Credit card firms take evasive action over millennium fall-out

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The Independent Online
Credit and charge-card companies are playing it safe over the "millennium timebomb", by holding back from issuing cards that would expire after December 1999.

Both Visa and American Express, which between them account for millions of cards worldwide, have been working for years to get their systems to the point where they can deal with dates that stretch into January 2000 and beyond.

However, for the moment, every card that they issue has an expiry date no later than 12/99 - the last date when the companies are certain that their systems will work. "At the moment, our 1.5 million European merchants are not all millennium compliant," said a spokeswoman for American Express. "So we are holding on and using cards which expire in 1999 until Europe is ready to accept the post-99 ones."

That could continue until January 1999, which will mean that, instead of the usual three-year life span of standard Amex cards, there could be millions due to expire less than 12 months after they are issued.

Visa hopes to begin issuing the first post-99 cards sometime next month. For the past five years it has had a ban on any member issuing a card whose dates extend beyond December 1999. "We're approaching the end of that ban," a spokesman said. "It will be lifted when Visa is happy that this industry effort has been realised." The effort includes updating software on thousands of cash machines and payment terminals.

However, neither Visa nor American Express, which has been working on the problem for the past two years, could say how many cards would have been issued so far with a post-1999 expiry date if their bans were not in place. It is clear though that there will be an enormous glut of new cards in late 1999 - an opportunity criminals may take advantage of.

- Charles Arthur