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AVOID DUMB USE OF THE NEW `SMART CARDS'

You'll be hearing a lot about "smart" cards this summer when Visa rolls out its "Visa Cash" card at the Olympics in Atlanta. But the cards aren't new to many college students, who have been among the nation's guinea pigs in the banking industry's effort to replace loose change with plastic.

At the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, 24,000 students and faculty members use a MasterCard/First of America smart card instead of cash at restaurants, the campus bookstore and about 50 other retail outlets. Students can even use the card to get a soda at a vending machine, do a load of laundry or make photocopies.Smart cards look like regular debit or credit cards, but they hold a tiny computer chip that can store and retrieve all kinds of data. Students load their cards with cash at one of 24 "cash-chip machines" on campus. They can feed dollars into the machine or transfer money from a bank account using an ATM card.

At the point of sale, they run the card through a reader to see the cost of the transaction and the balance left on the card.

What knowledge have they acquired that they can pass along?

- Guard your card like cash. Unlike credit cards and ATM cards, Michigan's smart card doesn't use a personal identification number that would prevent others from using a lost or stolen card.

- Count your "change." What if your card is debited $5 instead of 50 cents for a soda out of a machine? Students take such claims to an on-campus service center. Outside of a college campus, you'd have to go back to the merchant or to the bank that issued the card to get a refund.

- Stick with credit cards for big purchases.

In a dispute with a merchant, if you paid with a smart card you'd have no more leverage than if you'd paid with cash. Not even the Federal Reserve Board is sure what existing credit or debit card laws might eventually apply to smart cards.

- Don't rush technology. Students warn that if you rip your card out of a card reader or cash machine too quickly, your entire balance can disappear - which means you'll have to take a trip to a service center to reinstate the value.