Data Breaches May Drive Consumers Back to Cash

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Millions of consumers felt a twinge of panic when the scope of last year's Target data breach was revealed. But those who paid in cash likely felt no anxiety at all. Indeed, the Target breach and a recent spate of other high-profile cybersecurity issues highlight the timeless appeal of cash. While mobile wallets, Bitcoin and prepaid cards receive a great deal of attention as the payment innovations of the future, many customers still prefer to use cash to better maintain their budgets and protect themselves from account takeover.

The use of cash is dwindling, but greenbacks are still the payment method of choice for a significant portion of purchases. Cash was used for about 29% of all U.S. retail payments in 2012, the latest data available, according to McKinsey & Company. As data breaches involving credit or debit cards continue to grow, so will customer awareness of the inherent risks. Indeed, a January 2014 survey of 1,002 adults by the Pew Research Center found that 18% of online adults have had their personal information stolen, up from 11% in July 2013.

While cards have long been positioned as a safer alternative to cash, which can be lost or stolen, the reality is that today's consumers may view identity theft and data breaches as more likely occurrences than a pilfered wallet. The highly anticipated arrival of EMV cards should bring improved levels of security for card transactions. But merchants face an October 2015 deadline for improving technology to accept EMV cards. At least until those new security measures are in place, cash remains the most trusted and secure form of payment.

In light of recent history, financial institutions should reconsider the notion of promoting card use for every transaction, no matter how small. For one thing, if more customers use cash, they will visit branches and ATMs more frequently. This will give banks a greater number of one-on-one customer interactions and cross-sell opportunities.

A greater emphasis on cash would also help banks cut back on the costs associated with card replacements. The Credit Union National Association and the Consumer Bankers Association report that banks and credit unions have collectively ponied up more than $200 million to replace cards for customers and members affected by the Target data breach. The total cost to replace each card averages $10, including customer notifications, producing and shipping new cards, managing card activation and any supplemental communication. These significant expenses are repeated with each instance of a data breach.

While a new payment app seems to appear every day, it is unlikely that any single innovation will render cash obsolete. Consumers who use cash ultimately avoid the high levels of risk associated with swiping plastic and leave no trail for hackers to follow. Those kinds of advantages never go out of style.

Douglas Ceto is chief executive and president of Atlanta-based CetoLogic, a provider of software and analytics solutions for financial institutions and retailers.

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