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What is an EMV chip and how does it store your data?

EMV chips, which come standard in many new credit and debit cards, supplant the magnetic stripe on the back of the card with a more secure data-storage technology. Many merchants now require consumers to pay with the EMV chip instead of swiping their card.

What is EMV chip technology?

EMV is short for Europay, Mastercard and Visa: the three companies that created the EMV standard.

EMV cards store cardholder information on a metallic chip instead of in a magnetic stripe. These chips can only be authenticated by special readers, making them more secure than stripe-only cards.

A primary benefit of EMV chip technology is preventing counterfeit fraud. Once commonplace, counterfeit fraud — in which a cardholder's information is collected, stored and reprinted on a different card — has declined sharply since EMV chip technology began to appear.

According to Visa, counterfeit fraud dropped 76% between 2015 and 2018 among merchants who adopted EMV card readers.

How do EMV chip cards work?

One of the main benefits of EMV chip technology is protecting cardholders' credit card information. These chips create a one-time-use code when inserted into an EMV reader: using that code to process a payment instead of the card number printed on the card.

When you make a purchase via EMV card, the merchant never receives or transmits your actual card number. That makes it much more difficult for malicious actors to counterfeit your card.

This process of simulating a card number is called tokenization, and it's becoming increasingly common as a means of securing sensitive payment data. So-called contactless technologies like Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay also use tokenization for more secure payments.

What if a merchant doesn't accept EMV cards?

Not all merchants have EMV readers installed, but the number that does is growing steadily. Visa reported in March 2019 that 75% of US storefronts accept EMV cards — up from 50% just two years prior.

If you make a purchase from a non-EMV merchant, they can still swipe your card the old-fashioned way. Because this is less secure, however, the merchant may be liable for any fraudulent transactions that arise from a card swipe. Many merchants are installing EMV readers in order to avoid this liability.

Card security best practices

Seeking out merchants who accept EMV cards is one smart way to protect your account security - but there's more you can do.

  • Be careful where you shop online. With in-person counterfeit transactions on the decline, credit card fraud has shifted to the web. Enter your card number online only if you feel confident that the storefront is legitimate.
  • Only share your card number with people you trust. Take every precaution to protect your card number: don't write it down anywhere and strive to keep it secret. If you do need to share your credit card with trusted friends or family members on a regular basis, consider getting these individuals added as authorized users with their own credit cards.
  • See if your card issuer offers one-time-use card numbers. You may be able to "tokenize" your credit card number yourself, if your card issuer allows it. Check with your issuer to find out if they make single-use card numbers available.
  • Check your card statements — and credit report — regularly. Pore over your statements at least once a month and be vigilant: you typically have just 60 days to dispute a fraudulent charge. Keep in mind that you are entitled to three free credit reports each year, which can come in handy when it comes to making sure your report is accurate.

EMV cards and account security

EMV cards can help make everyday credit card transactions more secure. Purchase from merchants who use EMV readers — and keep a close eye on your transaction history — to maximize the security of your credit card account.