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When getting a new credit card, what is the policy in regards to signing the strip on the back? Should I sign it? Should I write "See ID"? Should I leave it blank? Should I sign it AND write "See ID"?

I see all sorts of different advice but it seems like it's all based on urban legends, hearsay, or self interest (merchants and banks seem to advise you to do what's best for them, not what's best for the customer).

My question: For an average everyday consumer who uses a card fairly frequently, what is the best practice? What practice is most secure?

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Leaving it blank would seem to be the worst idea, since if somebody gets your card they can sign it, and guarantee the signatures will match. –  mhoran_psprep Dec 16 '13 at 2:32
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Back 20 years ago or so, when I was working in a small store, our instructions were to refuse unsigned cards. If I recall correctly, we also were allowed to cut them in half right on the spot. I have no idea what the merchant rules are now. As for me, I always sign my cards. –  Michael Hampton Dec 16 '13 at 9:18
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I think it depends on what country you are in. In the UK almost all merchants use Chip and PIN so the signature is never checked, but if you did need to purchase something using a signature it is extremely unlikely that this would be authorised if your signature strip did not have your signature on it. I doubt that they would accept it if you signed it in front of them –  Matt Wilko Dec 16 '13 at 12:12
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Though it is not related to question and it won't answer either.. I would like to mention one cool technology which i have just checked onlycoin.com (Note: My intention is not to advertise any product) –  Zerotoinfinite Dec 16 '13 at 13:10
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Merchants are contractually forbidden by MasterCard and Visa from requiring an ID during a transaction, and may not decline the transaction in absence of one. (MC 9.11.2, Visa p.29). Some states incl. CA forbid asking for ID by law. Cf. California Civil Code § 1747.08 –  Maxx Daymon Apr 7 at 22:41

9 Answers 9

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I have had a card signed as "asked for ID", and it didn't make any merchant asking for ID. In fact, it didn't have any positive effect whatsoever. Most merchants don't even try to match the signature, and most credit card issuers know that its worthless.

I was however once asked to sign a card that I didn't sign at all, and the seller said that he's not allowed to sell to me unless I do. He did ask for my ID as well.

As Joe said, signing the card is obligatory, but the signature itself is meaningless. It is supposed to be the proof that you're the owner and match the signature sample the issuer has, but I know of at least two issuers who's cards I have in my wallet where I applied for the card electronically and was not asked (and didn't provide) any signature sample at all.

Merchants who want to make sure that you're indeed the owner of the card will not rely on the signature, they'll ask for ID. Those who don't - assume the risk, if the card is stolen and used by someone who's not the owner.

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+1 for addressing the practical aspects. My experience matches yours. I have started signing the slips with a random squiggle-it is faster than a signature. Go ahead and sign the back of the card because it doesn't matter. –  Ross Millikan Dec 16 '13 at 3:58
    
@littleadv: Not sure "match the signature sample the issuer has" ... I think the matching is between what you sign on slip and whats on back of card [assuming original owner has signed immediately]. To my understanding, It is never between slip/card and the one in Card Issuing Bank's records. –  Dheer Dec 16 '13 at 4:44
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@Dheer historically, you would go to your bank to receive the card, and then the clerk would ask you to sign it, and compare your signature to the sample they have. It can then be claimed (according to the Visa guidelines) that if the signature on the slip matches to the signature at the bank, the owner has indeed signed, similarly to checks. It doesn't work this way for a very long time in this industry now, and the signatures on the slip no longer used to verify owner has indeed swiped the card, but rather the merchant is required to check IDs by the guidelines. –  littleadv Dec 16 '13 at 4:56
    
I would say the number one reason why no one bothers anymore is due to the number of card reissues banks have to do each year. Any time a company loses credit card details the banks have to close the cards and reissue. This has happened 3 times to me in the past 12 months alone. I can't imagine having to go to a bank each time this occurs to sign a new "signature card". –  Chris Lively Dec 16 '13 at 18:50
    
If you read your merchant agreement, you will find that as a merchant you are required to decline the transaction if the card is not signed with a valid signature. If you fail to do this, you may be held liable for any contested charges. As a card holder, if you do not sign the card, you are illegally using a credit account that is not your to use (aka. fraud). –  Maxx Daymon Apr 7 at 22:47

If you were to read the fine print, you are obligated to sign the card to use it. Writing something besides a signature voids the card. But of course, only if the store clerk bothers to look.

