Consumers may one day rely less on traditional magnetic-strip credit cards as technology companies and banks introduce new, potentially more secure payment methods — such as tapping smartphones at the register to make payments, or using credit cards with embedded chips that are scanned, not swiped.
Soon, the federal government could take cues from the commercial sector as it tries to improve the way employees make official charges for hotels, airfare, car rentals, and other purchases or services.
The General Services Administration has issued a request for information on cutting-edge payment systems, including smartphone and tablet-based methods, so-called contactless credit cards that do not need to be swiped, cardless charge accounts, apps such as Google Wallet and digital currency such as bitcoin. Newer systems could be more secure and protect against fraud, and they also could allow the GSA to track government payment patterns in aggregate, according to Dave Shea, director of the GSA’s Office of Charge Card Management.
The requested information — due Thursday — seeks to update the agency on payment technologies that have emerged since the GSA awarded contracts in 2008 to Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and U.S. Bank. Since then, “the industry has seen many changes in the way consumers and commercial entities make payments,” Shea said in a statement.
An executive order signed by President Obama in October directed the GSA to take steps by Jan. 1 to update its SmartPay system — which accounts for all GSA-issued charge cards — and mandated that the new payment technology have enhanced security features.
In the 2014 fiscal year, purchases through the system amounted to $26 billion, with spending by about 350 federal agencies, organizations and Native American tribes and a total of 3.29 million card holders.
The request for information precedes a formal request for proposals planned for 2016, with the awarding of contracts slated for 2017. Current contracts are set to expire in November 2018.
Under the current contract, the three companies provide embedded-chip cards, cards with pre-loaded funds, cardless payment systems, electronic invoices and charge cards in foreign currencies.
Aside from improving security, a newer system could help the GSA collect data on purchases, Shea said. A better payment system that records data on each purchase might ensure that agencies are following purchasing procedures. A more modern system also might help the government to better understand which products its agencies are buying, and to use that information to optimize discounts or ordering procedures, he added. This data also could be used to help agencies monitor payment flows and prevent fraud.
It remains to be seen whether the request for information will lead to new bidders on the 2018 contracts. Among the current contract holders, JPMorgan Chase declined to say whether it would respond to the request for information, saying only that it hoped to “continue to help support the federal government’s payment solutions in the future.”
U.S. Bank said it was submitting a response, which would include encouraging government customers and the merchants to convert to chip-enabled cards and chip-card readers, according to Kurt Adams, president of U.S. Bank corporate payment systems.
Citibank declined to comment.
Since the request for information is being issued so far in advance — almost four years before the technology would be deployed in the federal government — it could be an attempt to gauge which new payment systems could become mainstream a few years down the line, said Deltek analyst Aliya Moyers.
The previous SmartPay contract took a couple of years after the request for information to be awarded, she added.
“Right now, there’s not demand for contactless cards,” she said. “But in the future, that might change.”