Travelling to America allows me to experience life in the largest economy in the world and some may say the most commercially focused. Compared to the UK numerous items are cheaper, such as food, electronics and the petrol price in the USA is about half that in the UK. Yet I always seem to be frustrated with their pay at the pump machines. They strike me as being far from advanced and very xenophobic. They keep asking for a credit card zip code when I don’t have one.
I travel the world over many times throughout the year. As part of my business travel I can often hire a car to get around the locations I visit. I’ve done this in many places including Australia, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, plus of course the United States of America.
I’ve got lots of experience of knowing how to use a credit card at a gas pump, oops sorry I mean petrol pump (I am English after all). It is simple, you put your card into the dedicated slot, enter your PIN (Personal Identification Number) and away you go, you can fill up.
The only problem is that when you are buying petrol in USA they don’t ask for your PIN. Yes the Americans like to do things differently to the rest of the world. They rarely use the proven standard the world over for tighter credit card security (the secret PIN number only known by the credit card holder). The way of buying gas in the USA is to ask for the zip code for the credit card holder’s address.
So why is not having a credit card zip code a hassle for me?
Well this security check they have actually means that my petrol purchase is a long and drawn out process.
Petrol stations in the US don’t tend to give credit sales. I don’t mean having a credit account, I actually mean having any access to putting petrol into your tank without giving them some money or security.
Compare this to the UK and other places around the world where we can fill our car first then go into the petrol station and pay with cash or our credit card for gas (if we choose not to pay at the pump).
What I have to do in America is park up by the petrol pump. Walk into the forecourt shop. Wait my turn as I no doubt join a long queue (of everyone buying bagels and extra large sizes of Coke and ice). I then explain that I don’t have a zip code but I’d like to buy some petrol.
Once I get beyond the “I like your accent” / “You’ve got a cute accent” conversation (again) they ask me how much I want to fill up by.
Then I repeat the same conversation I have at every US gas station. “I don’t know. It is a hire car and I need to return it full.”
So I have to then either give them a cash advance or hand over my credit card as security. At this point they will allow me to go back to the car and fill her up.
Then I have to go back into the shop. Join another queue which has formed and wait my turn. Only then do I manage to finally settle the bill and get my receipt (and credit card back or refund on the difference between the price of petrol I filled up with and the deposit paid).
By this point maybe 2-3 cars have used the adjoining pump since they are all gas stations that accept credit cards at the pump.
Now this is the 21st century when our world is supposed to be getting easier. Things are supposed to be quicker, more convenient. Crikey they even have drive through ATMs in the US, how lazy is that?
When I think back to life in the UK before we used credit cards to pay at the pump we still only had to go into the forecourt shop once. That was at the end of the transaction to pay.
Why requiring a zip code for credit card purchases of petrol in America is a farce
For me this whole situation is a farce and reflects a major inconsistency with credit card treatment.
First off let’s think about why they ask for a zip code. It is supposed to provide some security, a way of identifying that the person using the card is in fact the owner of the card.
Yet for me that is a fairly unreliable control.
Zip codes in the US cover a wide ranging area, in fact ZIP code actually means Zone Improvement Plan. Typically a zip code is a five digit code. If you know where the card owner lives then you can pretty much make a guess at the first 2-3 digits of the ZIP code by looking at this map of zip codes.
Map source wikipedia.
Compare that to the UK equivalent, the post code. Our post codes are a combination of letters and numbers, not just numbers. This allows for a lot more complexity and a wider range of codes (think of many variations a letter has as opposed to a number). Little wonder we have post codes which may only be specific to part of a single street. Compare that to the US ZIP code which can cover a whole neighbourhood. Now tell me which is more secure?
The PIN code system which is used in the UK and many parts of the world is more personal. The credit card owner chooses their own 4 digit code to approve transactions on their card. Nobody else should ever know this PIN number. Good luck guessing my PIN numbers Sherlock because my postal address will not help you.
Now tell me again which is more secure?
I’m always amazed when I see credit card use in America, not just the credit card zip code process.
If you watch people buying things in America with their credit cards the procedures are so inconsistent. I often see people who have not just not put a specimen signature on the back of their card, but the sticky label that was on the card when it arrived is still on the used card!
Then some shops ask for photo ID whilst others don’t check for ID or even look at the signature. Is it any wonder that the US has one of the highest levels of credit card fraud in the world!
That takes some thinking about.
I’ve been using credit cards around the world for 15+ years and I’ve yet to have my first experience of being a victim to credit card fraud. (Yes, that statistic amazes me sometimes too.)
On top of all these zip code for credit card transactions approval what really rattles me is the total lack of consistency across commercial organisations.
Let’s say I go to somewhere like Target or Wal-Mart. If I go to buy some things and in total they are less than $50 they will often pre-approve my transaction without any checks. That’s right. I swipe my card and no signature or PIN code is asked.
I get a message that my transaction has been automatically approved and I am able to go on my way.
So how is that going to be appropriate when you think of buying gas in the USA? After all the petrol price in the USA is so cheap I don’t think I’ve ever had a tank of petrol cost me as much as $50.
Then when you think that when I buy petrol the gas station may have security cameras which can track the number plate of the car I am driving. They also get a nice visual of what I look like. I don’t see Target or Wal-Mart keeping track of the car I drive.
So why are the big chain stores so convenient with their payment methods yet using credit cards for gas is such a drama?
Up until a few years ago I used to keep an eye out for Sunoco gas stations. The reason was that I knew I could use my credit card to pay at the pump. Then they changed their systems and now I have to go back and forth between the forecourt which is a real pain.
Now I can only think of Sheetz as a petrol station where I can use my credit card to pay for petrol without any hassle. (Well that was the case when I last used them a few months ago.) Sheetz are primarily based in Pennsylvania so finding them is not always easy.
Thankfully the US banking system seems to be finally catching on to the global idea of Chip and PIN (the more secure way to approve credit card transactions) which most of the rest of the world has been using for years.
America may have many appealing qualities but the credit card zip code ones fall a long way short for me. They are not a strong security measure compared to alternatives and as a foreigner (with a cute accent 😉 ) these controls feel very xenophobic. I maybe a stranger in your land but you don’t have to fear me, I pay my way.