Every day, millions of Americans make purchases with a credit or debit card. And most consumers think nothing of showing their driver's license when a merchant requests it.
Maybe people are security-conscious; maybe they're going with the flow. But what isn't commonly known, consumer advocates say, is that they usually don't have to show ID. MasterCard and Visa rules state that a retailer can't decline a sale because a consumer refuses to present additional identification.
That makes Alex Rostorotski's story all the more vexing.
The 30-year-old Bowleys Quarters resident, displaced after an apartment complex fire this month, took his Red Cross-issued debit card to a Target in Middle River to replace some essential items he lost in the blaze.
But he said the checkout clerk refused to accept his card unless he produced a driver's license. The passport Rostorotski managed to grab on the way out of his burning building apparently wasn't enough.
"I was just so upset about it," he said. "That's how they support a victim of a fire. They kind of turned me down when I was already down."
All sides of the retail transaction not only have a stake in whether to show or not to show ID, but also a slightly different take on the issue.
Credit card issuers are clear: "They can be asked for ID, but [merchants] can't refuse to complete the transaction," said Tristan Jordan, a MasterCard spokesman. Of course, he adds, there are some exceptions.
Address verification is sometimes necessary when using a credit card at certain self-serve locations, such as a gas pump, Jordan said. Buyers also must verify they are over 21 when buying alcohol, and many drugstores and supermarkets restrict the sale of some over-the-counter medications to those 18 years and older.
From a merchant's perspective, asking for identification can be a way to help combat the pervasive problem of fraud, said Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.
Retailers "have to strike a very delicate balance between protecting innocent customers and coming down on those who are in it for the wrong reasons," she said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to the protection and safety of retailers' customers."
Even Rostorotski said he supports being asked for additional identification to prevent theft.
But credit card issuers want to ease the buying process as much as possible. And liability for cardholders for fraudulent purchases has been limited under federal law, and under MasterCard and Visa policies.
"Using a card for payment is secure, and we try to make it really as positive an experience as we can for all parties in the system," Jordan said. "We believe that the system, as it is, provides all necessary protections for our cardholders and for merchants who accept our cards."
Some consumer and privacy advocates come down on the side of not having to show ID. Because cardholders aren't responsible for fraudulent purchases if they report them right away, Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group, said the potential for privacy violations is a greater concern than theft.
"You are revealing to the person in the store your address and date of birth and other information you may not want to reveal," he said. "Our original position is you should not be required to share this information just because you happen to be using a credit card."
After a manager backed up the store clerk, Rostorotski said he was able to pick up towels, a razor and other items at Walmart. He said he won't be shopping at Target again.
A Target spokeswoman said she didn't know the specifics of this particular situation but apologized for the unpleasant experience.
"It does appear there was a misunderstanding on our end," said spokeswoman Sonja Pothen. "Typically we would not ask for ID unless we were prompted to because of a restricted item," such as over-the-counter medication.
She said Target will use this as a training opportunity for store employees.
Consumers can report a retailer who refuses to complete a sale without identification by calling MasterCard at 1-800-MasterCard. Visa cardholders should call their card issuer, using the number on the back of their cards.