Oct 14

Chip & PIN vs. Chip & Signature

The Obama administration recently issued an executive order requiring that federal agencies migrate to more secure chip-and-PIN based credit cards for all federal employees that are issued payment cards. The move marks a departure from the far more prevalent “chip-and-signature” standard, an approach that has been overwhelmingly adopted by a majority of U.S. banks that are currently issuing chip-based cards. This post seeks to explore some of the possible reasons for the disparity.

emvkeyChip-based cards are designed to be far more expensive and difficult for thieves to counterfeit than regular credit cards that most U.S. consumers have in their wallets. Non-chip cards store cardholder data on a magnetic stripe, which can be trivially copied and re-encoded onto virtually anything else with a magnetic stripe.

Magnetic-stripe based cards are the primary target for hackers who have been breaking into retailers like Target and Home Depot and installing malicious software on the cash registers: The data is quite valuable to crooks because it can be sold to thieves who encode the information onto new plastic and go shopping at big box stores for stuff they can easily resell for cash (think high-dollar gift cards and electronics).

The United States is the last of the G20 nations to move to more secure chip-based cards. Other countries that have made this shift have done so by government fiat mandating the use of chip-and-PIN. Requiring a PIN at each transaction addresses both the card counterfeiting problem, as well as the use of lost or stolen cards.

Here in the States, however, the movement to chip-based cards has evolved overwhelmingly toward the chip-and-signature approach. Naturally, if your chip-and-signature card is lost or stolen and used fraudulently, there is little likelihood that a $9-per-hour checkout clerk is going to bat an eyelash at a thief who signs your name when using your stolen card to buy stuff at retailers. Nor will a signature card stop thieves from using a counterfeit card at automated payment terminals (think gas pumps).

But just how broadly adopted is chip-and-signature versus chip-and-PIN in the United States? According to an unscientific poll that’s been running for the past two years at the travel forum Flyertalk, only a handful of major U.S. banks issue chip-and-PIN cards; most have pushed chip-and-signature. Check out Flyertalk’s comprehensive Google Docs spreadsheet here for a member-contributed rundown of which banks support chip-and-PIN versus chip-and-signature.

I’ve been getting lots of questions from readers who are curious or upset at the prevalence of chip-and-signature over chip-and-PIN cards here in the United States, and I realized I didn’t know much about the reasons behind the disparity vis-a-vis other nations that have already made the switch to chip cards. So  I reached out to several experts to get their take on it.

Julie Conroy, a fraud analyst with The Aite Group, said that by and large Visa has been pushing chip-and-signature and that MasterCard has been promoting chip-and-PIN. Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said MasterCard is neutral on the technology. For its part, Visa maintains that it is agnostic on the technology, saying in an emailed statement that the company believes “requiring stakeholders to use just one form of cardholder authentication may unnecessarily complicate the adoption of this important technology.”

BK: A lot of readers seem confused about why more banks wouldn’t adopt chip-and-PIN over chip-and-signature, given that the former protects against more forms of fraud.

Conroy: The PIN only addresses fraud when the card is lost or stolen, and in the U.S. market lost-and-stolen fraud is very small in comparison with counterfeit card fraud. Also, as we looked at other geographies — and our research has substantiated this — as you see these geographies go chip-and-PIN, the lost-and-stolen fraud dips a little bit but then the criminals adjust. So in the UK, the lost-and-stolen fraud is now back above where was before the migration. The criminals there have adjusted. and that increased focus on capturing the PIN gives them more opportunity, because if they do figure out ways to compromise that PIN, then they can perpetrate ATM fraud and get more bang for their buck.

So, PIN at the end of the day is a static data element, and it only goes so far from a security perspective. And as you weigh that potential for attrition versus the potential to address the relatively small amount of fraud that is lost and stolen fraud, the business case for chip and signature is really a no-brainer.

Litan: Most card issuing banks and Visa don’t want PINs because the PINs can be stolen and used with the magnetic stripe data on the same cards (that also have a chip card) to withdraw cash from ATM machines. Banks eat the ATM fraud costs. This scenario has happened with the roll-out of chip cards with PIN – in Europe and in Canada.

BK: What are some of the things that have pushed more banks in the US toward chip-and-signature?

Conroy: As I talk to the networks and the issuers who have made their decision about where to go, there are a few things that are moving folks toward chip-and-signature. The first is that we are the most competitive market in the world, and so as you look at the business case for chip-and-signature versus chip-and-PIN, no issuer wants to have the card in the wallet that is the most difficult card to use.

