Tuesday, October 20, 2009

10 flu-fighting credit card tips

Cards can carry germs, but you can be inhospitable

By Jay MacDonald

What's your best money defense against the H1N1 swine flu? Credit card and swine flu

It just might be your credit card, provided you follow these flu-fighting safety tips.

Seasonal viruses tend to spread from person to person when the germs that cause them become airborne via coughing and sneezing. When you touch a surface that contains those germs and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, those hitchhiking microbes can quickly start a block party in your body.

Money is a common carrier of seasonal germs, which thrive in warm, relatively moist locations like your purse, trousers or jacket pockets. Because it is porous and changes hands frequently, currency can easily pick up and pass on germs. Why do you think they call it filthy lucre?

Enter credit cards to the rescue!

Sure, plastic can pick up germs just as readily as cash or third graders. The difference is, you can clean your credit cards quickly and easily. And with a little diligence, yours will be the only hands to come in contact with your sanitized credit cards.

"Any surface could contribute to the passing of the virus, which typically will live up to six to eight hours after contact has been made," says Llelwyn Grant of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"We stress things like cover your nose and mouth with tissue when coughing or sneezing; wash your hands as frequently as possible, mainly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand cleaners; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth because these are typically ways in which germs are spread; and stay home when you are sick," Grand says.

Here are 10 flu-fighting credit card tips for healthy shopping this winter.

1. Clean the keypads
In terms of daily touches by sniffling strangers, point-of-sale terminal keypads and ATM keyboards rank right up there with doorknobs and stair rails as a Woodstock for germs. Even before you pull out your plastic, use an antibacterial wipe or tissue with alcohol-based sanitizer to de-bug the keypad or keyboard as well as your own hands and fingers before you start your transaction.

2. Swipe your own card
It's fortuitous that the swipe-your-own-card movement, which initially grew out of concerns for card security, coincidentally fights germs as well. Because when you innocently hand your card to Florence the friendly checker, she will hand you back a card carrying not only her germs but unsavory hitchhikers from every debit card, credit card, bill and coin she has handled since her last break. Yuck!

"We don't have any data on the number of germs that are passed through the handling of credit cards, but there is that possibility, especially if you're dealing with an individual who is contaminated," says Llelwyn Grant of the CDC. "It could fit into that window where their contamination is high."

Don't risk it. Swipe your own card (after cleaning the keypad first) and give Flo a big smile instead.

3. Wield your own pen
How times change. When once we complained that there were no pens available at the payment terminal, we now dread having to pick up that lone bacteria-bearing Bic. Solution? Carry your own pen and use it to sign your credit card slips. When confronted with a touch-screen stylus, either use your own pen with the ball point retracted or sanitize the stylus with an antibacterial wipe before use.

4. Avoid public surfaces
How many times have you placed your card on a courtesy counter while you navigated the onscreen prompts at a payment terminal? Millions, right? And that's probably the number of potentially harmful germs your card picked up as a result. Consider all public surfaces suspect, especially counters and floors. Best bet for counter sanitation: Only draw your card for the big swipe.

5. Wipe after swipe
Granted, the inside of a card terminal slot is a pretty mysterious place, filled with all sorts of gadgets that few of us understand. But one thing is certain: It also likely harbors bacterial residue from the countless cards that preceded yours. Clean in, dirty out. To avoid packing home other people's illnesses, wipe your card apres swipe with an alcohol-based antibacterial product. You'll earn extra public-health karma if you wipe it down both before and after your swipe.

We don't have any data on the number of germs that are passed through the handling of credit cards, but there is that possibility, especially if you're dealing with an individual who is contaminated.

-- Llelwyn Grant

6. Wallet up
Frequent card users can become pretty cavalier with their credit cards, leaving them handy for convenience on dashboards, restaurant tables, bar counters and even public bathroom vanities. Anytime your card touches a public surface, millions of germs potentially make the leap from that cold, impenetrable plastic to your warm, porous hands and from there to your eyes, nose or mouth. The only time your credit card should be exposed is when you are using it. Otherwise, wallet up, both for security and hygiene.

