As identity theft reaches epidemic levels, credit card company Visa has ordered all its US customers to obscure most of card users' credit card numbers on receipts and displays.
Cardholders can feel more secure - from 2006 on
Visa USA announced the initiative on Thursday, falling into line with other vendors, including Mastercard, which have already begun to mandate systems which make sure only the last four digits of the 16-digit card number are ever displayed.
But Visa has given merchants which take Visa payments till July 2006 to make the change, and point-of-sale terminals with the software to mask the other 12 digits will only become available in July this year.
The idea is to disrupt the use of credit card receipts - either picked up from the street or glimpsed by staff while serving a customer in a business - to buy goods and services while charging them to the cardholder.
Identity theft is becoming a massive problem in the US and elsewhere.
Earlier this year, data on over 5 million cardholders was stolen by a thief from the computers of an outside contractor to the card companies.
The US Federal Trade Commission received 161,819 reports of ID theft in 2002, up from 86,198 the year before and 31,117 in 2000, with losses reached $343m.
Derek Bond is considering suing after his identity was stolen
A more human example of the damage it can cause came when 72-year-old British tourist Derek Bond was arrested in South Africa on behalf of the FBI and held for three weeks after a conman stole his identity.
At a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Visa USA chief executive officer Carl Pascarella said the growth of ID theft meant many merchants were already voluntarily curtailing the credit card information they display.
But, he added, it was important to make sure everyone fell in line.
"Identity thieves thrive on discarded receipts and documents containing consumers' information such as payment account numbers, addresses, Social Security numbers and more," he told reporters.
"Visa's new policy will protect consumers by limiting the information these thieves can access."
Mastercard, Visa's number one competitor, was understandably less than complimentary.
"It's about time they caught up with us," said a spokeswoman, noting its own earlier deadline of April 2005 - and the fact that its ATM withdrawals and self-service credit card machines already truncate the number.
Independent experts in the field, meanwhile, point out that one of the biggest problems is the sheer volume of junk mail credit card offers, making it far too easy to extract enough personal data from card offers people routinely throw away.