Credit Card Processing: How to Legally Beat the System by Passing Processing Fees to Customers


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Imposing surcharges on credit card transactions is illegal, and it will only lead to problems. The secret to beating the credit card processing system is not charging more for credit card sales, but instead is charging less for cash sales. It may sound like the same thing, but there is a big difference.

The increasing costs associated with accepting credit cards are leaving many merchants searching for ways to pass along at least a portion of processing expenses to their customers. Card originators such as VISA and MasterCard are becoming wary of this new trend and are enforcing strict regulations specifically designed to hinder any such efforts by merchants to impose surcharges on credit card purchases.

Discount fees, transaction costs, and other expenses associated with the acceptance of electronic bank cards (credit and debit cards) are putting a strangle hold on to the NET profits of businesses of all sizes. To help minimize the impact that processing costs are having on profits, many businesses are charging a surcharge to customers that choose to pay for products or services using a credit or debit card.

Card originators such as VISA, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover have a lot to lose if the practice of imposing surcharges on credit card transactions becomes popular among merchants. When merchants impose surcharges on credit transactions, they make purchasing on credit a less appealing option to consumers, and many consumers choose to avoid the additional cost by simply paying with cash or a check. A decrease in the use of credit cards by consumers translates directly into lost revenue for processing banks. Not only do banks lose out on the processing fees that they would have collected from the merchant, but they lose any finance charges that would have been incurred by the customer as well.

You may wonder why so many businesses still choose to place a surcharge on credit transactions, even though it is strictly forbidden in the processing agreement they had to sign when opening their merchant account. Quite frankly, many business people choose to ignore this clause in their processing agreement and impose a surcharge anyway. This approach is not recommended. When and if these businesses are discovered, their merchant accounts will be terminated, and they may even be placed on the Terminated Merchant File (TMF) which will make it nearly impossible for them to acquire another merchant account.

Card originators and banks have control over credit card (bankcard) transactions, and they can legally ban a merchant from imposing surcharges. However, they do not have any legal control over other forms of payment such as cash and checks. The largest card originator (VISA) has even published information stating that, “You may, however, offer a discount for cash transactions, provided that the offer is clearly disclosed to customers and the cash piece is presented as a discount from the standard price charged for all other forms of payment".1

Most merchant accounts operate on a tiered discount pricing grid and, ironically, the secret to beating credit card processing fees is to impose tiered pricing on your products and services as well. The old saying, “if you can’t beat em', join em’" applies perfectly.

While you can’t charge extra for credit card sales, you can charge less for cash as long as all prices are clearly stated to customers, and the cash price is reflected as a discount from the original purchase price. For example: if the price tag on an item states that the item costs $10, the cash price must be represented as a discount from that price. The price tag for this particular item should look something like this:

Price: $10.00
5% discount for cash payment @ $9.50
5% Discount for Check Payment @ $9.50

By utilizing a tiered pricing grid, merchants can alleviate the cost of accepting credit cards, while still providing their customers with the freedom to choose their preferred method of payment.

1. Published by VISA in the Card Acceptance and Chargeback Management Guide for VISA Merchants, ©2004

Copyright 2005 Jack Lang

About the Author: Jack Lang is the senior contributor member at . The Merchant Council is a free resource dedicated to assisting businesses obtain and manage credit card processing and merchant account services. A wealth of merchant account information can be found at .


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