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Chip-enabled 'smart' credit cards coming to America

Sam's Club is just weeks away from becoming the first national retailer to offer its customers a chip-enabled "smart card"—a credit card that uses both a magnetic strip and an embedded microchip to store the data that's needed to verify the transaction.

Chip-based cards are extremely hard to counterfeit, experts say.

The new Sam's Club 5-3-1 MasterCard (issued by GE Capital Retail Bank) will be available to qualifying Sam's Savings, Sam's Business and Sam's Plus members in the U.S. and Puerto Rico starting on June 23. Sam's Club is a division of Wal-Mart Stores.

"This move by Sam's Club makes them a trailblazer in getting chip cards in the hands of businesses and consumers, and leading the push toward a safer and more secure customer experience," said Chris McWilton, president of MasterCard North America in a statement. "This will no doubt help drive chip-enabled technology forward here in the U.S. as it gains more traction."

Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover want the U.S. converted to chip-based credit cards by October 2015. After that date, they say, fraud losses will shift to the retailer if they don't have point-of-sale payment terminals that read smart cards.

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"This is a great first step," said Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of IDentity Theft 911. "Anything that enhances in-store security is welcome, but this is not a silver bullet."

While chip cards are nearly impossible to counterfeit, they do not stop all credit card fraud. If a thief gets your account number—by hacking or skimming or some other means—it can still be used to commit online fraud because the card does not need to be presented. Security experts warn that the online threat must be dealt with as America switches to smart cards.

Another weak link: The first chip-enabled cards being issued in the U.S. will also have a mag strip on the back, in order to give merchants time to install new smart card readers. If a thief is able to snag your account number, they could clone a counterfeit card with just a mag stripe and use it at stores that don't have smart card readers yet.

"Chip-enabled cards must be part of an entire security ecosystem that all businesses must institute," Levin told CNBC.

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Target has announced that starting early next year, its entire REDcard portfolio, including all Target-branded credit and debit cards, will be enabled with chip-and-PIN security from MasterCard. Existing cards will be reissued with this technology.

After the massive pre-Christmas data breach, Target promised it would install new payment terminals that accept smart cards. The company recently announced that this will be completed at all 1,797 U.S. Target stores in September, six months ahead of schedule.

The new card pays handsome rewards

Members who use Sam Club's new 5-3-1 cash back card will earn 5 percent on fuel purchases, 3 percent on dining and travel, and 1 percent on all other purchases—up to $5,000 in reward money a year. There is no annual fee.

"That could cover a family of four's travel to Disney, or five sets of laptops and wireless phones for a small business," said Rosalind Brewer, president and CEO of Sam's Club in a statement. "We believe this value is the best in the industry."

Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com, calls the 5 percent cash back on fuel and 3 percent on travel and dining "fantastic" rewards, but he said "the 1 percent on everything else is lame." According to CardHub data, the average cash back card offers 1 percent on all purchases.

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Papadimitriou suggested Sam's Club members might want to leverage this new card with another one, such as Capital One's Venture Rewards card, that pays 2 percent on everything. By using the different cards for different transactions, you'd earn the biggest reward.

The Sam's Club 5-3-1 card does have terms and conditions you should know about:

  • The 5 percent cash back on fuel is for the first $6,000 of eligible purchases. Then it drops down to 1 percent. Gas stations at warehouse clubs other than at Sam's Club or Wal-Mart, supercenters and supermarkets do not qualify.
  • The cash back for multiple accounts for a business will be combined to determine the maximum $5,000 cash back limit.
  • The rewards will be paid out each February following the yearly reward period and since the payee is Sam's Club, these checks must be redeemed at the store.
  • Unredeemed checks expire in 180 days. If you are no longer a Sam's Club member at that time, you forfeit any earnings.

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.