Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why Writing “See ID” on Credit Cards Is The Worst Thing You Can Do

Author: Nick
Category: Money

comic 69! - see id

Yes, even worse than beating puppies. Because credit cards won’t grow up to pee on your slippers. Unless you have Capital One.

Back in high school, I did a stint in retail selling greeting cards and balloons. It was absolute hell for three reasons:

  • Try tying 300 latex balloons every day. I developed a 4mm deep indentation in my tying finger.
  • 90% of our customers were the oldest of old people and the socceriest of soccer moms.
  • Our credit card processing equipment was so old that it took 2-3 minutes to process each card. And half the time, a valid card would need to be processed 2-3 times in order to finally go through.

So whenever someone would hand me a piece of plastic, I knew it would be at least five minutes before I could go back to flirting with my gorgeous co-workers. Thus I would often attempt to encourage people who were spending 64 cents for a single cut-rate greeting card to pay in cash if possible. (My manager didn’t mind as it would often save us on credit card transaction fees.) Still, that wouldn’t work if somebody were purchasing $300 in Teddy Ruxpin party favors.

Fortunately for my lazy, hormone-driven self, I eventually stumbled upon a copy of the Visa and MasterCard Merchant Agreements. Here’s a fun excerpt from Visa’s:

While checking card security features, you should also make sure that the card is signed. An unsigned card is considered invalid and should not be accepted.

The agreement goes on to explain that some customers like to write “See ID” or “Ask for ID” in the signature block of their credit cards in order to deter fraudulent use of their cards. So, the jackass that I was in high school, I would reject any card with a blank or “See ID” signature line unless the customer did as Visa and MasterCard required: show ID and sign the card in front of me. With my very permanent black marker. Nobody ever did. I convinced my manager that I was helping to protect the business from chargebacks. And for some reason, the hot girls at work would get turned on whenever I yelled at an 86-year-old grandmother about her invalid credit card.

The Futility of “See ID”

Years later, after my manager was convicted of balloon bestiality and all of my hot co-workers had become prostitutes, I pondered why writing “See ID” on a credit card is bad. It certainly sounds sensible: If every merchant checked your ID against the name on the card, it would prevent Mr. Stealy McFelony from using your card (unless your name is also Stealy McFelony which would be awesome). In practice, few minimum-wage cashiers even check the back of your credit cards for a signature. And if they do, rarely do they compare them to the signature you provide on the receipt. I know this because:

  • I have a credit card I use exclusively for swiping at the gas pump. Its signature block says “THIS CARD IS STOLEN.” Occasionally I forget and use it somewhere else. Nobody’s ever stopped me.
  • I generally sign my credit card receipts in humorous ways, especially on electronic signature pads. While the cards themselves have valid signatures, I often sign receipts with “VOID VOID VOID,” “Mickey Mouse,” or “Zombie Hitler.”

Protecting your physical credit cards is also now relatively pointless as it is easier than ever to forge a new card. I got a call a few months ago from one of my card providers indicating they had seen some suspicious activity on my account. Indeed, someone had been using my card to attempt to purchase HDTVs from Wal-Mart stores—in person!—but the card was rejected. The strange part is that the card was never lost or stolen; likely the number was compromised by a dishonest restaurant worker as the card is used primarily for its rewards on eating out, and someone created a fake card using my number.

But even if writing “See ID” is futile 90% of the time, it certainly can’t hurt, right? Right! And by “right!” I mean “congratulations, victim of identity theft.” You see, every time you give somebody your driver’s license, you are giving them, at a minimum:

  • Your full legal name
  • Your address
  • Your full birthday
  • A number used to identify you to government agencies

Some state-issued IDs have even more information on them. But even if yours just has the information above, an identity thief can use your ID as a starting point for opening credit accounts in your name, forging other identifying information, and just plain taking over your life. They may even forge an ID in your name and convince your spouse to sleep with them. (Your spouse does ask for ID before going to bed each night, right? Right?)

Now you might be thinking that the cashiers behind the counter at Hot ‘n’ Trendy couldn’t possibly be identity thieves. And even if they were, they’d only see your ID for a few seconds—not nearly enough time to copy down or memorize your information. If you’re thinking that, consider the following:

  • Retail cashiers often make close to minimum wage. Identity thieves make a whole lot more until they’re caught, which isn’t all that often.
  • As often as “See ID”ers show their ID, it would be virtually impossible to pinpoint the source of any identity theft.
  • Cameras that can capture all the information off your ID can be the size of a cell phone or smaller.

