortunately, the unsettling implications are that, when and if, chip-and-PIN technology becomes available to the masses, they will be asked to pay a premium for it. I think that’s unacceptable, but then I think it’s unreasonable to charge people to check a bag on an airline.
Well, I’ve ranted myself out. I hope some of you were listening.