Credit cards come with a lot of fine print. But the scene isn’t just complicated for cardholders; it’s complicated for the retailers that accept them, too. What needs signing, and what doesn’t? When can a store ask for ID? Are they allowed to charge different prices for cash and credit?
Six years ago, Consumerist answered your questions about these rules and others.
But since then, the law has changed, and so have the agreements the credit card companies have with the merchants who accept plastic. Here’s what you need to know now.
1. Can a merchant set a minimum purchase amount for credit card transactions?
Yes. According to both the Visa (PDF) and MasterCard (PDF) merchant agreements, a merchant may set a minimum transaction threshold for credit card purchases.
There are some conditions, though. For both MasterCard and for Visa, the minimum purchase amount…
- must not exceed $10
- must apply equally to card types from all issuers — so a Signature card or a Gold card from Capital One or from Chase all face the same minimum.
The MasterCard agreement also specifies that a merchant may not establish a different minimum for “MasterCard and another acceptance brand,” which basically translates to “if you want to take MasterCard, your minimum transaction threshold needs to be the same for every credit card user.”
The American Express merchant agreement (PDF) contains similar language. So in practice, pretty much any merchant that takes plastic that has a minimum threshold sets it the same (and lower than $10) across all card types.
2. Can a merchant charge more (or add a fee) for using a credit card?
Yes, they can — and that’s a relatively new thing. Since a legal settlement in 2013, merchants have been able to charge their customers additional surcharges for paying with a credit card.
There are conditions, though, and lots of them. Merchants can only charge so high a fee relative to the average annual cost of transactions. There are variable maximums for how high the fee can be. Merchants can only charge so much for one card (MasterCard or Visa) depending on what their agreements with competing products (Visa or MasterCard) say. The fee only applies to credit cards, and not to debit cards.
And on top of all that, the law varies from state to state. Visa has a flowchart (PDF) for their merchants that lists the ten states where surcharges are illegal. In 2013, those states were California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas.
It’s a confusing set of rules. To avoid them, many merchants offer a discount for using cash rather than charging a fee for using credit cards. It works out roughly the same in the end for customers, but offering an incentive (a discount) for paying with cash is totally legal and doesn’t get into the morass of conditions and regulations. So when you see a gas station charging $3.79 a gallon but “$3.69 cash,” that’s well within the terms of their merchant agreement and the law.
3. Can a merchant ask to see my ID? / I wrote ‘See ID’ on my card, so I am protected from fraud… right?
This one is a little complicated. Sometimes merchants are supposed to ask to see your ID, and sometimes they’re not. Writing the words “See ID” on the back of your card doesn’t actually help you.
Here’s how it breaks down.
In general, merchants can check your ID, but usually won’t. MasterCard says a merchant “may request but not require” a customer to show ID, and American Express simply instructs merchants to “verify that the customer is the Cardmember.”
The Visa merchant guide is a little different. It says, “Although Visa rules do not preclude merchants from asking for cardholder ID… merchants cannot make an ID a condition of acceptance. Therefore, merchants cannot… refuse to complete a purchase transaction because a cardholder refuses to provide ID.”
Based on that, Visa recommends its merchants not spend time asking for ID.
But of course, there is a big exception.
At the time of purchase, when a customer swipes their card, the merchant is supposed to compare the signature on the card with the signature on the receipt. In the event that there is a discrepancy, or if the back of the card is unsigned, then merchants are instructed to ask for a photo ID to compare with.
If your card is unsigned and you’ve left the signature line blank, your card is technically not valid. (The words “not valid unless signed” are on the back there, just next to the signature box.) In that case, both MasterCard and Visa instruct the merchant to ask for your ID, then to ask you to sign the card and make sure that signature matches the one on your ID.
As for “See ID,” Visa’s merchant guide specifically addresses this… and finds it useless. The company points out that “criminals often don’t take the time to practice signatures. They use cards as quickly as possible after a theft and prior to the accounts being blocked. They are actually counting on [merchants] not to look at the back of the card and compare signatures.”
“Criminals often don’t take the time to practice signatures.”
Visa merchant guide
And, in fact, many merchants don’t — a huge number of stores use point-of-sale terminals where the customer swipes his or her own card and clerks never actually ask to see it… even though they are supposed to.
Realistically speaking, if your card number is stolen it’s just as likely that the criminals in question got the information from a skimmer, hack, or data breach and didn’t steal your actual, physical card. That number is then likely being used online, or on a cloned card. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter what you wrote on on the back.
The important thing is that merchants are only supposed to look at your ID, not to copy down information from it.
In fact writing anything down on your receipt — license number, expiration date, ZIP code, even your phone number — from your ID is illegal in some states, like California.
4. Sometimes I have to sign for purchases and sometimes I don’t. What’s the deal?
Over the past few years, credit card companies have rolled out programs allowing for faster, no-signature-required transactions at many businesses.
For both MasterCard (PDF) and Visa (PDF), in general a customer does not need to sign the receipt for any transaction under $50. There are excepted industries, like gambling and direct marketing, but for most transactions at most stores that threshold applies.
Additionally, credit card companies do not require a customer signature when the transaction involves a PIN. In the U.S., PIN use is currently mostly limited to debit card transactions and not credit card use. However, that is likely to begin changing in late 2015.
