Screen-Card Makers Pile On Features—And Price—To Stand Out

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The multi-account card world is getting crowded, especially for a product segment that is viewed as a bridge between plastic and mobile, meaning any entrant to this market has a very short window of opportunity.

A typical example of this product is a plastic card with a built-in screen and/or keypad that enables it to rewrite the magnetic stripe on demand, either to swap in a new account or as a security measure to lock and unlock the card. Companies like Coin, Swyp, Stratos, Dynamics and Plastc — just to name a few — each have their own spin on this offering.

Many of these companies face the challenge of convincing consumers to pay $50 to $100 to use a product that looks very much like the plastic cards their banks mail out for free. Plastc charges $155, putting it ahead of Coin ($50 for pre-order, $100 for retail), Swyp ($49 pre-order, $99 retail) and Stratos ($95 for one year or $145 for a two-year subscription). Dynamics offers its card through issuers, which may attach an annual fee. 

Though expensive, Plastc promises to be a bit more future-proof than its rivals.

A common criticism of multi-account cards is that they will become redundant or even unusable once most U.S. credit and debit cards come with EMV chips built in. A typical multi-account card operates by copying details from the card's magnetic stripe and writing the data to the new card. This is exactly the type of practice EMV chips are designed to thwart among counterfeiters.

And since the card networks' deadline for EMV adoption is October of this year, the clock is running out fast on magstripe-based reprogrammable cards, especially considering most are still handling pre-orders.

Plastc is designed to support EMV and even contactless Near Field Communication payments, but these features will be inactive in the initial batch of cards, said Ryan Marquis, chief operating officer of Plastc. These features can be enabled with a firmware update Plastc expects to issue at some point, but Marquis wouldn't commit to a specific date for this upgrade.

Even given the heavy competition, three-figure price tag and uncertain timeframe for EMV, Plastic is finding consumer interest. In a recent three-day promotion, consumers pre-ordered 5,000 cards, paying roughly $300,000 per day of the promotion, Marquis said. Plastic did not offer any discounts during this timeframe, so each buyer committed to pay the full $155 cost of the card.

When asked about whether the card could be offered free to consumers and be funded in other ways, Marquis said that model was "something we could potentially look at." The company could also display ads and coupons on the card's built-in screen.

The card's screen, which is roughly the size and dimensions of the activation sticker many issuers place on the front of a new card mailed to consumers, is Plastc's big selling point. The e-ink touchscreen, is on the bottom half of the front of the card, and can be used as a keypad to unlock the card, navigate to the account to be used, and show the user's photo and signature for authentication.

If the card is lost or stolen, it can alert the user and, after a period of time, automatically erase the data on the card. If the card is ever recovered by its owner, "as soon as it's back in communication with your phone, all of that data will sync back," Marquis said.

Even this system has its limits. Though NFC and RFID support are planned, they cannot be used with specific mobile wallets. "There's no way that we can support Apple Pay," he said.

Like others in the space, the Plastc card uses Bluetooth to communicate with a smartphone app, although the phone and the app are not required to use the card. The app aids in setup by providing a way to add accounts to the Plastc card.

Plastc also intends to use the app to communicate up-to-date info on card accounts, such as showing a debit card's remaining balance after that account is used through the Plastc card. Such features require integration with the user's bank account, and "we're now working with the top seven banks in the U.S.," Marquis said.

The downside to such a feature-rich card is its battery life lasts only 30 days. The product ships with a wireless charging to top up the card's battery between uses.

As for privacy, that's where issues get a bit murky. Plastc's legal terms and conditions state that Plastc "may track, collect, store and use" the consumer's phone's and desktop computer's "IP address, geographical location, browser type, referral source, length of visit and number of pageviews" as well as "information relating to any purchases of the services via the app" including "payment and purchase details, details of the services you have purchased and used, analytics relating to your viewing of content on the web site" plus any biometrics data used for authentication.

They terms add that they may "provide various third parties with statistical, aggregated and anonymous information about our users" unless the consumer chooses to block it.

The card doesn't provide all information about the user's activities, Marquis said.

"We will not be privy to any transactional details," he said. "Our business model is not about a data play at this point in time."

The company's terms also indicate that the consumer is responsible for losses incurred by Plastc and others for unauthorized use of an account. Typically, consumers are accustomed to card issuers assuming the responsibility for fraud and account takeovers.

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