By Andrew R. Johnson
Bank of America Corp. (BAC) is throwing its muscle behind a credit-card technology aimed at cutting down on hassles U.S. cardholders may encounter when trying to make purchases while traveling abroad.
The Charlotte, N.C., bank said Monday it is including so-called EMV chips in many of its consumer credit cards targeted at frequent travelers and high-net-worth customers. It also will include the technology in several of its mass-market consumer products like the BankAmericard Cash Rewards and BankAmericard cards as an optional feature customers can request.
The move comes as Visa Inc. (V) and MasterCard Inc. (MA), the world's largest payments networks, are pushing for broader adoption of the technology in the U.S., where few banks and merchants have upgraded to the standard. Bank of America, the second-largest U.S. credit card issuer, could help to further adoption of EMV by prompting more competitors to follow suit.
"The new chip-enabled cards will improve convenience and security of customers' transactions when traveling abroad," Susan Faulkner, consumer and small business products executive for Bank of America, said in a statement.
Last year, Bank of America made the technology available on some of its commercial cards, and its latest move follows efforts by other large banks, including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Citigroup Inc. (C) and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) to upgrade some of their wealthier customers to the chip technology.
EMV--which stands for EuroPay, MasterCard and Visa--is standard in many countries in Europe and Asia, where both banks and retailers have adopted the technology partly to cut down on fraud from counterfeit cards. They are considered more secure than credit cards with only magnetic stripes--the standard in the U.S.--because cardholder data is stored inside a computer chip, making it difficult for scammers to hack.
However, U.S. customers often run into problems using their traditional credit cards in foreign countries, where self-service kiosks like train-ticket machines typically can only read chip-based cards. To cut down on customer-service headaches and hang on to their best customers, banks here have begun including EMV chips in travel-oriented cards.
Bank of America's move "is very consistent with what we're seeing across the board," said Julie Conroy McNelley, a research director for Aite Group LLC, a financial-services research firm. "They're looking to add utility for their international travelers and make sure they don't get inconvenienced when traveling overseas with just a mag stripe, which doesn't work so well there any more."
U.S. banks aren't likely to embark on a full-scale roll-out of EMV cards in the near term because merchants must upgrade their systems to handle the cards, said George Peabody, director of the emerging technologies advisory service for Mercator Advisory Group.
"A mass replacement isn't needed and it doesn't make sense" until that occurs, Peabody said, noting such cards can cost banks as much as $2 more each than traditional cards, depending on the size of bank.
About 3% of payment terminals in the U.S. can handle EMV cards currently, according to an April report from Aite Group.
Bank of America's cards will continue to include a magnetic stripe so customers can use them in the U.S., and they will continue to prompt cardholders to sign for their transactions, the company said. Customers will be able to request chip cards in branches and over the phone starting this week and online later this year.
Visa and MasterCard have been making an aggressive push to get U.S. banks and merchants to adopt EMV. The companies, which contract with banks to issue their cards, in the last year have set an October 2015 deadline by which U.S. merchants must upgrade their checkout terminals to accept EMV cards or face higher fraud-liability costs.
Banks typically pay for a large portion of costs that result from card fraud today.
Discover Financial Services (DFS) and American Express Co. (AXP), which operate competing payments networks, have recently rolled out their own roadmaps that also include the October 2015 liability shift for fraud costs.
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