Specialized card offers new solutions to old security problems

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Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Every plastic credit or ID card holds someone’s credit, stored-value or identity that is potentially as convenient for thieves as for their rightful owners. And while new smart and RFID cards provide another level of security, they may not be financially practical for industries issuing everything from gift and coupon cards to employee badges and membership identification cards.

However, proven safeguards such as advanced printing techniques and specialized card materials are available to protect and secure any value bestowed to a plastic card.

Imaging is the first line of defense to protect against fraud and card counterfeiting. With high quality scanners, color printers and personal computers widely available to both casual and sophisticated criminals, card providers are constantly looking to more advanced methods of printing cards that pirates can not reproduce.

One solution is to add advanced inks and engravings. Color shifting inks, like we see on the new $20 bills, can thwart counterfeit printers and provide a level of assurance for card issuers and users. Some specialized inks, such as those activited by infrared or black light inks, can not be read by image scanners. These inks are invisible to the naked eye and need a specialized light - present at the check-out counters or security gates - to be read. Although not an ink, laser engraving is a high-tech form of printing that can burn an unique, tamper-proof symbol or image onto the face of a card.

Printing hidden patterns and information on the surface of a card is a great tool used to assess authentication. Microprint, for example, is very fine printing that can not be reproduced using commonly available digital printers. Some companies deliberately add a typo or mistake into their micro printing as a means of identifying a counterfeit attempt. Hidden print, another proven method of adding security to plastic credit cards, buries graphics only visible with a high intensity light inside the lamination layers.

Specialized card manufacturers can also rely on graphics, photos or images to provide protection for users. Adding a ghost image, a duplicate image printed in a diffused manner, is a great printing technique to tighten security. Holograms are another well-proven technique. They come in two varieties and are virtually impossible for either scanners to duplicate or printers to replicate. Surface holograms are reflective patterns or images hot-stamped right onto the surface of the card. The image changes as the card moves back and forth. Security overlays are reflective background patterns embedded in the laminate on top of the printed card that is impervious to general wear and tear.

Imaging, inks, patterns and bar codes will secure cards from an astute forger. But how can a company protect themselves and their customers if a card is stolen? This problem rests on the shoulders of the actual materials used to create the cards.

The most common point-of-purchase security check is the signature. Most thieves will attempt to alter the signature to match their own, but adding a tamper proof pantograph signature panel will make forging impossible. This destructible multicolor pattern material will degrade if physical or chemical tampering is attempted.

Scratch-off panels and labels are also a good method of ensuring the card has been unused until it is issued. These are applied using a destructible top coating to cover data from public viewing. A classic example is a lottery scratch ticket. Another approach to card security is the use of a contrasting colored core. Just as it sounds, a colored core material is laminated between contrasting-colored top and bottom layers giving the card a sandwiched profile or Oreo effect.

One of the most effective, but unfortunately overlooked, security precaution is ensuring that every card is uniquely coded, properly accounted for against a master database, checked and placed in secure and proper numeric order. This is especially important for gift, security or vital membership cards like health insurance IDs. Imagine the security problems when issuing cards with incorrect or out-of-sequence numbers that don not correspond to the right individual or system database.

Quality assurance and printing techniques, along with innovative card materials and identification techniques, are a cost effective, well-proven security measure that fit any budget or application.

Eric Blank is executive vice president of Arthur Blank & Co. in Boston, a provider of custom printed plastic cards. He is an active member of the Direct Mail Association, International Card Manufacturers Association, Printing Industry of New England, Document Security Alliance and the Document Management Industries Association. He can be reached at eblank@abco.com.