The Verified by Visa system may be marketed as an optional opt-in system for internet shoppers, but some banks are forcing users to enrol after only three attempts to avoid it.
The unpleasant experiences of Verified by Visa refusenik and Reg reader Steve are likely to be faced by other cardholders, according to Andrew Goodwill, a director at card fraud prevention specialists The 3rd Man. The little-publicised mandatory use of Verified by Visa is down to how some banks apply the system, he explained.
A spokesman for UK banking association APACS confirmed that more banks are making the scheme (and MasterCard's equivalent SecureCode service) mandatory.
"Most card issuers offer it. Some are making it mandatory but we don't keep a tally on what the banks are doing. This is a competitive offering so different banks are doing different things," he explained.
Visa is yet to respond to our requests for information on what percentage of banks insist the cardholders sign-up and use Verified by Visa, or its guidance on the best way to explain the rollout of the scheme to merchants and cardholders.
Roll up, sign on
Both Verified by Visa (VbyV) and MasterCard's SecureCode services are designed to add an extra layer of security to credit or debit card purchases, and work using 3D Secure protocol checks. Each is designed to reduce the likelihood of fraudulent transactions while transferring the liability for bogus transactions from merchants who run purchases through the system back towards banks and other card issuers.
When shoppers make purchases online with participating retailers they are typically taken to a website run by the card-issuing bank, where they are asked to submit a VbyV or SecureCode password to proceed with the purchase. The password is set up when cardholders enroll in the programme, a process that requires knowledge of the personal details of cardholders (in the US this might be the last four digits of a social security number, for example).
An APACS spokesman summarised the desired benefits of the scheme: "For cardholders both Verified by Visa and MasterCard SecureCode make cards safer by making card not present fraud harder. Even people who don't use their cards for e-commerce transactions should sign up. [That way] even if a criminal only gets a hold of the basic card details he won't be able to use it fraudulently online.
"For e-commerce retailers the scheme guarantees they are dealing with a genuine customer. If the retailer has Verified by visa then the liability shifts back to the bank, avoiding charge-backs for fraudulent transactions."
But while these are laudable aims there are practical problems.
For example, potential confusion can arise because e-commerce users are in many cases taken to an unfamiliar website run by the card-issuing bank. The Verified by Visa guidelines suggest the bank's verification page is loaded in an inline frame session rather than a pop-up but that approach can make it difficult to confirm the frame is tied to a valid digital certificate.
Steve made a conscious decision not to opt in to the Verified by Visa system because he's not convinced of its benefits to cardholders. Recently this decision has made it more and more difficult for him to buy goods or services online.
"In the last month I have made more than half a dozen attempted online purchases," he said. "All of which have ended with the retailer's page presenting me with a 'Verified by Visa' enrolment page. Since there is no 'no thank you' button, only an 'Activate now!', I am forced to either enrol or close my browser, and I choose to do the latter.
"In each case my card provider has stopped my card. Apparently declining their invitation to enrol is a sign of fraudulent activity. I look like a fraudster who has been scared off by VbyV instead of like a customer who chooses not to enrol."
One card issuer, MBNA, told Steve that you are only able to avoid enrolling by clicking "not at this time" three times. His main card is held with Egg but unfortunately his attempts to make himself understood by the bank have floundered.
"Every person I speak to has either said that the system is optional, or that they don't know whether the system is optional or not.
"They have taken my complaint to be 'Verified by Visa is insecure' but my complaint is that I have chosen NOT to enrol, since I do not believe it makes me any more secure. But because of the fraud prevention system my card is blocked every time I choose not to enrol in Verified by Visa."
Steve is constantly having to unlock his card because of his doubts over the system. Worse still he's never quite sure which merchants are signed up to the scheme.
"This seems like a strange way to implement a voluntary system. On most of the retailers' websites there is no clue that you are about to be challenged by Verified by Visa until you attempt to complete the transaction. This means that you trigger the "fraud protection" unintentionally. And when you have located a retailer who doesn't require Verified by Visa to complete a purchase, you can't because your account is on hold.
3rd Man's Goodwill said that uptake of Verified by Visa by both merchants and consumers is low. "Customers don't like it because they get taken to a third-party website to enter their information. They have a new password to remember. How it's implemented varies from bank to bank," he explained.
Worse still, in some cases resetting the password is all too easy. Fraudsters know this and go after these credentials which, once obtained, make it harder for consumers to deny responsibility for a fraudulent transaction. Phishing scams posing as Verified by Visa sites have sprung up targeting these login credentials. "We like to support anything that aims to cut plastic fraud but Verified by Visa is flawed. MasterCard SecureCode works in much the same way and is no better," Goodwill added.
Or as Steve puts it, "Frankly, I feel like I am being bullied into accepting a system which is as flawed as Chip and PIN. At least they had the decency to make Chip and PIN mandatory so we knew where we stood."