Credit card processing is essential to modern small businesses. Working with a credit card processor allows you to accept debit cards and credit cards as payment, both at the point of sale and online. As more customers go cashless, credit card processing is increasingly important; it's no longer a matter of choice, but a necessity for most businesses.
However, when choosing a credit card processing company to work with, there is more to keep in mind than rates, terms and conditions. You should also stay on the lookout for one of the many scams and shady practices that plague the industry.
Along with processing scams, merchants must be vigilant about scams from their customer base. Many scammers use credit cards to make unauthorized purchases without the actual cardholder’s knowledge. If you’re not on the watch for credit card scams, you may be the one who foots the bill. It's important to always take the steps to confirm the authenticity of credit card transactions.
Here are some of the most common scams in the credit card processing industry and how your small business can avoid falling victim to them.
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Common credit card processing scams
When you are researching credit card processors, there is a lot to keep in mind. Choosing a viable processing partner is a complicated and labor-intensive process that requires you to study multiple pricing models and clearly understand your potential processor's terms and conditions.
The process is made more burdensome by the risks of encountering fraudulent practices or scams designed to rip you and your customers off. But as G.I. Joe said, knowing is half the battle. Awareness of the most common types of these scams can protect you from stumbling into a bad situation.
Low-risk wholesale processing
One of the most common scams you might encounter involves an unsolicited offer of "wholesale processing," typically accompanied by a message that you've been designated a "low-risk" business.
You might receive a message from a credit card processing sales representative that says something like, "Your business has been designated as low risk by Visa and Mastercard. You now qualify for wholesale processing." There are several issues with a statement like this.
First, Visa and Mastercard are not in the business of identifying low-risk businesses. The credit card processors are the entities that determine whether a particular business, industry or product is high risk. For example, Stripe recently began offering credit card processing services to the legal cannabis industry. Since the processor deems that industry high risk, it charges higher rates than it does to businesses in conventional industries.
Most credit card processors and payment aggregators maintain a list of prohibited businesses – the types of companies they won't work with. However, there are no lists of "low-risk businesses," and they certainly haven't been identified by Visa or Mastercard.
In addition, the term "wholesale processing" is vague and leads to another series of questions. Does this refer to interchange-plus rates, a pricing model that leading credit card processors offer to all customers? Does it suggest a membership pricing structure, such as those offered by processors like Fattmerchant and Payment Depot? Or does wholesale processing mean the processor is going to charge you the interchange rate plus the processor's markup? [For more information on credit card processing pricing models, see our buyer's guide on how to choose a credit card processing partner.]
Negotiated lower rates
A similar scam involves an unsolicited message from a credit card processor that suggests it has somehow secured lower rates with the card network and is passing the savings on to you. The message might read, "We have negotiated lower rates with Mastercard and Visa and are prepared to offer you preferred interchange rates."
There are a couple circumstances where a credit card processor might secure lower rates with the card networks, but a message like this (especially unprompted) is typically a red flag. Unless your business processes more than 82 million transactions a year and more than $5 billion in sales volume annually, you would not qualify for lower interchange rates.
The only other way to secure lower interchange rates would be to succeed in a class-action lawsuit against the card networks, and you would certainly be aware if you were party to a suit that large.
Force authorization scams
The force authorization feature allows a merchant to push a transaction through even when a customer's card is declined. Essentially, force authorization enables a merchant to contact a customer's bank and obtain an authorization code to override the decline and continue with the transaction.
However, some customers can use a fake authorization code to shift all the risk of the transaction to the merchant. Typically, a customer will suggest the decline has occurred before and offer a string to the merchant to put in the override field. When entering a fraudulent code, merchants are no longer able to dispute declined transactions. Moreover, they might find themselves on the hook for chargebacks and fines.
Businesses need to be wary of more than just scams from other businesses. Customers perpetuate scams that can be costly to your company. The following are just a sampling of how you may be ripped up by credit card scams from your client base.
Counterfeit cards can be one method used by customers to make unauthorized purchases. Counterfeit credit cards are not issued by the creditor. Many companies accept card-not-present payments, and this has led to an increase in counterfeit credit cards, according to the Washington Post. Microchips have reduced fraud for in-person purchases, but not for phone and internet orders.
A stolen credit card is another scam that can hurt a business. A thief gets their hands on another person's credit card and goes on to rack up serious charges. The unsuspecting victim gets the bill for purchases made through your store. Liability is likely to fall on the bank for the purchases, but it depends on the type of fraud perpetuated.
This type of credit card scam occurs when a buyer received an item from a retailer but claims non receipt. The buyer issues a chargeback with their credit card company, and the merchant loses out on the money. Credit card companies investigate chargebacks, but they may not always rule in your favor.
Other things to be wary of besides credit card processing scams
The above are examples of outright scams, but there are other common practices throughout the credit card processing industry that you should be aware of. These practices are not necessarily scams, but they can leave you holding the bag all the same.
Application or contract?
Many credit card processing companies require businesses to file an application before partnering with them for debit and credit card transactions. However, this application is actually part of the contract, meaning that if you sign it, you are automatically partnered with that credit card processor once the bank's underwriters approve your application.
To put pressure on you, some representatives will suggest they can't give you a pricing quote until you fill out the application. Others won't fill out pricing information in the application before giving it to you. Generally, the application/contract approach means you won't have a chance to review the entire contract either. A full credit card processing contract includes the application, terms of service and program guide, all of which you should be able to review before deciding to partner with anyone.
Avoiding this trap is relatively easy. Simply refuse to sign anything until you're ready to choose your processing partner. You should also avoid giving out any business bank account numbers until you've made a buying decision.
Another major reason to review the full contract before signing up with a credit card processor is that many allow processors to raise their processor's markup rates at their own discretion. This means they can quote you a low rate to get you to sign up and then quickly hike rates in accordance with the contract you signed.
To avoid unwarranted rate increases, only sign up with a processor that offers (or is willing to negotiate) month-to-month terms. This will allow you to leave a processor that acts in bad faith or renegotiate your terms when the month comes to an end. If you sign a standard three-year contract that includes a rate-hike clause, you are stuck with the processor until the close of your contract – unless you are willing to pay a hefty early termination fee.
Many credit card processors extend equipment leases to merchants that sign up with them. They often bill these leases as a way to reduce overhead by avoiding the purchase of your own processing equipment. However, point-of-sale systems and credit card terminals are generally not that expensive. Some businesses have ended up paying thousands of dollars for equipment that should only cost a few hundred. The problem is so pervasive that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a warning about it. Avoid leasing your processing equipment altogether; buying it outright is a much better option.
Choosing a trusted credit card processing partner
The best way to avoid falling victim to scams and shady credit card processing tactics is to partner with a reliable processor and do your due diligence in reviewing the contract before you sign it. Always have an attorney look at your contract too if you can, because they might catch certain terms you weren't even looking for. If you need help finding a credit card processor that offers legitimate services and won't give you the runaround, check out business.com's best picks for credit card processing in 2020.