Writing “see ID” on your credit card is worse than useless

Over at the Consumerist, there’s a recent piece debunking a Boston Globe article on writing “See ID” or some variation of the phrase on the back of credit cards. I admire what popular consumer advocacy site has done for the average person who’s gotten screwed by a large company, but some of their posts definitely suffer from the Gawker formula. In the effort to crank out content persistently every day, editors inject significant personal bias and non-news into the stream of articles.

Unfortunately, the Consumerist takes the anti-fraud prevention stance pretty significantly. Not that I’m advocating fraud: a large number of people write in who have experienced identity theft. As a result, the editors’ viewpoints trend towards “being safe than sorry” all the way up the ladder to blatant fearmongering. The latest contribution towards the fearmongering effort (which also contributes towards the page view effort) is to talk about the advantages of writing “See ID” beside your signature on the back of a credit card.

“See ID” is not a valid signature by itself.

I’m willing to bet that most of the advocates of not signing their credit cards have likely never read their own cardholder agreements, and aren’t aware of the merchant agreements that retailers must abide by. For example, credit cards are all property of the issuing bank, and must be surrendered upon request to the original issuer. In theory, a credit card can be revoked for any reason or no reason at all. When using a credit card, you’ve been granted the privilege of using someone else’s good name to acquire goods and services. If Visa, MasterCard or American Express decides that you’re sullying their good name, your permission can – and will – be pulled.

(Before I go too far with this, I’d like to let it be known that I have indeed read the cardholder agreements for my particular accounts, and am familiar with the merchant terms for acceptance. After all – I signed a contract, so it’d be stupid not to read it beforehand. The agreements are not what one would consider consumer-friendly, but I accept them because I receive significant benefits from the issuers.)

So what constitutes sullying the name of a large financial lender? The obvious answer, “not paying your bills,” is definitely there. Another good reason is if you’re not holding up your end of the bargain and complying to the agreement that you signed. One of the agreement’s terms and conditions is that you sign the back of your card before using it, and your signature is not “See ID”.

“See ID” doesn’t help protect you. It might cause even more problems. It’s worse than useless.

What the Consumerist suggests (to stay in compliance with the cardholder agreement) is signing the card, then writing “See ID” as well. Unfortunately, for the paranoid among us, it’s possible to do much more with the numbers and address off a driver’s license than a credit card alone.

As it stands, if you’ve given someone your credit card to process for more than 30 seconds, they don’t need your signature. They can simply memorize or record the number, expiry date and CVV code on the back and use those to make online purchases. More sophisticated criminals can skim the tracks of information from the magnetic strip, duplicate the card onto a blank, and use it at unattended terminals such as gas stations. Don’t underestimate anyone’s memorization capabilities.

Showing a driver’s license as identification immediately gives three additional, valuable pieces of information to a malicious person:

  • Driver’s license number (useful as an identifier for credit checks)
  • Date of birth (useful for changing account information)
  • Address (useful for “billing address” fields online)

Continuing along these “scary identity theft lines” – with these additional qualifiers, what might have started as an easily-reversible, fraudulent charge on your credit card may result in a complete loss of account control. Combining the credit card details and driver’s license information constitutes a large security issue.

Credit cards have built-in fraud protection measures, and using one ensures that you can dispute fraudulent charges without tying up your bank account. Giving more information away can only amount to worse results, especially if your personal details are in the hands of a fraud artist.

“See ID” is not standard practice. Merchants don’t have to ask for ID anyway.

While some retailers will check ID when prompted as a good faith practice, there is nothing in the merchant agreement that forces a store to comply with your request. In fact, merchants are specifically prohibited from requiring additional ID when presented with a credit card and signature matching the back. They can’t make showing identification a condition of sale with a credit cardonly when the card contains an invalid signature.

What to take away from all this

  • Don’t expect that writing “See ID” in combination with your signature will reduce fraud.
  • Showing identification to a reasonably skilled criminal could result in even more problems.
  • Don’t get angry when merchants don’t follow your non-standard instructions, as pointed out by nytmare:

    I write ‘dance like a monkey’ on all my cards. Then I get all indignant when the cashier continues to follow their normal store procedures instead of my personal non-standard instruction. Why won’t they do as I say?

  • Read your cardholder agreement. You may be surprised at its contents.

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