For the credit card industry, the millennium problem was as obvious as the expiration dates embossed on cards. It was confronted early, and appears to be resolved.
"We feel like that's something that's behind us," said Mary Stewart, senior vice president of bank card programming at Total System Services Inc., the bank credit card processor in Columbus, Ga.
Even retailers, who had been sounding the loudest alarms, are satisfied.
"We're hearing about considerably fewer problems than we anticipated," said Cathy Hotka, vice president of information technologies for the National Retail Federation, a Washington-based trade group.
"Even with the amount of homework we had done, we still thought there would be a number of retailers that would not be ready," Ms. Hotka said. "Happily, we've had few calls, and it's been a nonstory."
Last October, following a few mishaps and various efforts to prevent future ones, Visa and MasterCard formally gave the green light to issuers to send out cards with double-zero in the expiration field. Acting in concert, as they often do on matters of technical urgency, the associations announced that testing had proved successful and most merchants were equipped for cards with expiration dates beyond 1999. They approved issuance of cards expiring through 2003.
Cards with OO dates "have been out now long enough that we believe they are working well," said Charles M. Hegarty, president of Wachovia Bank Card Services Inc., one of the many issuers that began mailing out the cards shortly after the MasterCard and Visa actions. "Merchants seem to be dealing with it fine."
Mark K. Vitelli, senior vice president of People's Bank of Bridgeport, Conn., was equally assuring. "From the point of view of the card being accepted, I think the U.S. looks fine - I'm more concerned with the rest of the world."
Chase Manhattan Corp. mailed its first 2000-compliant cards in October and November, and the handful of problems were reported, mainly from South American merchants. Even when the point of sale equipment failed, the transactions were completed because "if the card doesn't go through, they can call an "800" number and get authorization by telephone," said spokeswoman Lisa Selkin-Lupo.
Visa U.S.A. said at least 99.5% of U.S. merchant terminals are compliant, and the worldwide figure is about 98%. MasterCard International said it gets 10 to 20 calls a month about problems that are said to be related to Y2K conversion, but about half of them turn out to be tied to something else - a dirty terminal or corruption of the card's magnetic stripe, for instance.
Because of the forward-looking expiration dates on cards, credit card executives were "the first people to get impacted" by conversion problems, said Edward Dixon, a MasterCard spokesman. "Everybody else is just starting to get into the meat of fixing it, and we're kind of over the hump."
As of April 1, 10% of MasterCard cards had expiration dates in 2000 or beyond. Mr. Dixon said about 5% of the MasterCard portfolio is converting each month, "so by December 1999, every card will be a year-2000 card."
Visa said during the first two weeks of February that 6% of transaction volume was on cards with expiration dates in 2000 or later. Visa has been encouraging terminal manufacturers to help merchants upgrade old hardware. The effort - dubbed the Terminal Replacement Incentive Program, or TRIP 2000 - has been particularly helpful, according to spokesman Greg Jones.
American Express Co. has not yet taken the plunge. "We are still testing the point of sale infrastructure," said Molly Faust, a company spokeswoman. "We are able to issue year-2000 cards, but we have not done so yet. We will be doing that soon."
MasterCard and Visa began warning members in 1994 about the problem and in 1996 issued a recommendation that banks hold off on issuing cards expiring in 2000.
But a few cards slipped through the cracks and the ensuing headaches led credit card bankers to fear the worst. First USA - then an independent monoline, now a unit of Banc One Corp. - got stung when a vendor's premature issuance of cards caused rejections at retailer locations. The POS terminals read the expiration date as 1900; the bank had to cancel and reissue the cards.
Last summer, the industry felt additional chills when a Detroit-area grocer, Produce Palace International, sued its point of sale vendor, Tec America Corp. of Atlanta, and All American Cash Register Inc. of Inkster, Mich., over problems related to credit card expiration dates. The retailer said its cash registers crashed 105 times in one week as clerks attempted to accept credit cards expiring in 2000.
In April, a mediator recommended Produce Palace be compensated $250,000, according to Brian P. Parker, a lawyer representing the retailer. If the settlement is not agreed to, the case would go to trial in about six months, Mr. Parker said.
When they got wind of the glitch, chains like Godiva Chocolatier Inc., began instructing employees to key in year-2000 expiration dates manually as "99."
"All you needed to make this a huge deal was for a problem to happen once," said Barbara Smiley, a consultant at Meridien Research of Boston. "Now merchants are on top of this, because they have to be."
Ms. Smiley said the Y2K crisis came "a little early for credit cards - but it has pretty much happened."
To be sure, there are many other conversion issues to work out and nobody is resting completely easy. Expiration dates had a high profile because they matter to consumers, but other aspects of computer systems are still being worked on.
First Data Corp. refers inquiries about 2000 issues to its World Wide Web site, which says the "companywide target date for compliance" for all systems is Dec. 31, 1998. First Data has said it has about 350 people assigned to the conversion, which will affect hundreds of millions of credit and debit cards, money orders, and other products and services.
Credit card executives say it is crucial for everyone to be prepared simultaneously: credit bureaus, banks, vendors, customers.
"Even if we're ready, it's important that all the folks who have to touch us and all the folks we have to touch are also ready," said Mr. Hegarty of Wachovia. "This is not something we can do in isolation."