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Anatomy of a Credit Card

Your credit card might have a blue background, a snapshot of your favorite vacay spot, or a pic of your pug, Mort. But beyond the design of the card, they're all pretty similar.

You're probably looking at a little piece of plastic that's about 2" x 3".

On the front of the card are the usual suspects:

  • A logo of the company or the bank that gave you the card.
  • A verification chip (maybe). There's information embedded in these chips so it's easier to verify the card and the transaction. Swiping the magnetic strip is so 20th century.
  • Security features. These are usually holograms that make it harder to photocopy the card, theoretically making it harder to steal your identity. Don't feel too bad for identity thieves, though— they've worked their way around that.
  • Credit card number. This is the number that identifies you as a cardholder and identifies your specific account. Most credit cards have 16 numbers. The first few numbers explain what industry the card is issued for (travel, bank card, etc.), the last few numbers are your account number, and the 2 to 6 digits in the middle are a code for whoever issued the card.
  • Your name.
  • The expiration date. Just like your chocolate milk, your credit card goes bad after a while. Don't worry—they'll send you a new one.

Flip the card over, and you'll see some other stuff:

  • A magnetic strip that encodes all your credit card information. Just swipe the card at any point of sale (POS) terminal, and information from the card will be sent to the company to complete your transaction. Store the credit card too close to a cell phone or wear it down with too many purchases at the Apple Store and your card will be "swiped out" or worn away. You have to call your credit card company to send you a new card. You'll still be able to shop online, though.
  • A Card Verification Value (CVV) code. This is a security code that can help a company prove that the card is actually in hand if they have to phone the credit card company for any reason. If you have to phone your credit card company or want to order something by phone, you may be asked for this code.
  • A signature strip. That's where you're supposed to sign so the person swiping your card can be sure your signature matches the Hancock you put on the receipt. If you don't sign your credit card, the cashier will (hopefully) ask for ID to be sure you are who you say you are.
  • Phone numbers. If anything ever goes wrong with your card, there are phone numbers right on there that you can call for help. You might end up talking to a machine, but hey, machines are smart these days.

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