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A signed check may soon disappear from restaurant menus

  • More merchants will no longer ask for your signature.
  • Expect changes to tipping — and to still be on the lookout for fraud.
Signing receipt in restaurant
Tetra Images | Getty Images

Pen and paper may no longer be the final course in your dining experience.

Starting this month, four major firms – MasterCard, Discover, American Express and Visa – will no longer require many merchants to collect customer signatures. The companies' announcements of the change all came in recent months, with executives pointing to reasons including faster checkout without signatures and better protections with the advent of EMV chip cards.

"Our fraud capabilities have advanced so that signatures are no longer necessary to fight fraud," Jaromir Divilek, executive vice president of Global Network Business at American Express, said in the company's December announcement.

While signatures have already fallen out of favor in many places, it seems to have clung to the restaurant table. And you might be wondering: How will tipping work?

"It might be a little jarring for consumers," said Matt Schulz, a senior analyst at CreditCards.com. "The truth is, that signature wasn't doing a lot to prevent fraudulent activity."

Eighty-five percent of U.S. cards issued at the end of July 2017 had an encrypted microchip, according to CreditCards.com. Meanwhile, merchants who've upgraded to chip technology saw fraudulent charges fall 70 percent from 2015 and 2017, according to Visa.

But don't be surprised if restaurants stick to tradition.

Janna Herron, senior writer at personal finance website ValuePenguin, said people at Darden Restaurants (whose brands include Olive Garden), told her that they will still be requiring their customers to sign for their meal.

You might also still need to offer up an autograph if you're using a card that doesn't have a chip, or if you're traveling outside the U.S.

Here's what to expect at the restaurant table:

Monitor your tip

The elimination of signatures at restaurants could disrupt tipping, said Herron. You may punch your tip into an iPad, or find restaurants implementing an automatic gratuity.

"If there's any confusion, ask," Herron said. "You don't want to accidentally not tip."

If you feel the automatic tip doesn't reflect your experience, consider speaking to the restaurant staff, Herron said.

"Ask if there's any wiggle room if you want to add more or if you think you didn't get great service and want to adjust it," she said.

Watch out for fraud

Don't assume that glimmering chip on your card is a magic bullet.

"There will always be risk because bad guys are really smart," said Schulz. "The onus is still on you."

Look over your checking and credit card statements on a regular basis and keep a close eye on your credit.

You're entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three reporting companies – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. For more frequent updates, you can use a number of digital apps like Credit Karma or Mint.

Deploy common sense on the spot. "If you're in a restaurant that seems a little sketchy, it's important that you trust your instincts," Schulz said.

In such cases, consider being old-fashioned and paying in cash.