By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/12/2008 7:32:51 PM ET 2008-03-12T23:32:51

I constantly go to stores that print my entire credit card number on the slip they will keep, so I cross out the numbers. I thought it was the law that credit card slips could not have the full card number, but had to have something like xxxxxx4991.  Am I correct?
- Madge, Chestertown, Md.

It seems strange, but federal law only requires the credit card or debit card number to be truncated (shortened) on the copy of the receipt the customer gets, not the one the merchant keeps.

According to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act the customer copy of an electronically printed credit or debit card receipt cannot show more than the last five digits of the account number. And the expiration date must be deleted. The law does not apply to handwritten or imprinted card slips.

The idea is to keep your account information away from identity thieves if you lose or throw away that receipt. But there’s no guarantee the merchant’s copy won’t get into the wrong hands.

“Having a pile of receipts stacked by the register with credit card numbers on them is a real temptation for a dishonest employee,” says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “The number should be truncated in on both copies,” she says.

But doesn’t the merchant need that number? No. If the credit card has already been processed using the electronic scanner, there’s no need for the full number to be on either slip. I checked with the major credit card companies and they verified this. In fact, many retailers already shorten the number on both copies voluntarily, and I commend them for this.

What should you do when the merchant’s receipt has the entire account number? It’s easy to cross out all but the last 5 digits when you’re at a restaurant, once the server walks away. But it may be impossible to do that at the checkout counter. I’ve heard from numerous people who tried to do this and were told by the sales clerk that if they did, the transaction would be terminated.

Identity theft is rampant, and the current law doesn’t make any sense to me. Like Madge, I’m worried about the receipt left behind, the one with my credit card number on it.

A few years ago, I had my credit card number stolen while on trip to New York. I only used that card twice, at two delis that printed the full account number on their copy of the receipt. Why didn’t I cross out the number? I was paying at the register and decided not to make a scene. Silly me! By the time the credit card company fraud department contacted me and closed the account, thousands of dollars in charges had been made. I wasn’t out anything, but in the end we all pay for this fraud.

I think it’s time Congress revisits this issue. I want the law to require my account number be removed from both copies of a credit card receipt. I know a lot of people feel the same way. But I honestly don’t expect Congress to do anything. So that leaves you — and me — with two options: avoid merchants who print the number on their receipts (if you know about it) or cross out the numbers, if possible, when it comes time to pay.

I know online merchants ask for the three-digit security number on the back of my credit card to verify that I’m the legitimate card holder. But why would pizza delivery places or stores need this information?
- Marcia, Salt Lake City

Asking for those digits is one more way to fight credit card fraud. When you order over the phone, that code tells the pizza delivery place or other merchant that you have physical possession of that card. If someone snagged your credit card number, but didn’t steal the actual card, they shouldn’t have that three-digit code.

That’s the same reason why they ask you for it at the store. If a crook gets your number and creates a counterfeit credit card he probably won’t have the security code. And without that code, the transaction should be terminated.

Can a merchant add a tip to a receipt without the customer’s permission?
- Name withheld

No. That would be fraud and a violation of the merchant agreement. If a restaurant has a policy of automatically adding a gratuity to all bills, that must be disclosed up front and added to the bill before the cardholder signs.

Can you tell me how many days a bank can hold a payment before they post it to your account?
- Rob, Salt Lake City

The Expedited Funds Availability Act sets three standard hold periods: one, two, and five business days. In most cases if you deposit a cashier’s check, certified check, or government check into your account using a teller, the funds should be available the next business day.

Banks are allowed to put a hold on local checks for up to two business days and a hold on non-local checks and ATM deposits of up to five days.

The law gives a financial institution six exceptions that allow it to withhold the funds even longer:

  • New accounts
  • Deposits of more than $5,000 in one day
  • A check that’s been returned unpaid is being redeposited
  • Deposits to accounts that have been repeatedly overdrawn
  • The bank has reason to believe the check is uncollectible
  • Emergency situations

Even so the law says, “these exceptions may generally not be invoked if the deposit would ordinarily receive next-day availability.”

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