(RNN) – If you think about it, it’s one of the few things people still regularly do with a pen and paper.
And, soon, it too will become obsolete.
This month, all major credit card companies are set to begin phasing out the use of signatures to confirm purchases.
The days of waiting on a bartender or waiter to give you a slip of paper to sign are nearing an end. Unless you practice your signature like it belongs on the Declaration of Independence, this will probably be a welcome development.
The not-so-secret truth about signatures is that, for the modern world, they aren’t a particularly useful way of confirming identity. Anyone who’s ever signed for someone else’s card understands that.
Chip cards have proven far more effective. And, probably not far in the future, biometric technology will make fraud nearly impossible.
Or at least rather more difficult than scribbling out a fake signature.
Mastercard led the way, announcing last year their plans to eliminate signatures.
“According to our research, most consumers are ready for this evolution,” a company executive, Linda Kirkpatrick, wrote in a post on Mastercard’s website.
Soon you won’t have to sign for most purchases when you use your Mastercard! Happy Retirement to receipt signatures across the USA & Canada!— Mastercard (@Mastercard) April 5, 2018
It turns out it was a decent thousand-year run for signatures.
A couple years ago NPR’s “Planet Money” podcast explored the history of the practice. Host David Kestenbaum outlined how the Talmud, the historical collection of Jewish law and legal interpretations, spelled out the rules for using signatures in trade.
“Back then there were standards. It couldn’t just be any old squiggle,” he said. “A signature was required for all manner of economic transactions. You want to buy a goat? You got to sign a document.”
Kestenbaum noted how the practice became standardized, and how when the check system was introduced banks even employed teams of people who attempted to verify signatures.
“That’s obviously not a useful way to run regular commercial transactions,” a Columbia professor, Ronald Mann, said.
A Mastercard representative admitted that, nowadays, they hardly ever had to bother to access their vast collection of electronically stored signatures.
It’s important to note that of the major card companies only Mastercard has explicitly talked about completely doing away with signatures. For now, the other three have simply made it optional for merchants.
That means, at least for a while, many restaurants, bars, and shops will probably continue to use the signature system.
But, like with pay phones, before long it will be noteworthy when it’s found anywhere at all.
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