Visa and MasterCard may have put "steering" challenges behind them, but American Express continues to fight merchants for access to consumer purchases at the checkout lines. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Visa and MasterCard settled government allegations of unfair practices related to retail debit and credit card processing rules. Although company officials and investigators reached a settlement last fall, it took until July for U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis to approve the terms of the deal.
Several states had accused all three credit card platform operators of unfair business practices when they prohibited merchants from accepting discounts for alternate forms of payment. Under the terms of the settlement, Visa and MasterCard merchants can advertise discounts for paying with cash instead of with credit cards. Furthermore, retailers can use "steering" to more assertively promote their own private label cards that carry far smaller transaction processing fees.
Many consumers experience steering in a retail environment after swiping a debit card and receiving a prompt for a PIN instead of a signature. Many banks offer extra protection and benefits when processing a debit card on a credit card network in a signature transaction. However, a "swipe as credit" can cost merchants more in processing fees than a debit transaction, even under new transaction fee caps. Point of sale software manufacturers could adapt the existing technology to prompt customers to use a less expensive form of payment in exchange for a discount or another reward.
American Express now fights the antitrust actions alone. During the investigation, American Express officials have argued that higher transaction costs for credit card purchases help fund higher levels of customer support. Furthermore, officials claim, customers should have the right to choose their preferred payment platform instead of being forced to take extra steps at the checkout counter. An official told the Wall Street Journal's Chad Bray that the settlement would essentially "pay merchants to discriminate against American Express." Plaintiffs in the case include some of the nation's largest retailers, who expect the proceedings to continue through the fall.