Last year, one in three victims who had their financial accounts hacked experienced identify fraud, according to a recent study from the National Consumer League. 

Data breaches have become so prevalent that they've grown to be part of the public consciousness, and they haven't shifted our purchasing methods: Americans continue to whip out plastic 66% of the time we make a purchase. 

The convenience and habit of credit cards outweigh the potential risk of having your identity stolen or bank account sucked dry. In addition, Javelin senior analyst Nick Holland points out that “consumers have a short memory, [and are also] well-protected by their credit card companies” in terms of limiting their liability for unauthorized purchases.

Chipping In- Finally!

Holland explains that even though we reacted with "shock and horror" following the massive Target (TGT) data breach at the end of 2013, there is an upside: The incident forced the public and the government to finally address the vulnerabilities of our current system. 

As a result, by October 2015 we will be a lot safer making electronic transactions as the US transitions to “chip” cards- a much more sophisticated anti-theft system that the Europeans have been using for years. (Which is why those eastern European and Russian hackers have focused on us!)

How much more secure is a credit card with a microchip embedded in it? Holland explains it this way: That magnetic strip on your current credit card is essentially “a piece of video stuck to the back of your card. It’s an Eight-Track. Chip cards are like a CD- much more secure and very hard to counterfeit.” In fact, they are so difficult to counterfeit, Holland says the effort is “cost prohibitive.” 

Having to sign a receipt for a purchase will eventually go the way of transistor radios and flip phones. You know those electronic signature pads at many checkouts? In Holland’s words, signing one is “like a drunk writing on an Etch-a-Sketch.” Not only does it not remotely resemble your actual handwriting, it’s barely legible. (When is the last time the clerk even bothered to compare it to the signature on the back of your credit card?) Using your fingerprint would be a lot safer. The folks at Apple have already anticipated this and have added a fingerprint scanner to new iPhones. Your voice might also be used to authenticate your purchase down the road.

Cash is No Longer King

According to Javelin’s research, here’s how we are currently paying for point-of-sale transactions:
 

  • Cash: 20%
  • Checks: 7%
  • Credit Card: 33%
  • Debit Card: 33%
  • Pre-paid card: 4%

Five years from now, the study forecasts all types of electronic payments to increase as cash purchases fall to 17% and checks to 5%.

Holland points out that “there are good reasons for growth in electronic transactions. They are: fast, ubiquitous, secure, convenient and cheap.” 

On the other hand, cash--especially from a merchant’s viewpoint--is a much slower transaction. “If you can shave a couple of seconds off the [sales process], you can get more people through the checkout. It amounts to millions of dollars in savings to merchants,” says Holland. It also reduces the number of humans needed to staff the checkout area.(1)

From the consumer’s perspective, consider the everyday example of putting gas in your car. If you’re paying by cash, you fill your tank, walk into the store, stand in line to pay and wait for the cashier to make change. Compare this to driving up to the pump, swiping your credit card and immediately driving away after you fill up.  

There’s also the “up-spend” factor: If you’re using plastic, your spending is not limited by the amount of cash in your wallet.  

Holland adds that electronic transactions are “an international leveler.” If you have a credit card, travel outside the U.S. no longer requires you to bring a wad of foreign currency or travelers checks. Likewise, foreign visitors to this country can swipe their American Express card and pay it off in their country's currency when they get home.

More than Credit or Debit Cards

The growth in electronic transactions is not just coming from increased use of credit, debit or gift cards. According to Holland, there has also been “a broadening of electronic products” beyond those that typically come to mind. For instance, he says branded pre-paid cards from MasterCard and Visa are bringing the advantages of electronic transactions “to people who would typically not qualify for a checking account....These are really sophisticated products."

The cards are are not tied to a specific store, they’re “more like a re-loadable account.” Parents might be inclined to send a kid to college with a pre-loaded card to avoid having the student rack up hefty charges. On a specific day each month, parents can load a certain amount of money into junior’s account. They can even access a report that tells them where the card is being used. (State U. Suds ‘n Burgers vs. campus bookstore?)

But the real growth is in mobile payments, which, according to Holland, “are exploding. Your cell phone is more and more likely to be used as a virtual credit card.”

Look at it this way: Your mobile phone already provides you with special offers, coupons and purchasing incentives that you don’t get with cash or checks. These types of value-added services increase loyalty and sales- two things highly desired by retailers.

Holland predicts that credit cards themselves might soon become obsolete. Instead, he says, “you would simply use your phone and Paypal or Google Wallet.” 


1. Electronic transactions also reduce employee theft and get the revenue into the business’ bank account faster. Plus, there’s no need to make a trip to the bank. Self-service electronic transactions further reduce the amount of staff needed.

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

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