What a credit-card giant has in store for you

Interview with Ruth Ann Marshal, president, MasterCard North America

"It's fun to win," says Ruth Ann Marshall, who is about to see her company become king of the credit-card hill. Sometime next year, according to industry analysts, MasterCard will surpass Visa as the largest provider of credit cards in the United States (the cards are actually issued by banks).

Since October 1999, Ms. Marshall has been president of the North American division of MasterCard International "We're doing a lot of work abroad on mobile commerce and smart-card technology," Marshall says. "There's also a lot of work on 'data mining,' enriching the data around transactions so that retailers might be able to properly market – with the right authorization – to consumers who want to receive goods and services more closely tied to their individual needs."

Talk like that gives some consumers pause. Card safety and customer privacy have become key concerns, with more than 1.2 billion major credit cards issued worldwide from the five largest card companies.

But Marshall says MasterCard – which accounts for 560 million of those cards – is actively researching and implementing advanced encryption methods including biometrics, an identity-verification method that uses unique physical characteristics, like fingerprints.

Marshall spoke with the Monitor by telephone from her office in Purchase, N.Y.

The credit card changed the way we buy. What impact has the debit card had on the credit card?

There's an ongoing debate about the cannibalization of credit card transactions by debit cards. But we don't see that so much. We see debit cards being a replacement for checks, primarily, and secondarily, as a replacement for cash. Debit-card issuance is growing about 2 1/2 times the pace of credit cards.

Are we moving to a "checkless" society – and if so, is this a good thing?

Yes. Slowly. For the first time we are seeing a decrease in the [number] of payments made by checks. From a consumer standpoint, the convenience of debit cards is a great advantage over checks.

What can we do to make sure that no one is left out of such a debit-organized payment system, that is, people who may not have a credit card but will need a card of some sort to participate?

Some banks are extending the debit card in two different areas to serve the "unbanked," which is the term we use [for people without credit cards]. One is the prepaid concept where the value [of the account] is loaded onto the card, not so much different from old paper-based gift certificates, and second, payroll cards, to give people their payroll [in the form of a loaded debit card].

What features will future smart cards have?

Multi-application smart cards will be for payments and also have [voluntary] personal data like your medical information, your driver's license, and other personal information that you'd like to have in one place. There's also a lot of work under way on account aggregation, where you'd have a lot of your various accounts funneled into one common account number on the smart card.

When and where will such cards be marketed?

It will be marketed where there is a pressing need for it. There's been a demand for that kind of card in Scandinavia. You don't see it here in the US yet. It will come to the US when there are people asking for it.

Do banks have a role in issuing cards responsibly?

That is their key responsibility and they take it very seriously. Technology ... gives them access to credit information to be sure that when they offer someone a card ... they have the ability to pay, based on their credit history.... We really believe in educating people about the wise use of credit cards.

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