Citibank to offer photo credit cards Program started in effort to battle increase in fraud.

April 21, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Add to your wallet (already bulging with a mug shot on your driver's license, company ID and assorted entry passes) yet another smiling picture of yourself -- this time on your credit card.

Citibank, the nation's largest issuer of bank and credit cards, announced yesterday that it will introduce "photocards" containing individual pictures burned into the upper right corner on the flip side of gold and classic MasterCards and Visas.

The move comes after several months of intermittent testing in Washington, New York and other locations. Customer response was strong, said Richard Srednicki, Citibank's general manager for the two credit card operations, some people saying that personalized cards made them feel less like numbers.

There have been a few problems. Some people asked to be photographed with their pets. (The answer is no.) And some submitted their own photos, selecting ones taken as much as three decades ago.

"We've tried to explain, gently, that a photo that is 30 years old may cause them problems when identifying themselves," company spokeswoman Susan Weeks said.

The program is voluntary and remains limited. Citibank's Choice card division in Towson is excluded. Rates charged on outstanding Choice card balances typically are lower than those on other Citibank credit cards, and one result is fewer services, Ms. Weeks said.

Also excluded are Citibank cards providing discounts to NFL games, as well as another credit card that requires a deposit and is issued to applicants lacking a good credit history.

Photo credit cards were introduced as theft from fraud ballooned, Mr. Srednicki said. Citibank would not disclose information on its own fraud problems, but it estimates that overall fraud tops $1 billion a year, with MasterCard and Visa losses of about $624 million in 1991.

The fraud involves such things as lost or stolen cards, newly issued cards that are never received, counterfeit cards and copied credit card numbers.

Although most cards protect their cardholders from paying for fraudulent bills, Citibank contends that individuals will be attracted to photo cards as a way of avoiding the hassle and frustration of monitoring and redressing problems.

New York-based Citibank, a subsidiary of Citicorp that has more than 30 million credit cards outstanding, will have photo booths inside its branches, beginning in New York and then spreading, within several months, to Maryland, California and other states with retail operations. Others can send passport photos directly to Citibank. The three-quarter-inch square photos are digitally scanned, encoded into a computer and then incised directly into the plastic beneath the embossed account number -- all to prohibit tampering. There will be no charge to customers.

Yesterday's announcement came four days after the bank said it would lower by as much as 3.9 percentage points the interest it charges for its best credit card users.

The technology used in the photo card is novel, but Citibank said it expects competition.

American Express, the largest issuer of charge cards in the United States, has no plans to introduce a similar product, a spokesman said.

American Telegraph & Telegraph Co., a major issuer of credit cards, said it had no plans for introducing photographs but that it was "looking beyond that level of technology to the possibility of something that would trigger voice recognition" or other information "more sophisticated than photographs."

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