Everything You Need To Know About Using A Credit Card Imprinter
Here at Merchant Maverick, we try to stay on top of the latest trends in point of sale technology and present that information to you, the reader. This, however, will not be one of those blogs. Instead, we’ll be looking at a device from another era that still stubbornly holds onto a small niche in contemporary face-to-face retail.
That’s right, we’re talking about the good old credit card imprinter.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want to look into something so… well, antiquated?
Power outages and internet outages happen. When they do, your business can be left without a way to process payments — turning customers away, and possibly ensuring they never come back. Having a backup can be very important.
In addition, some businesses still operate in locales that don’t support power or internet. At your friendly local Renaissance Faire, for example, you’ll likely see several of the artisans and merchants who accept “Lady Visa” & “Lord Mastercard” use a credit card imprinter. The old-fashioned vibe still fits with the event but allows businesses to make sales to customers who might have run out of cash or come unprepared to step back into a truly low-tech world.
Table of Contents
What Is A Credit Card Imprinter?
If you’re over 35, you’ve probably seen one and would recognize its distinct two-part pop-swish sound. If you’re younger: this is what credit card processing used to look like in the bygone analog days.
There are a few design variations, but the most common one, lovingly dubbed “the knuckle-buster,” looks like flat metal slabs with a raised plastic or metal grip that slides over the slab on rails. There’s another version that looks a bit more like a pump or a cross between a stapler and paper cutter.
Regardless of the design, the purpose of these devices is to take a (you guessed it) physical imprint of the customer’s credit card for further processing later. The imprinter captures all the vital information on the card, and much more quickly than you could by copying it by hand. These things were all the rage in the 70s and 80s.
You may have noticed the raised numbers and letters on most credit cards and wondered why they were designed this way when ink would serve just as well for the human eye. Turns out, those little nubs allow credit card imprinters to work their magic. It also means that some modern cards that don’t have bevels may not work with imprinters.
A credit card imprinter essentially uses a miniaturized version of printing press technology. Your card is secured in place along with a paper of some kind; carbon paper can be used, but isn’t always necessary. Typically three papers are imprinted at once, allowing you to provide a copy to the customer and card issuer while keeping a copy for yourself. Old school card imprinters usually came with a custom plate with your business’s information on it, which would be imprinted alongside the card information.
Depending on the model, you will then either slide the roller across the slab, paper, and credit card twice, or press the pump down until you hear a confirming click.
What Do You Need To Process Payments With A Manual Credit Card Machine?
You need three things, at minimum, to process credit cards with a manual credit card machine:
- The machine/imprinter itself
- Paper for receipts and imprints
- A way to process the transaction — that is, a merchant account with the appropriate software or hardware.
The machines aren’t that hard to come by, even today. Credit card imprinters are still being made and they’re not particularly expensive. The knuckle-buster models start around $16.50 and mostly top out around $60. Pump-handle imprinters are bit more expensive, running from around $60 t0 $120. Such is the cost of protecting your knuckles. If you’re really fancy, there are even electric ones that come in at over $200. Your best bet for buying one is probably online. They’re easy to find on Amazon or through sites like POS Supply Solutions.
Since these are mechanical devices with moving parts that can wear out with heavy use, make sure to read the user reviews to make sure you’re buying a durable model. You’ll also want to take size into account for portability and storage.
Credit card sales slips for imprinters vary widely in price, ranging from $4 or $5 for 100 to around $40 for 100. The only point of caution here is that you’ll want to get papers that align nicely with your machine’s dimensions for easy imprinting.
When you’re ready to process the transaction, you’ll have to key it in through a terminal, gateway, mobile POS, or virtual terminal.
Will Manual Credit Card Payments Cost You More?
Not if everything goes well.
If your business takes credit cards, you may have noticed that certain transactions incur a higher processing fee than others. When you take credit card information over the phone, or through the internet, it’s considered a card-not-present (CNP) transaction. The higher cost reflects the greater fraud risks associated with processing a card payment without directly capturing that card’s information, as well as a higher risk of human error.
Normally, processing a transaction as card-present (CP) involves POS hardware reading a magnetic strip or an EMV chip to capture the card’s information.
But wait! Aren’t you capturing the card’s information with the imprinter? As it turns out, yes, an imprinted transaction counts as card-present and should be processed at lower cost. Be aware, however, that most POS service providers don’t see a ton of these transactions these days and probably won’t assume you’re working with an imprinter when you enter the information.
You’ll want to make sure you’re working with a reputable processor, and one that has policies in place to give your old-school efforts their due. If they won’t, it may be time to switch processors.
Other Concerns With Credit Card Imprinters & Manual Credit Card Transactions
Making a nearly complete copy of a customer’s credit card information introduces some security concerns you normally don’t have to worry about.
There are no fancy encryption and two-factor security features here. You’re literally making a physical copy of the customer’s credit card information for later processing. You won’t have to worry about your slips being hacked, but they can be stolen or copied by hand. Any security involved in the process will need to be directly provided by your business practices. You’ll need to store the slips securely until such time as you can process them, making sure only authorized personnel have access to them. To ensure you and your customers are protected, you should adhere to the PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard). As we touched on earlier, imprint-captured transactions can be considered card-present even though the information isn’t immediately being transmitted, but check with your processor to be sure.
You’ll likely want to hold onto the receipt for the 180 days or so during which the customer can dispute the sale. When the receipts are no longer needed, make sure they’re promptly and completely destroyed.
And, of course, when it comes time to process the slips, you’ll be dependent upon the security features of whatever program or medium you’re using to submit the information. You also need to make sure that you are keying in the transaction properly — both the card number and the transaction amount. An incorrect amount could cause a dispute, while an incorrect card number could be a failed transaction.
You should also be aware that using an imprinter means you won’t know if you’ve accepted a declined card until you attempt to process the transaction. The imprint does provide precious evidence in your favor should a chargeback investigation be conducted, but it can’t do much with a failed transaction. That does mean you’re at risk of losing the cost of any inventory associated with the sale as well.
Alternatives To Using Manual Credit Card Machines
Still not excited about going back to the 20th century when the internet goes down? Fair enough.
POS service providers like Square allow retailers to process transactions in “offline mode.” Assuming your service offers this feature, you may still be able to capture card transactions with your local terminals and mobile devices. When your connection is restored, you can process the backlog. If you’re using a cellular-data-ready mobile device to process the payments, you may not even need to wait; services like Square allow you to transmit data over the cellular network.
Be careful, though. You’ll want to have an idea of the number of transactions your POS service allows you to cache; if you’re doing a lot of business with your connection interrupted, you could run into problems.
Now, if you’re unlucky enough to have your power go down as well, and you’ve drained your battery-powered devices arguing about the election on Facebook, you may need to go cash-only (or if your customers are adamant, throw up your hands and break out the manual processor). That, or just take the day off.
Do You Really Need A Credit Card Imprinter?
With the ability to process transactions in offline mode, most businesses probably can sleep soundly at night without a credit card imprinter in their closet. That said, there are outlier cases where certain businesses may find them useful. If you do a lot of business at markets, fairs, or outdoor flea markets where you don’t have easy access to electricity and/or make occasional credit card sales, a knuckle buster can fill the gap. Just be aware of the risks — and be prepared to do a little bit more work.