Embossing is a hybrid printing/production process whereby numbers and letters are pressed into the surface of the receiving material, either paper, plastic or metal, and can be felt as well as read optically. Originally utilized on credit cards to copy the account number – by sliding the card through a manual device that pressed the embossed numbers and letters onto a triple ply carbon-copy ticket – embossing has taken on added security measures in the new era of electronic scanning devices.
What began as an expensive process designed to elevate advertising materials by giving embossed items an air of distinction, embossing became mandatory for credit cards as the easiest means of copying the information to complete a credit card transaction.
The card was placed face down into the device over a pre-printed triple-ply ticket while the cashier slid the arm of the device over the card, thus pressing the embossed letters and numbers onto the carbon paper in the ticket. Then one of the copies was removed and given to the cardholder along with the cash register receipt. Later, another ticket copy had to be handled manually by the merchant to complete the transaction so the customer could be billed for the purchase and the merchant could receive his funds.
Nowadays, with the advent of electronic scanning devices, embossing credit cards has taken on a new role – that of added security. Here’s how embossing helps protect merchants and card holders alike:
- Visa’s embossed account numbers begin with a 4 digit number and contain either 13 or 16 digits total.
- The first four digits of the BIN (bank identification number) are reprinted, not embossed, either above or below the first 4 embossed digits. If the embossed and the non-embossed numbers do not match, the card is likely counterfeit.
- Certain Visa cards – such as their Business, Classic or Gold cards – contain a distinctive, embossed “V.”
- The last four digits of the account number are intentionally embossed over the holographic image. If this number appears odd or if the holographic image is damaged in any way, this is a sure sign that the numbers have been altered.
- Discover Cards contain a unique embossed “D” on the front of the card that cannot be duplicated without using a Discover Card embossing machine.
- All credit cards reproduce some or all of the embossed account information on the back of the card. In the signature panel you will find some or all of the account information as well as the CVV2 codes (printed, not embossed). This information is there as yet another security measure to make sure the card has not been altered or counterfeited.
Things merchants should look for to ensure the card they are handling is real include:
- All embossed letters on a card should be absolutely aligned, of the same height, size and identical style. Quality control features where the cards are manufactured ensure that any misalignment or other problem is recognized and the card is removed from the production line.
- If there are ghost images or if the card numbers appear strange, then the embossed numbers have been altered. A “3” for instance may be changed to an “8” by criminals.
- If the holographic image is cracked then the last four digits of the embossed account number have been altered.
Carefully check the embossed expiration dates. If they appear odd then you may be holding an altered, expired card. Again, criminals can easily change a date of “2003” into “2008”.
Embossing, which began as the only way to transfer account information from a credit card to a merchant, has indeed changed. Embossed numbers are no longer necessary for merchant transactions as they have been replaced by scanning devices that read the magnetic strip on the back of the card. However, instead of removing embossed information, credit card issuers have decided instead to use it as additional security to protect the cardholder and merchants from criminals.