ERIC ZORN: Ending credit card signatures is a whale of a good idea

By ERIC ZORN
Guest Columnist

So long, Shamu.

For more than a decade I’ve been signing the name of the world’s most famous killer whale on credit card receipts and signature pads. When I’m not in a hurry, I add a crude drawing with jagged teeth and a spray of water coming out of Shamu’s blowhole.

And not once, not in literally thousands of transactions, has a store employee or server compared that scrawl to the signature on the back of my card, asked to see another form of ID to reconcile the discrepancy between my name and the name nearly synonymous with SeaWorld parks or even twinkled in silent recognition that I was making a funny.

But now — this month, in fact — major credit card companies are formally eliminating the signature requirement for point-of-purchase transactions.

In doing so, they’re finally acknowledging the point the Shamu stunt was meant to highlight, that signing credit card slips is an outmoded, time-wasting ritual.

I began using Shamu in tribute to prankster John Hargrave, who, according to legend, in 2004 signed that name and added a drawing of a whale on a charge slip at the New England Aquarium.

It was part of his quest to see just how far he could go before a cashier stopped him. He signed with musical notes. He signed with stick figures and hieroglyphics. He wrote “my butt” on the signature line, “Please Check ID” and “I stole this card.”

No response. Just “thanks and have a nice day.”

He claimed that his quest ended when a Circuit City employee called his bluff as he attempted to buy $16,000 worth of electronics equipment using the block-letter signature “NOT AUTHORIZED.”

So the meaningless writing was already on the wall.

Then came the boom in online shopping, where signatures aren’t used; chip cards that provide additional levels of protection against fraud; and thumbprint verification in some pay-via-smartphone apps. Many stores stopped asking for signatures on smaller purchases.

Checks became passe. Selfies with celebrities supplanted autographs as the evidence of choice for a close encounter with fame.

Last October, Mastercard announced that in April it would end the signature requirement. Discover and American Express made a similar announcement in December, and Visa made it unanimous in January.

Though the phaseout will have different geographical boundaries for each company, the thrust of AmEx’s announcement was typical. The company promised “a more consistent and simplified checkout experience for merchants and (customers, which will) speed up the process of paying in stores and help reduce merchants’ operating expenses.” An executive quoted in the news release referred to the signature moment as a “pain point” in retail transactions and noted that “signatures are no longer necessary to fight fraud.”

Lucky us.

But poor old John Hancock.

When and where will we sign our names anymore? On political petitions and at polling places. Or legal documents (note that the lawyer for adult film star Stormy Daniels has been arguing that her nondisclosure agreement with President Donald Trump is invalid because he failed to sign it). Or on written communication that’s committed to actual paper — “letters,” I believe they’re called.

Some merchants will continue asking you to sign for credit purchases into May and beyond — old equipment, old habits — but it won’t be long before signature lines will be as rare as those little ker-chunk! machines that ran your credit card over inked paper.

Those are so rare by now that some issuers have stopped embossing raised account numbers on cards. The magnetic strip and then the chip have rendered obsolete the raised numbers, which often wore down with use to semi-legibility. This is allowing fashion-forward card companies to put all the relevant numbers together on the back and use the front for fancier designs.

Killer whales, anyone?

The original Shamu died in 1971, but the SeaWorld chain of aquatic parks trademarked her name and used it on a succession of orcas that starred in Shamu shows. That all began to change when a whale killed a trainer during a 2010 “Dine with Shamu” show at the Orlando SeaWorld, and the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” highlighted that tragedy and turned the public against the use of such creatures for entertainment.

The parks have ended their captive breeding programs and shifted the focus toward education — the shows are now called “One Ocean” and “Orca Encounter.” The long goodbye has begun, though a SeaWorld spokesman says the Shamu brand will continue to be “extremely present” for years to come.

But my Shamu, victorious in the end, is going into retirement. Unchallenged. Unacknowledged. And now unnecessary.

Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist and daily blogger for the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at ericzorn@gmail.com.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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