Who actually pays for credit card fraud? (part I)

In the aftermath of a credit-card breach, an intricate dance of finger-pointing  begins. The merchant is already presumed guilty because the breach typically happened due to some vulnerability on their systems. Shifting the blame is difficult but one can take a cue from innovative strategies such as the one Target employed in suggesting that fraud could have been mitigated if only US credit-card companies switched to chip & PIN cards, which are far more resilient to cloning by malicious point-of-sale terminals. (In reality the story is not that simple, because the less secure magnetic-stripe is still present even on chip cards for backwards compatibility.) But credit card companies will not take that sitting down: it is all the merchants’ fault— in other words the Targets of the world—they will respond. What is the point of issuing chip cards when stores have archaic cash registers that can only process old-fashioned “swipe” transactions where the chip is not involved?

They have a point. October 1st 2015 was the deadline set by Visa/MasterCard for US retailers, partly in response to large-scale breaches such as Target and Home Depot, for all retailers and banks to switch to chip cards. Payment networks may have thrown down the gauntlet but by all appearances their bluff was called: less than half the cards in circulations have chips and barely a quarter of merchants can leverage them, according to a Bloomberg report. That state of affairs sows a great deal of confusion around why so little has been done to improve the security of the payment system. After all EMV adoption happened in Europe a decade earlier by comparison and at much faster clip. This feeds conspiracy theories to the effect that banks/merchants/name-your-villain does not care  because they are not on the hook for losses. This post is an attempt to look into the question of how economic incentives for security are allocated in the system.

Payment networks

Roles in payment network

Roles in a typical payment network

Quick recap of the roles in a typical credit card transaction:

  • Card-holder is the person attempting to make a payment with their card
  • Merchant is the store where they are making a purchase. This could be a bricks-and-mortar store in meatspace with a cash register or an online ecommerce shop accepting payments from a web page.
  • Issuing bank: This is the financial institution who provided the consumer with their card. Typically the issuer
  • Acquiring bank: The counterpart to the acquirer, this is the institution that holds funds in custody for the merchant when payments are made
  • Payment network, in other words Visa or MasterCard. This is the glue holding all of the issuers and acquirers together, orchestrating the flow of funds from acquirers to issuers. One note about American Express and Discover: In these networks, the network itself also operates as issuer and acquirer. While they partner with specific banks to issue co-branded cards (such as a “Fidelity AmEx” card”) with revenue-sharing on issuer fees, the transaction processing is still handled by the network itself.

In reality there can be many more middle-man in the transaction vying for a cut of the fees, such as payment processors who provide merchants with one-stop solutions that include all the hardware and banking relationships.

Following the money

Before delving into what happens with fraudulent transactions, let’s consider the sunny-day path. Merchant pays some percent of the purchase, typically 2-3% for credit transactions depending on type of card, much lower for debit cards routed through the different PIN-debit network, for the privilege of accepting cards in return for the promise of higher sales and reduced overheads managing unwieldy bundles of cash. Lion’s share of that goes to the issuer— after all, they are the ones on the hook for actual credit risk– the possibility that having made a purchase and walked out of the store with their shiny object on borrowed money, the consumer later defaults on the loan and does not pay their credit card bill. (That also explains why debit cards can be processed with much lower overhead and why retailers are increasingly pushing for debit: in that case the transaction only clears if the card-holder already has sufficient funds deposited in their bank account. There is no concern about trying to recoup the payment down the road with interest.) Remainder of that fee is divvied up between acquirer, payment network and payment processors facilitating the transaction along the way.

When things go wrong

What about fraudulent transactions? First note that issuing bank itself is in the loop for every transaction. So the bank has an opportunity to decline any purchase if the issuer decides that the charge is suspicious and unlikely to be authorized by the legitimate cardholder. (That alone should be a cue that issuers in fact have a stake in preventing fraud: otherwise they should cynically take the position that every purchase is revenue opportunity, the higher the sum the greater the commission, and green-light everything and let someone else worry about fraud.) But those systems are statistical in nature, predicated on identifying large deviations from spending patterns while also trying to avoid false-positives. If a customer based in Chicago has suddenly starts spending large sums in New York, is that a stolen card or are they on vacation? Some amount of fraud inevitably gets past the heuristics. When the consumer calls up their bank at the end of the month and contests a particular charge appearing on their bill, the fundamental question stands: who will be left holding the bag?

[continued in part II]


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