BK: Are there recent examples that have spooked some of the banks away from embracing chip-and-PIN?

Conroy: There was a Canadian issuer that — when they did their migration to chip — really botched their chip-and-PIN roll out, and consumers were forgetting their PIN at the point-of-sale. That issuer saw a significant dip in transaction volume as a result. One of the missteps this issuer made was that they sent their PIN mailers out too soon before you could actually do PIN transactions at the point of sale, and consumers forgot. Also, at the time they sent out the cards, [the bank] didn’t have the capability at ATMs or IVRs (automated, phone-based customer service systems) for consumers to reset their PINs to something they could remember.

BK: But the United States has a much more complicated and competitive financial system, so wouldn’t you expect more issuers to be going with chip-and-PIN?

Conroy: With consumers having an average of about 3.3 cards in their wallet, and the US being a far more competitive card market, the issuers are very sensitive to that. As I was doing my chip-and-PIN research earlier this year, there was one issuer that said quite bluntly, “We don’t really think we can teach Americans to do two things at once. So we’re going to start with teaching them how to dip, and if we have another watershed event like the Target breach and consumers start clamoring for PIN, then we’ll adjust.” So the issuers I spoke with wanted to keep it simple: Go to market with plain vanilla, and once we get this working, we can evaluate adding some sprinkles and toppings later.

BK: What about the retailers? I would think more of them are in favor of chip-and-PIN over signature.

Litan: Retailers want PINs because they strengthen the security of the point-of-sale (POS) transaction and lessen the chances of fraud at the POS (which they would have to eat if they don’t have chip-accepting card readers but are presented with a chip card). Also retailers have traditionally been paying lower rates on PIN transactions as opposed to signature transactions, although those rates have more or less converged over time, I hear.

BK: Can you talk about the ability to use these signature cards outside the US? That’s been a sticking point in the past, no?

Conroy: The networks have actually done a good job over the last year to 18 months in pushing the [merchant banks] and terminal manufacturers to include “no cardholder verification method” as one of the options in the terminals. Which means that chip-and-signature cards are increasingly working. There was one issuer I spoke with that had issued chip-and-signature cards already for their traveling customers and they said that those moves by the networks and adjustments overseas meant that their chip-and-signature cards were working 98 percent of the time, even at the unattended kiosks, which were some of the things that were causing problems a lot of the time.

BK: Is there anything special about banks that have chosen to issue chip-and-PIN cards over chip-and-signature?

Conroy: Where we are seeing issuers go with chip-and-PIN, largely it is issuers where consumers have a very compelling reason to pull that particular card out of their wallet. So, we’re talking mostly about merchants who are issuing their own cards and have loyalty points for using that card at that store. That is where we don’t see folks worrying about the attrition risks so much, because they have another point of stickiness for that card.

BK: What did you think about the White House announcement that specifically called out chip-and-PIN as the chip standard the government is endorsing?

Conroy: The White House announcement I thought was pure political window dressing. Especially when they claimed to be taking the lead on credit card security.  Visa, for example, made their initial road map announcement back in 2011. And [the White House is] coming to the table three years later thinking that its going to influence the direction the market is taking when many banks have spent in some cases upwards of a year coding toward these specifications? That just seems ludicrous to me. The chip-card train has been out of the station for a long time. And it seemed like political posturing at its best, or worst, depending on how you look at it.

Litan: I think it is very significant. It’s basically the White House taking the side of the card acceptors and what they prefer. Whatever the government does will definitely help drive trends, so I think it’s a big statement.

BK: So, I guess we should all be grateful that banks and retailers in the United States are finally taking steps to move toward chip cards, but it seems to me that as long as these chip cards still also store cardholder data on a magnetic stripe as a backup, that the thieves can still steal and counterfeit this card data — even from chip cards.

Litan: Yes, that’s the key problem for the next few years. Once mag stripe goes away, chip-and-PIN will be a very strong solution. The estimates are now that by the end of 2015, 50 percent of the cards and terminals will be chip-enabled, but it’s going to be several years before we get closer to full compliance. So, we’re probably looking at about 2018 before we can start making plans to get rid of the magnetic stripe on these cards.

Tags: , , , , , , ,


  1. I did not swipe the card. The merchant was entirely familiar with chip & pin, we have been using it for years here in UK.

    It was an expensive restaurant. My dining partner,also using an American Chip & Pin card was required to enter his pin.

  2. Navy Federal, by the way