Assuming you’re not peeing your pants in consumery terror, you might be wondering if I’m just posing a hypothetical scenario. Indeed, the bullet points above are based on a real experience from a few months ago.

Horrifying Story Time!

My wife and I were in a clothing store with some of her friends, and as women must spend at least one hour in any given store, I was bored to the point of near-insanity. I started to wander the store aimlessly and eventually heard those fateful words from behind the checkout counter: “May I please see your ID.” Only this time, the cashier—the only one behind the counter—sounded ecstatic, whereas no cashier in the history of the world had ever sounded ecstatic about anything up to that point. I was standing to the side of the counter, so I could see the cashier’s actions behind it. As the customer handed over her ID, I noticed the cashier tapped it on the counter a few times while swiping the credit card with her other hand. A perfectly innocent action, so I thought nothing of it.

A few minutes later, the next customer also paid with a credit card, though I could see from my viewpoint that it was clearly signed on the back with some signature scribble. Yet the cashier asked for ID. I figured the store had simply instructed her to ID every card user—a clear violation of their merchant’s agreement with credit card issuers—but I decided to let it go as I was having too much fun ogling this fine-looking cashier.

But when another customer came up a short time later and paid with a credit card, the cashier did not ask for ID. I looked over and saw that there was a second person behind the counter then; a closer look at his name badge revealed he was the store manager. After the manager left the checkout area, Hot Cashier Girl (that’s what I named her, because she is a hot girl cashier) went right back to asking for IDs from credit card users. Each time, she would tap the ID on the counter while waiting for the credit card to process.

About 20 minutes had gone by, and with no sign of shopping completion from my wife and her gang, I wandered the store briefly and returned to my original spot on the side of the checkout counter. Another credit card user was prompted for ID from the cashier, but this time something strange happened: when the cashier went to present the customer a pen and receipt for signing, the cashier dropped them on the counter beside her and scrambled to pick them up, scattering several items on her side of the counter in the process. After the customer signed and left, I noticed the cashier very meticulously return a blue lunch knapsack to its original position—lying flat but with the bottom pointing toward her.

I finally confirmed her plot when the next customer paid by credit card. Hot Cashier Girl wasn’t just tapping their IDs to pass the time while cards were processed; she was purposely showing the face of the IDs to the bottom of her lunch bag. I moved around to the other side of the counter and confirmed my suspicions: there was a small black hole at the bottom of her bag—just wide enough for a small camera to film through. Hot Cashier Girl had been videotaping every single customer’s ID.

I spotted Mr. Manager on the other side of the store and asked him why Hot Cashier Girl might be asking for IDs. He said it definitely wasn’t store policy. Then I asked why she might be tapping each ID in front of her holey-bottomed knapsack. He replied, “Are you serious?” and started walking toward the checkout counter. I rounded up my wife and gang who were finished in that store anyway (they found nothing they wanted) and we left. About 30 minutes later, we passed by again and I noticed four uniformed county police officers in the store. I like to think there were four more in the back asking Hot Cashier Girl for her ID.

I’ve tried to find any news coverage of this event, but I suspect the store did what it could to keep it quiet. That, and there was a shooting at the mall the very next day (after hours, probably drug related), and shootings are much cooler than identity theft.

I’m Not Safe! Should I Just End It All Now???

If providing ID each time you pay with a credit card is even less safe, what should you do? You have a few choices:

  1. Pay cash for everything. You’ll miss out on credit card rewards, and you’ll be impacted more by mugging or pickpocketing, but your payments will be totally anonymous.
  2. Just sign the damn card. Even if your card is compromised, you’re generally protected from unauthorized purchases. It’s a bit of a hassle to get things straightened out if your card is lost or stolen, but it’s easier than dealing with identity theft.
  3. If you absolutely must write “See ID”, provide an ID without all of your identifying information on it. Try using a school or work ID. If the store refuses it, it’s your own fault for not playing by the credit card company’s rules.

Above all, remember that hot women are far more likely to be identity thieves than their less attractive counterparts, probably because they can get away with it easier.

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