For many people, 14 February means chocolates, flowers and possibly a romantic dinner for two. This year, for anyone buying goods with a credit or debit card it means a little bit more, as Valentine's Day will be the last day consumers can use a signature to verify transactions on chip-and-PIN cards.
With a month to go until one of the biggest changes in UK payment systems is finalised, consumers seem unaware of the extra significance of the date.
Apacs, the UK payments association behind chip and PIN, says it is conducting a PR campaign to raise awareness. 'We've made quite an effort already,' says Apacs director of corporate communications Sandra Quinn. 'About 99% of the UK population hold at least one chip- and-PIN card and only a minority are choosing to sign rather than use their PIN number, so there is no point in running a big campaign,' she adds.
Rupert Pybus, joint managing director of financial advertising agency cchm:ping, believes that the majority of UK consumers are not familiar with the 14 February date and most won't realise that they will not be able to sign for their purchases. He further believes that PR will not be enough to talk to such a large audience. 'More broadcast, press and TV work would be appropriate in communicating such an important message to a wide audience,' he says.
Chip and PIN is not averse to advertising as a medium to raise awareness.
In March 2004, it launched a TV campaign, by Saatchi & Saatchi, to promote the technology's introduction.
However, as the project nears completion and the majority of consumers are already using chip and PIN successfully, Quinn asserts that PR is more relevant. To support the PR, banks and retailers are highlighting the significance of 14 February through point-of-sale, direct mailings and internet and email alerts.
The major banks are all sending reminders to consumers with their regular mailouts, and including the information on statements. They are also training staff to educate customers, particularly those currently choosing to sign rather than use their PIN. The banks know which customers are habitually failing to use their PIN and can easily target these people, according to a chip and PIN spokesman.
Retailers are erecting posters and staff are reminding customers that they will not be able to sign for chip-and-PIN purchases from next month.
'We are not anticipating big problems. Many people volunteer to pay with a different card if they can't remember their PIN (for one),' an Asda spokesman points out.
However, the National Consumer Council (NCC) and charity for the blind RNIB are not so sure. They have criticised chip and PIN, retailers and banks for failing to publicise the alternative 'chip and sign' card for consumers with physical or cognitive problems.
Many people, particularly those with cognitive disabilities, have trouble remembering PIN numbers, according to an NCC spokeswoman. 'Banks and chip and PIN may have underestimated the scale of the problem. The public must be aware of the alternatives and banks must know their responsibilities,' she adds.
RNIB's Bill Alker believes Apacs has done a good job of creating information and awareness of the alternatives, but individual banks and staff seem unaware of chip and sign. Last year, the RNIB fought on behalf of a partially-sighted consumer who was told by her bank that chip and PIN was compulsory.
Andrew Hagger, a spokesman for personal finance information service Moneyfacts, agrees that the availability of alternatives to those who need them probably should be highlighted more.
Apacs is confident that these issues will be resolved over the next few weeks. 'We are trying to correct any misunderstandings and have provided training guides. Retail staff will receive full training' says Quinn.
Concerns have also been raised that some consumers still don't have chip and PIN cards. However, Quinn says this will not be an issue. 'All pay terminals will recognise that the card is not chip-and-PIN to cater for people such as tourists from countries where the technology is not implemented,' she explains.
Fears over the use of chip-and-PIN cards in shops that have not installed the chip and PIN terminals are also unfounded. 'Most stores have the technology, but if shops have decided that it is not worth installing it, that is up to them. They will be liable for any fraud,' clarifies Kate Ison, a spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
Last year, 2.58bn PIN-verified transactions took place in the UK and the BRC claims the transition from signature to PIN verification has been smooth. 'The figures show that we are all ready for this', notes Ison.
The biggest job was to change people's habits from signing for card transactions to using their PIN, points out Halifax Bank of Scotland spokesman Jason Clarke. That job was boosted by a major ad campaign. 'Now, we are pretty much there and there is only a handful of customers who don't have chip-and-PIN cards. Those who have the cards but are failing to use their PIN numbers are very few and far between,' he adds.
While not everyone is aware of the significance of 14 February, in reality, some may not even notice the change.
TIMELINE - CHIP AND PIN
- April 2003 Banks and retailers join forces to launch chip and PIN.
- May 2003 Public trial of chip and PIN in Northampton.
- October 2003 National roll-out begins.
- January 2004 8m of the UK's 42m debit- and credit-card holders have received at least one chip-and-PIN card.
- March 2004 National ad campaign, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, raises awareness of chip and PIN.
- March 2004 25% of card holders now have chip-and-PIN cards; 167,000 business have updated their pay terminals.
- October 2004 66% of card holders now have at least one chip-and-PIN card; 438,000 tills are updated.
- December 2004 86% of card holders have at least one chip-and-PIN card.
- May 2005 100 millionth chip-and-PIN card is issued.
- October 2005 14 February is announced as last day chip-and-PIN card holders can sign for transactions.