7. Avoid dirty money
A credit card has a natural advantage over currency as a germ-fighting form of payment because it can be quickly and easily cleaned and disinfected. But if you stick your freshly cleaned card back into your wallet or pocket next to a fistful of filthy bills, it doesn't take a Louis Pasteur to figure that your clean plastic will be instantly compromised.

"Some people use a wallet that is specifically made for credit cards that separates them from your regular currency," says the CDC's Grant. "If you feel more comfortable, you should by all means do that."

8. Don't lick that card!
It sounds bizarre, but some cardholders and more than a few cashiers will occasionally apply a little saliva to the magnetic stripe on a credit card to give it a better chance of being approved when swiped into a balky card reader. Ewww, but true: Licking a credit card can make it work better. To avoid this unpleasant and potentially infectious exchange of bodily fluids, don't lick credit cards -- yours or anyone else's! Should someone lick yours, wipe it off immediately with a sanitizing product, preferably nonflavored.

9. Wash up at the mall
For healthy shopping, don't wait until you return home to wash your hands. By doing so, you risk transferring the germs you acquired during your credit card transaction to things like your steering wheel, child car seats, key chain and upholstery. The CDC recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap under the hottest water you can stand. That's about a long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" to yourself twice -- and we can't think of a better gift.

10. Shop online
What's an extremely effective way to keep other people's hands off your credit cards while you shop? Duh -- shop online, of course. This flu preventive takes the worry out of being close to folks with runaway bugs -- unless of course, you're using a shared keyboard and you've got a home or office that's overrun with snifflers and sneezers. Then, be sure to keep the antibacterial wipes handy. They'll help with germs and bugs, even if they won't protect you from computer viruses.

Financial transactions surpass 100 billion in 2009

Debit outpaces paper checks, credit and automatic payments

By Cara Henis

The number of electronic and check transactions taking place will reach record levels, surpassing 100 billion by the end of 2009, according to new information from Moebs Services, an economic research firm.

Both consumer and business spending practices were studied in Moebs' research, which found that credit cards, debit cards, checks and automatic payments are being used more often than ever before.

Of the more than 100 billion transactions, debit cards are expected to comprise 33 percent of the total, while credit cards and checks will each likely be used less than 25 percent. Though automatic payments are expected to represent only 20 percent of the total number of purchases, forecasters predict their popularity will increase in the coming years. An automatic payment is a routine authorized withdrawal from a savings or checking account to pay bills.

"Based on current transactions, our projections show that debit cards and automatic payments are taking over at an increasingly rapid rate from the traditional checking account for most Americans," said Mike Moebs, CEO of Moebs Services, in a press release.

Although the number of transactions is increasing, total spending is still declining as it has been since 2008. Consumers are making purchases more often, yet spending less.

"This research indicates that consumers are doing significantly more transactions for significantly fewer dollars than in the past," said Moebs in a press release. "This may be due to easy electronic payment methods replacing cash."

2009 payment form transactions

With the increase in debit transactions, Moebs outlines four possible implications facing consumers and their financial institutions:

  1. Financial institutions will reap less revenue from overdraft fees as consumers move away from paper checks and opt out of overdrafts.
  2. Improved online security will be necessary to prevent fraud as consumers rely more on electronic payments.
  3. As the volume of electronic payments increases, there will be a need for quicker and more transparent ways for consumers to manage their accounts and to prevent possible errors.
  4. Technology will have to processing all transactions in real time to improve efficiency and to reduce costs.

"Our research suggests banks, credit unions, brokerage and investment houses should accelerate their planning for electronic payment use because we believe there will be implications to the bottom line of financial institutions in pricing, fee structure and service delivery," concluded the press release.