Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Target

Yes, I was one of those people who shopped at Target from November 29th through December 15th. Yes, I used my debit card to pay for my purchases. Fortunately, it does not appear that my account has been compromised. All those charges are mine. And, unlike others, Chase's decision to trim ATM withdrawals and point of sale purchases to $100 and $300, respectively (since changed), didn't affect me. I rarely use an ATM for monetary withdrawals and any purchase over $200 has been thoroughly researched by me before I hand over my plastic.

This event has me thinking about how we use these plastic cards to which we assign our wealth. For a long time, I didn't have a working amount of credit or a debit card. I did everything with cash or checks. Now, if I have a couple of dollars in my wallet, I wonder what I forgot to pay. So thoroughly have I integrated the idea of handing over my debit card to buy something that if a merchant doesn't take debit cards, I take my business elsewhere. That's a far cry from just a few years ago.

There's been a huge hew and cry, rightfully, about the security in place to prevent hackers from obtaining our credit information. As I write this, there's a debate about whether the hackers obtained PIN numbers for cards stolen. Target says, "No", while others are saying, "Yes". I know I'm slated to get a new debit card from Chase to replace the one which I just replaced, you'll remember, in early fall, due to a random hacking. Again, I don't appear to have lost any money nor had any fraudulent charges on my card. I used my debit card late in the affected time period so perhaps they just didn't get to my number. Forty million is a lot to sift through. I was told, when I was hacked before, that once you are hacked, your new number is flagged for an unspecified period figuring, they had my number once, they could try again. (That's an unsettling thought, that, by virtue of the luck of an autodialer, I could be targeted more specifically.)

I've read several articles about European credit and debit cards, how they differ from ours. Their information is coded on a digital chip, while we have a magnetic strip. To use what's called the "chip and PIN" card, you must input your PIN number when you swipe your card, always, for every purchase. It's much more time consuming to create a chip instead of a strip and, over here, banks issuing cards want the merchants to pay for the chips while the merchants think the banks issuing the cards should pay for the chip. How many times have you tried to use a card with a strip only to have it not work? I was told at the grocery to just wipe the strip on my pants and then try to swipe it again. That pants swipe usually does the trick. That doesn't seem like a very good security system, when I can get my card to work by wiping it on my jeans.

I realize the change from strips to chips would also involve point of sale changes, but, in Europe, they can usually handle not only a chip but also our antiquated strip system on the same machine, although many places are refusing to process our strip cards. We're arguing about who should pay for increased security while our data becomes increasingly vulnerable. We're targets here primarily because it's so easy to swipe our data off a magnetic strip.

Part of the blame for this is us. I realized just how much I rely on that rectangle of plastic. It goes everywhere with me. I use it for everything from Dunkin in the morning to Dominos at night. Gas, groceries, hair cuts, Jeep repairs, parking, clothing, cat food, you name it. It's all been put on the card. It is predicted that, within the next 5 years, paper checks will go the way of the dodo bird. Everything will be on a card that gets swiped. Heck Google has an application called Google Wallet which they hope will revolutionize how you tote around your money and how you pay for things.

I don't want to come off as a Luddite here, but I think we really need to look at how we utilize technology to spend. Speaking only for myself, if I look at my spending habits, what I usually spend money on; whip out the card for; I could estimate how much in a given month I spend on Dunkin' and keep that amount of cash on hand. It's harder when you head into the grocery, but my cell phone has a calculator feature and I could be tapping prices into the phone as I shop. "Okay, I've reached my limit of $70 today. Time to go home." Paying by check is a time consuming process at the point of sale, but I never had a check stolen in the decades of using my checkbook.

We are such creatures of habit. Convenience sometimes seems to take precedent over other things. With the new year just a week away, I'm considering reverting to cash for goods and services, leaving the debit card in my wallet and using it only for gas and emergencies or payment with vendors I trust implicitly. It gets problematic when buying on the Internet but there are ways to be more secure when doing that or just not shopping there. As I get my paycheck directly deposited, reverting to cash for goods means a trip to the bank to cash a check for physical money. I currently can go months without setting foot in the bank. Maybe that's something I need to change. Maybe I need to be as well known in my bank branch as I am at Dunkin and Panera.

I think it's something to consider. I also think we, as consumers, need to agitate for the kinds of credit and debit cards the Europeans have. It's not enough to have sophisticated fraud detection services in place when the easiest way to get my information resides in my wallet on the back of a 5 cent piece of plastic.

Beverage:  English Breakfast tea


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