5. Will I still have to sign for purchases after the big upgrade next year? What is the change next year?
American credit cards are getting an upgrade in 2015 to become more secure, less susceptible to fraud, and more like their European siblings.
These smartcards work a little bit differently from the plastic in our wallets today. Where standard credit and debit cards keep all of their information encoded solely in the magnetic strip along the back, smartcards also have tiny chips embedded in them that encrypt the card’s information.
The chips cut back on card fraud because their existence makes cards significantly harder to clone: even if you get all of the information from a card’s magnetic strip, as through a skimmer, without the chip actually being present the card data is useless in a physical transaction.
In the UK and other parts of the world, smartcard tech is combined with PIN use (chip-and-PIN), which has dramatically cut back on in-person, point-of-sale fraud. (Online fraud is still a different concern.)
The big milestone in the U.S. comes in October, 2015. That’s when American Express, MasterCard, and Visa plan their liability shift. The liability shift does exactly what it sounds like. Today, if someone uses a fraudulent card at a store, the merchant doesn’t have to eat the money. But once we cross that deadline next October, then any merchant that doesn’t have a smartcard-enabled system in place will be out the cash. They, not the card issuer, will have the liability.
Basically, it’s a big incentive for merchants to upgrade their systems. If they do, they aren’t on the hook to absorb the cost of fraud. If they don’t, they are.
Of course, just because merchants have to have smartcard-ready technology in place by a certain deadline doesn’t mean consumers will see a light-switch-style change. It will take time for banks slowly to start issuing chip-enabled cards to their customers, and in day-to-day use chip-and-sign tech doesn’t look, on the surface, all that different from what we do today.
6. Can a merchant put a “hold” on my card for more than I spent, or for what they think I will spend?
A “hold is when a merchant effectively tells your bank or credit card company to set aside a certain amount of money for an impending purchase. It’s most frequently seen at restaurants and hotels, where customers’ tips or add-on charges can’t be predicted in advance.
The answer to this question depends on the merchant type. There are different rules for services like restaurants and hair salons then there are for travel businesses — hotels, car rentals, and cruise lines.
Hotels, cruise lines, and car rental companies can pre-authorize a charge. So if you’re booking a hotel for two nights, the hotel can place a hold on your card for the estimated cost of your stay, and then charge you the actual value when you check out. If it’s within a certain threshold (generally 15%) of the estimated charge, they don’t have to go back and do a second round of authorizations.
For services with a gratuity (“restaurant, taxicab, limousine, bar, tavern, beauty/barber shop,
and health/beauty spa merchant transactions”), the initial authorization can only be for what you actually spent.
If dinner was $50, then a $50 authorization appears on your account with a notice indicating that the value is subject to change. That $10 tip you added when you signed the receipt gets added later, and then you’re charged the full $60.
7. Can a merchant make me agree to not issue a chargeback if something’s wrong?
Nope. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have a right to dispute transactions.
MasterCard’s merchant agreement simply says, “A Merchant must not impose, as a condition of MasterCard or Maestro Card acceptance, a requirement that the Cardholder waive a right to dispute a Transaction.
When there is a problem, it’s good to give the merchant a chance to resolve it with you first. But if they refuse to communicate or to act in good faith, then consumers have the right to take it farther up the chain.
8. Everyone says I should never use my debit card, because credit cards have fraud protection and debit cards don’t. Is that true?
They both have some fraud protection. However, if someone takes your debit card on an Xbox-buying spree, that’s a few hundred dollars missing from your bank account until the situation is fixed. If someone does it with your credit card, the problem can be sorted out before you have to pay the bill.
Under the law, you can be held responsible for up to $50 fraudulently charged to your credit card. However, if you report your card as lost as stolen before anyone else tries to use it, you are responsible for $0. If your credit card number was stolen, but you still have the card (like the millions of folks who shopped at Target last year), you are also not liable for any charges.
Debit cards rely even more on timely reporting than credit cards do. If you call in a missing card before anyone uses it, you have a $0 liability. If you report it within two days, you could be on the hook for up to $50. But if you wait longer than that, you could be out $500 or more.
The FTC has an easy-to-read breakdown of what you’re responsible for when, but the moral of the story is clear: if you think your cards are lost or stolen, call your issuing bank as soon as you humanly can.
9. Doesn’t my credit card give me extended warranties and other benefits?
Probably! Card-issuing banks offer a wide variety of quiet benefits, not really advertised, to their cardholders.
You probably know if your card offers cash-back rebates, frequent flier miles, or other perks. Other benefits vary widely from provider to provider. Extended warranties are a common benefit, as is rental car insurance. Other benefits include free movie tickets, price protection, baggage delay insurance, roadside assistance, or even cell phone replacement, among others.
You’ll have to dig into the fine print of your issuing bank’s website for your Cardholder Guide To Benefits (all that teeny tiny legalese fine print) to figure out what, specifically, you have access to.
10. How do I report a merchant that’s not playing by the rules?
If a merchant does try to pull anything they’re not allowed to around credit cards, you can report them. Visa and MasterCard both have easy-to-use online forms for doing just that. American Express card holders can do it by calling the 800 number on the back of their cards.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.