Consumers Give Smart Cards a Test

By DONNA DE LA CRUZ Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) As Diane Godwin fumbled for four pennies to pay her $4.04 tab for a newspaper, a candy bar and a bottle of juice Monday, she dropped her keys into her son's stroller. The 2-year-old toddler promptly picked up the keys and threw them across the convenience store's aisle.

The 33-year-old West Side resident is an excellent consumer to try out "Smart Card" technology, banking officials say. The card, the size of a credit card, is imbedded with a silicon chip that stores value and keeps track of how much money is deposited or spent.

The card, which is used in place of cash transactions, was introduced Monday for a six-month trial period in the city's West Side neighborhood. Similar programs are currently in place in Atlanta and several cities in California, Florida and Missouri.

Mrs. Godwin said she had heard of the card and was anxious to try it.

"I'm constantly looking for change and invariably, I'll drop something or leave it behind," she said. "This card would make my life a lot easier."

That's the attitude Smart Card distributors are hoping consumers will have. Chase Manhattan Corp. and Citibank are each giving away 25,000 Smart Cards to its customers on the West Side. Also, people who don't use either bank can purchase a Smart Card for a onetime fee.

The card will be accepted by 660 merchants who do business between 60th and 96th streets (bordered by Central Park West and Riverside Drive).

The merchants range from mom and pop operations to major stores such as Fairway and Burger King.

The cards work like this: Chase and Citibank customers "load" their cards with a specific amount of money either at bank locations, certain kiosks in some stores or at home via telephone. There's no limit on how much money you can load but you must have that figure available in your bank account.

Once the value is stored, consumers can use the card in place of cash transactions. After swiping the card, a receipt gives them the remaining balance. Consumers can add more money as they wish.

The difference between the Smart Card and a debit or credit card: Smart Card users do not use personal identification numbers (PIN) or sign receipts.

However, if you lose your Smart Card or it is stolen, that's it. Your money is gone.

"It's treated like cash," said Ron Braco, senior vice president of Chase.

So what's the card's appeal to consumers and merchants? Braco said consumers will no longer need to carry cash and can keep better records of what they spend. For merchants, transactions will be faster and employee theft of cash receipts will be reduced.

Maury Spector, who owns the West Side Pharmacy, is participating in the program and thinks it's a good idea. He adds that cash will probably be non-existent one day.

Mrs. Godwin hopes so.

"I take out a couple of hundred dollars a week it seems and I'm not sure where it all goes," she said. "At least this way I can keep track."

Citibank has joined forces with Visa to launch its card, and Chase will issue its card with MasterCard. They hope to expand the program to other New York City neighborhoods next year.