You want protection? Use a card with a liability limit.

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For those in the United States, our financial protect laws limit your liability to $50 for fraudulent purchases for any credit card. This is a prime reason why credit cards are much better to carry and use than debit cards—limiting your liability with a debit card requires noticing and notifying the bank within two days of the fraudulent usage. –  Drew Stephens Dec 16 '13 at 20:35
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@DrewStephens - Welcome to Money.SE! Your remark regarding Debut vs Credit Card protection is so very important. It's something to hold up to every anti-card proselytizer who equate card usage with ongoing debt. I hope you continue to visit and share your knowledge. –  JoeTaxpayer Dec 16 '13 at 22:13
    
This is why I'm thankful my bank gives us the option to put our headshot photo onto our credit cards. At the very least SOME merchants will notice the photo and see me and compare. I could still imagine a person of a totally different ethnicity and gender using it, though. Hah. –  AMM Dec 20 '13 at 13:32

Well I'll start with the technically correct answer: Sign it. The signature is technically required by the credit card issuer. IF you write anything other than your signature you are breaking the rules.

But the more realistic answer: It doesn't matter at all. To start with, in most cases you will just swipe the card and the cashier will not bother to check it anyway, and if they do they probably won't really check it (they will look at it, but they won't really process it).

In the rare event that they do pay attention, and they do require it be signed, then you are going to need to sign it.

Now here is the real killer: If somebody steals the card they will be just as capable of using it as you are without the signature. Not to mention that they can use it online and nobody will ever know if it's signed.

The bottom line: Get a card with fraud protection, and sign it. This is what you are supposed to do, and not doing it will not protect you in any way. Chances are if anyone ever refuses to take the card without the signature, it will be your hassle rather than a thiefs hassle.

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The signature line's last remaining real use is to cover the CC issuer's backside in cases of fraud. USC Title 15 Section 1643 states in part:

(a)(1) A cardholder shall be liable for the unauthorized use of a credit card only if—

  • (A) the card is an accepted credit card;
  • (B) the liability is not in excess of $50;
  • (C) the card issuer gives adequate notice to the cardholder of the potential liability;
  • (D) the card issuer has provided the cardholder with a description of a means by which the card issuer may be notified of loss or theft of the card, which description may be provided on the face or reverse side of the statement required by section 1637 (b) of this title or on a separate notice accompanying such statement;
  • (E) the unauthorized use occurs before the card issuer has been notified that an unauthorized use of the credit card has occurred or may occur as the result of loss, theft, or otherwise; and
  • (F) the card issuer has provided a method whereby the user of such card can be identified as the person authorized to use it.

The signature line, coupled with a signature on the receipt, allows a retailer to check the signatures, thereby fulfilling clause F of the card issuer's responsibilities when asserting the cardholder is liable for an unauthorized purchase. Whether the user or the retailer avail themselves of this feature is irrelevant; the card issuer has made the provision and thereby fulfilled clause F.

Clause B is also germane to the discussion, as it establishes a lower limit to the card issuer's liability. This is one of the reasons why you're seeing "swipe-and-go" credit transactions at retailers; for small purchases, you're liable whether it's you holding the card or someone else.

