What is the Point of Signing Credit Card Slips?

Dayton Uttinger  | 

Flip over your credit card.  Chances are that the words “Not valid unless signed” are printed across it, above or below a white strip perfectly designed for your authorizing signature.  Most of us succumb to the mysterious power of printed official jargon, but a few go so far as to to write “See ID” instead, reasoning that thieves will be unable to produce their ID.  A few true rebels don’t write anything in the blank at all, but all will sign the bottom of a credit card slip.  Signing our names after most financial transactions seems so normal that we don’t question it, but what purpose do all these signatures even serve?

It Proves That it Was Me!

The idea behind signing the back of your credit card or the purchase slip is two-fold.  One, the cashier can compare those signatures and detect fraud right then and there, and two, if you ever want to dispute the charge, you can see whether or not the signature is actually yours. While skilled forgers could duplicate your signature, you’re protected from most con men with a few pen twirls — in theory.

Except that is hardly the case in practice. For one, it is not that difficult to forge your signature in the first place.  While the average Joe might not be able to write your name exactly like you do, it would definitely be good enough to pass a cursory glance from a cashier, if they even looked it over at all.  Think back to your latest shopping trip.  Did the cashier compare your signature on your card to your sale slip?  Likely not.  

Additionally, many check out points are self-operated now.  There isn’t even a cashier present to cross-check your signature, and the machine doesn’t ask to see your ID either. Clearly, even if your signature was capable of protecting your finances, we’re in a strange middle area of technological advancement.  Providing self-checkout options might be more cost-effective for stores, but it definitely doesn’t add any additional security as of now.

What Happens if Someone Does Forge My Signature?

Let’s go through the process.  Someone does forge your signature, either by duplicating the signature on your credit card or any mundane documents.  They buy an elliptical machine, which you realize when you check your statement three weeks later.  As long as you report the fraud in a timely manner, there shouldn’t be much to worry about.  

You call up your bank and dispute the charges, and this is the real reason that we cannot let go of signatures on sales slips.  If your bank asks the store for a copy of the receipt, and it is not your signature on the slip, the bank might be liable for the cost of the fraudulent item.  However, if the store cannot produce the slip for whatever reason, the store itself might have to cover the cost.   That’s why smaller items (a cup of coffee, a roll of tape, a pack of gum) often don’t require a signature.  It’s not worth it to either party to keep the record of such a receipt. Big ticket items, though, will require your John Hancock, just to avoid footing the bill in case of fraud.

According to Carolyn Balfany at Mastercard, this only happens “a fraction of a percent of time,” so perhaps there’s not too much to worry about in terms of probabilities and consequences.  However, this can be a major inconvenience, especially if you’re late on reporting the theft.  This damage your finances, making your credit very difficult to repair later on.

Forgery is relatively easy to pull off.  Certainly not long-term, but thieves can do a lot of damage in the time that it takes you to realize that your credit card is gone.  In the event that a thief does get a hold of your credit card, your signature is far from foolproof.  Furthermore, technology like EMV chips has lessened the already minute possibility that a cashier might verify your signature.  Technology might be better at tracking the crime once it’s already happened, but it doesn’t do much in the way of prevention.  We’re still stuck at an age-old question: how can I know you are who you say you are?


Image sourcehttps://pixabay.com/

Dayton is a chronic Wikipedia addict, which is detrimental to her social life but stellar for her writing. She resides in Boise, ID, surrounded by her own frantic outlines, highlighted encyclopedias, and potatoes. The latter was not by choice.

This post was updated July 11, 2017. It was originally published June 25, 2017.