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Instant-issue debit cards go flat

Replacement cards shun raised numbers, sport unembossed look

By Minda Zetlin

Left your debit card in the ATM machine again? Instead of waiting for a replacement card to arrive via mail, many banks can now instantly issue you a new card at your local branch. But beware, these cards look and feel quite different from your standard piece of plastic.

Instant issue debit cards
Instant issue debit cards go flat
Photos courtesy Dynamic Card Solutions

The EMV Instant Issuance card above was customized using CardWizard software, which lets issuers add features, such as magnetic stripes and RFID chips, to instant issue debit cards.

Instant issue debit cards go flat

The DCS’ CardWizard® FCP 20/20 is an instant issuance card printer. Using printers such as this one, issuers can print cards at the bank.

You may be surprised that your new card's appearance will be completely flat, like a hotel room key card. Gone are the traditional raised, embossed numbers. 

A rapidly growing number of banks have invested in "instant issuance" technology that allows them to print new debit cards right at the branch in a process that takes only a minute or two. Opening a checking account? You can leave with a debit card already in your pocket. Card lost or demagnetized? Walk into the branch and walk out with a replacement.

Although it's possible for banks to issue embossed cards instantly, "The machine is big," notes Ron Zanotti, senior vice president of Dynamic Card Solutions, which provides instant-issuance technology. "Also, you have to start with pre-printed plastic cards. If a bank is selling several different types of cards, that can be a problem. With flat cards, it's like a laser printer. You start with a blank piece of white plastic and print the whole card on demand." The result, he says, is that the majority of banks offering instant issuance cards are opting for flat cards.

The fact that flat debit cards print on a blank sheet of plastic means they're very adaptable to personalization. For banks that support personalized images on debit cards, a customer can upload an image to the Internet, then walk into the bank and have the card printed the same day.

5,000 branches and counting
How common are instant-issuance cards? "We just signed our 550th bank," Zanotti says. "That represents about 5,000 bank branches nationwide." He estimates about 6 percent to 7 percent of bank branches offer instant cards. These are mostly smaller and regional banks, though TD Bank, one of the nation's 15 largest banks, offers them. And the number of banks offering instant issuance is growing quickly. "Banks are starting to get it that they have to improve their delivery methods to keep pace with the marketplace," Zanotti says.

Are flat credit cards next?

So far, nearly all the instant-issue flat cards are debit cards, not credit cards. Both are equally possible, technologically speaking. "Visa supports the issuance of unembossed cards for consumer debit and credit cards, and prepaid cards," says Kathryn Kelly, senior business leader, Visa. So why is it that nearly all instant issuance cards are debit cards?

First, though they might have the technology to print a card instantly, many bank branches don't have the technology to approve a credit card instantly, explains Ron Zanotti, senior vice president, Dynamic Card Solutions. It seems counter-intuitive, since so many credit card companies give instant approvals or denials over the Internet or over the phone, but most bank branches lack this ability, he says.

The second reason is that most banks, especially small banks, provide depositors with their own debit cards, but outsource credit card issuance and to a giant credit card provider such as Bank of America Card Services (formerly MBNA).

Whatever the reasons for the scarcity of flat credit cards, Zanotti believes this will change within the next few years. "Flat cards will be much more common than embossed ones, both for debit cards and credit cards," he says.

"Getting a client a new debit card was one of the biggest irritants in opening a new account because it would take 10 to 14 days," says Jamie Sweeney, senior product manager for Pinnacle Financial Partners, based in Tennessee. The bank began offering instant issuance cards in March, after Sweeney saw them at a trade show and immediately wanted them. "Most customers have been delighted," he says. One depositor who'd had his wallet stolen was especially pleased to find he could have an instant card. With all his cards gone, he would otherwise have had to use cash or a check for every purchase.

R.I.P. knuckle busters?
The growth of unembossed debit cards may finally mean retirement for the last remaining carbon copy credit card slide machines, popularly called "knuckle busters" or "zip-zaps." Obviously, flat cards won't work in them.

Good riddance, Zanotti says. "The major card brands want to see the knuckle busters gone. A paper ticket leaves a paper trail, which risks breaching cardholder security." With a carbon copy, the customer's name and entire card number are visible, along with the card's expiration date. Many merchants write down its CVV (card verification value) number on the form as well. Anyone with access to that piece of paper -- or a carbon copy carelessly disposed of by the user -- would be able to use that card number fraudulently. In contrast, paper receipts generated by electronic card readers only show the card's last four numbers.

Though he has yet to encounter a flat credit card, Jeff Mann, president of the National Flea Market Association, doesn't anticipate a problem with them, even for his group's members who often operate outdoor booths. "I don't believe many of our people are using the knuckle busters," he says. "Most have electronic card readers." Those who don't often write down card information and run it through a machine later on or refer customers to ATMs that are nearly always nearby. These days, he adds, wireless card swipe devices are very affordable and can even work on a smartphone. (Watch CreditCards.com's video on how to accept credit card payments electronically.)

Merchant resistance is rare
"Visa has tested U.S. merchant and cardholder acceptance and has found minimal merchant acceptance issues," notes Kathryn Kelly, senior business leader, Visa. Outside the United States, she says, flat credit cards have been widely used and accepted for years. "By and large, our customers haven't had any problem using the flat cards," Sweeney reports. "I only heard of one instance in which a client requested an embossed card because he'd had repeated trouble with the same merchant."

Though instances of merchants rejecting flat credit cards are rare, it can occur, Zanotti says. If it happens to you, both he and Kelly advise contacting the bank or credit card company that issued the card with the name and location of the merchant.

Be patient, Zanotti adds. "Whenever something is different, people will question it. We're changing a look that's been in the marketplace for 34 years." 

See related: The history of credit cards, Does Spaghetti Jimmy really win?, How to find your credit card security code, How to accept credit cards at your next garage sale

Published: August 20, 2010



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