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+1 Excellent reference! –  littleadv Dec 17 '13 at 5:41
    
Like merchant clerks are experts in handwriting... –  Jeff Martin Dec 20 '13 at 20:49
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That was a point I wanted to make on a much longer answer, but decided to keep it short and sweet. No, the average minimum-wage clerk is not a handwriting expert. However, the fact is, you don't have to be an expert in forgery to recognize most of the ones people try to pass off. Having the skill to even come close takes an inherent talent and many months or even years of practice. The average fraudster has neither; they want a quick buck. Their strategy is to sign your name in their handwriting and hope the clerk overlooks the obvious difference (or, that you never signed your card). –  KeithS Dec 26 '13 at 15:47

Correct Answer: Sign it.

Real Answer: It doesn't matter and never has.

Think about it this way: It is highly unlikely that the person you hand your card to has EVER had any type of formal training in hand writing recognition. In other words they are simply not qualified to determine whether the signature on the back of the card matches what you happened to write on the sales slip.

Because of this the value of putting your signature on the card is dubious at best.

I can't think of a time in the past decade that I've even used my real signature on a credit card receipt anyway. I've signed things using names like "homer" and "bart" (referring to the Simpsons TV show - and obviously has zero relation to my actual name) although lately I tend to just do a few circles in the fastest way possible. No one bats an eye. Yes, this includes purchases that exceed $1,000US.

I do remember one case of a checkout person actually flipping the card over and saw that it didn't have a signature. She handed the card back to me saying she couldn't accept it. So I "signed" it in front of her by drawing a straight line in the signature portion and handed it right back. She shook her head and processed the transaction.

My conclusion then is that there is simply zero benefit for you to sign or not sign the card so do whatever you want.


All of that said, for larger purchases ( > $100 ) I am frequently asked for my photo ID along with my card. Which I personally believe is a far better way of determining whether the person using the card is legit. Again, it's highly unlikely they've received any type of formal training to identify fake IDs - exempting bar tenders - but at least they should be able to verify a few easy items like my gender, color of skin/hair/eyes, and that the photo is at least a close approximate of my in person likeness.

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I was just at a grocery store and after paying with a card they did not ask for ID but instead said "We don't need your ID if it's under $50." That's mighty irresponsible, but stores make their own policies apparently.

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The limit before a signature is required is negotiated between the card company and the store. –  mhoran_psprep Dec 16 '13 at 11:02
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If the purchase amount is under $50, the cardholder is liable for the debt; federal credit protections in the U.S. don't kick in until the amount of the fraud exceeds $50. That's the main reason retailers are allowed by card issuers to offer "swipe-and-go" transactions. –  KeithS Dec 16 '13 at 21:48
    
I did not know that, but it still feels creepy that anyone can use anyone else's card with no ID. Unfortunately, wallets and cards get lost or fall out of pockets. –  Meat Trademark Dec 16 '13 at 22:28

..writing instructions is silly, as once you are in a foreign country and the clerk, who may not speak English, tries to match your signature with the bill.

..if the bank has your signature for the card on file, it might come in handy if there is a dispute whether or not fraud was involved. however, in this case it is smart that the card wasn't signed.

..as above commented, credit card institutions usually do not verify signature against the bill copy they receive, unless some alarms were tripped. they also detect fraudulent behaviour using algorithms to match against your usual shopping behaviour, geographic locations, and known scammed shopping patterns.

I usually, don't sign my cards until the moment a clerk somewhere in the world requires it and I can't talk him out of it with my IDs. I unintelligible scribble the bills as well, if I know they won't check against the card and there is a risk of a dodgy operations, as some countries warrant. then, I can easily deny all the charges.

(further: make sure your credit institution has your signature on file)

(more further: don't use liability unprotected cards in locations you don't trust; better don't get the card in the first place if it isn't)

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The "rules" also depend on the location. Over here shops no longer even accept payment by signature unless their chip and pin machine is actually broken, and even then there is a much much lower limit to the amount they'll accept.

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You would have to sign it. That way people can compare the signature with you sign for bills.

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I think you have to sign it to agree to the cardholder terms, but I'd bet that is true only in cases where it favors the bank. –  MrChrister Dec 16 '13 at 6:24

protected by MrChrister Apr 4 at 21:25

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