Forget spy balloons; retail group says China is a credit card security threat

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WASHINGTON — The Merchants Payment Coalition says passage of the Credit Card Competition Act would add a layer of safeguarding, keeping China from “infiltrating” the U.S. payments processing market.

Officials from the group penned a letter to a House committee holding a hearing on economic threats from China on Feb. 7.

“MPC has grave concerns over the level of involvement that China has in our nation’s payment system,” the organization said in a letter to the House Financial Services Committee. “Preventing China from infiltrating the U.S. payments system is one of our top priorities.”

“Currently, there is no federal law that prevents any financial institution from doing business with China UnionPay to process payments on its credit cards,” the letter continued. “If enacted, the Credit Card Competition Act would explicitly forbid card networks that present a national security threat to the United States (including China UnionPay) from entering the U.S. market. This is a vital provision of the legislation that would significantly serve our national security interests.”

The letter was sent to Chairman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.; Ranking Member Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; and other committee members as the panel prepared to hold a hearing on “Combatting the Economic Threat from China.”

The letter cited China UnionPay’s membership in the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council and EMVCo, the two bodies that set security standards for the U.S. credit and debit card system. The two groups are controlled by Visa and Mastercard, along with American Express and Discover, but UnionPay became a member of EMVco’s governing body in 2013 and has been a member of the PCI council since 2017. Japan’s JCB is the only other foreign card network that sits on the panels.

Participation in the two organizations gives UnionPay – and through it the Chinese government – a role in “the creation and implementation of security standards that impact all U.S. businesses and consumers,” the letter said.

The Credit Card Competition Act – introduced last year by Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Senator Roger Marshall, R-Kan.; Representative Peter Welch, D-Vt. (now a senator); and Representative Lance Gooden, R-Texas – is awaiting reintroduction in the new session of Congress.

MPC says the legislation would end Visa and Mastercard’s longstanding monopoly over how transactions on cards issued under their brands are routed for processing. Instead, cards from the nation’s largest banks would be required to be able to be routed over at least one competing network in addition to Visa or Mastercard’s networks. Banks would choose which networks to enable but merchants would then choose which to use, meaning networks would have to compete over fees, security and service, saving merchants and their customers an estimated $11 billion a year.

Under the legislation, the second network could be American Express, Discover or an independent network like NYCE, Star or Shazam, which the Federal Reserve says have less fraud than Visa and Mastercard. But the legislation would close a security gap by blocking networks supported by foreign governments like UnionPay from entering the U.S. processing market. Currently, any bank could choose to route its credit card processing to UnionPay, which MPC says could be effectively outsourcing consumers’ financial data to a foreign government.

Credit and debit card swipe fees, which doubled over the past decade and soared 25% to a record $137.8 billion in 2021, are most merchants’ highest operating cost after labor.

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