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How long until your signature is obsolete?
Visa and MasterCard are phasing out signatures on credit card transactions. They've just seen the writing on the wall.
 
That's probably unnecessary, Mr. President.
That's probably unnecessary, Mr. President. (Flickr/Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

The signature has always been an imperfect method to prove you are who you claim to be, especially when your John Hancock is your barter for money. After all, signatures can and have been forged. Ask any high schooler.

Visa and MasterCard have apparently reached the same conclusion. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the two credit card giants are getting rid of swipe-and-sign transactions, meaning your signature will no longer be requested when the waiter brings you your check or the cashier swings the signing pad in your direction. Instead, starting in October 2015, all Visa and MasterCard transactions will be chip-and-PIN: You'll stick your card into a slot and enter a personal identification number to complete your purchases.

In ditching the signature, Visa and MasterCard are merely paying heed to the writing on the wall. Most of the developed world uses chip-and-PIN cards at this point, and they have lower rates of credit card fraud. The U.S. accounts for a quarter of the world's credit card transactions and half of its fraud cases. That's not all about the signature — the magnetic strip is the bigger security risk — and PINs can be stolen, too.

But this is just one more sign that the signature is becoming obsolete. You still affix your name to mortgage agreements and other legal documents, but for how much longer? Right now a good number of such documents are being exchanged over the internet, and the current best solution — somehow getting a photo of your signature on your computer, then scaling it and pasting it in the right place on the PDF — is at best a temporary fix.

If a better way to legally "sign" documents online is probably only a few years away, that might spell the end of the on-paper signature. What will replace it? Grant Piper at The Japan Times suggests "some digital device like the signet rings of old, a device programmed with data to confirm our identity. Just press it to the pad or screen."

Email has all but eliminated the personal letter, Facebook has largely replaced the birthday card, and those people who still send holiday cards tend to make do with fancy, internet-generated photo cards. The online party invitation has eclipsed the paper kind. Thank you notes are still an etiquette essential, but one that is badly neglected. Checks? Services like PayPal will obviate your need to mail in payments to your landlord or mortgage servicer.

In a handful of years, the only people who will still get any mileage out of the signature will be celebrities. I guess that's one less reason to get upset about the imminent demise of cursive.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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