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My grandma is a very wise woman. She’s taught me so much — to say “yes, ma’am,” never “yeah;” to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck; to always crack eggs into a separate bowl while baking in case they’ve gone bad… the list of lessons goes on and on.
But I admit that recently I’ve grown skeptical of one of her long-standing practices. For as long as I can remember, my grandma has written “See ID” in Sharpie on the back of her credit card instead of signing it. It’s allegedly for security purposes, but the more I learn about money the less I think that’s legit.
Does writing “See ID” on the back of my credit card actually do anything?
I called Kathy Stokes, AARP’s director of fraud prevention programs, to run a fact-check. She told me that the “See ID” move dates back to when customers would physically hand their card over to a cashier. The theory was that “See ID” would thwart a thief because their license wouldn’t match the name on the card even if they could forge a signature.
But, as Stokes points out, times have changed.
“When’s the last time you handed your card to someone other than at a restaurant?” she asks. “I don’t think it makes a difference anymore.”
It’s not just my grandma. People have been recommending the “See ID” (sometimes abbreviated as “CID”) strategy for years. It’s been highlighted by the TODAY Show. It appeared in a 2008 post on the blog Personal Finance Hacks, with an added tip to “try writing the ‘See ID’ in a different color ink to draw extra attention.” It’s on the website for Utica College’s Center for Identity Management and Information Protection.
However, Mohamed Abdelsadek, executive vice president of insights and analytics at Mastercard, confirmed that it’s outdated advice.
“Perhaps back then, it may have made some sense,” he adds. “It adds absolutely no security these days.”
In fact, Mastercard announced in 2018 that it was making cardholder signatures optional on not only cards but also receipts for transactions. Citing advances in fraud protection, so did American Express, Discover and Visa.
Abdelsadek says that was done in part because the use of the signature as a means of identity verification was limited and hard for merchants to deal with. Mastercard has since shifted to EMV chips, contactless payment initiatives like tap to pay and biometrics. (It has a card with a built-in fingerprint sensor that activates whenever dipped into a point-of-sale machine.)
“There's a whole lot of technology around it,” Abdelsadek adds. “It creates a much more secure and seamless checkout experience for customers.”
Stokes told me that "card-not-present," or CNP, fraud is much more common than IRL card crimes anyway. What the Federal Reserve calls “remote card fraud” reached $4.57 billion in 2016, up from $3.4 billion the year before.
“It’s not when you’re at a retail store and checking out with a card via chip. It’s someone accessing that information and then making online purchases where they can’t make sure it is you,” she adds.
Luckily, technology is also improving here. Financial systems can identify potentially fraudulent purchases and alert me before too much damage can be done. Plus, with CNP fraud, I’m generally not on the hook for funds lost to bad guys. Institutions have gotten “really good at detecting it because they’re responsible for it,” according to Stokes.
In light of all of this, I should remember to take advantage of the protections offered by my credit card(s). That’s because credit cards are governed by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which says that if I tell my provider that someone nefarious has my card, the maximum amount of money I can lose is $50. Most credit card firms will do me one better, too, with zero liability policies.
Debit cards, on the other hand, are subject to the Electronic Fund Transfer Act. Depending on how long I take before telling my bank about unauthorized charges, there’s no limit to the cash I can lose.
Another major difference between a bogus credit card purchase and debit card purchase? With credit cards, the money that’s tied up belongs to a company. With debit cards, the money lost is mine — and if I need to, say, pay rent while the bank is trying to recover my funds, I’m out of luck.
The bottom line
Writing “See ID” on my credit card doesn’t do much these days because 1) identity verification technology has improved and 2) most fraud happens online anyway.
But there are still ways I can safeguard my money from bad actors. I should use a credit card rather than a debit card for maximum protection. Stokes recommended turning on transaction alerts that notify me every time my account is used. Abdelsadek says to also avoid giving my account or login information to someone over the phone and change my passwords frequently.
“The whole ecosystem has been designed to help protect the end consumer,” he adds. “But as a customer, you should also be savvy, right?”