Pimp My Credit Card

Courtesy Dynamics Inc.

For several years, personalizing a credit card mainly meant you could pick the image on your card. You customize the image using a tool on the card issuer’s website (my personal favorite: upload a photo so your face can be surrounded by a bunch of jelly beans), then wait a week for the card to show up in the mail.

As mobile payments start to gain traction, some card issuers have looked for ways to let customers interact with their cards in a more tech-savvy way. There’s now a “comeback of sorts” for techie cards, American Banker reports, with the introduction of what’s been called Generation 2.0 credit cards. UMB, a regional bank based in Kansas City, has just launched a card that uses a technology called ePlate. With ePlate, before you swipe the card, you press one of two small buttons on the card to choose which rewards program you want to use. The card then changes some of the code embedded in the magnetic strip so the purchase will accrue to whichever rewards you selected. Citibank tested a similar card in 2010 that let users toggle between paying with rewards or with credit.

Last month, a bank in Singapore also released an interactive piece of plastic, though it’s focus is more on security than rewards. The card has a small keypad and screen; when you want to buy something online, you type your password on they keypad, and the card produces a one-time-use code you use to make your purchase. Someone can steal your card, but without your password, he or she would have a hard time going on an online shopping spree on your dime. Al Pascual, an analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research, which advises payments companies, says these cards have been around for a while but have been slow to gain traction because they’re expensive to produce. “These cards are $5 to $10 a pop,” he told me last month. “A regular card is 50¢ to manufacture.”

As Mint.com asked after Citibank’s card was released, will the newfangled cards create “loyal customers—or new spenders?” Mint reminds people that an interactive piece of plastic is all fun and good, but the fees and interest rates are the most important part of choosing a card. As with jelly beans, the features can end up being a lot of sugar.

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