Phone changes may hit credit card shoppers
By ELISABETH TACEY
THOUSANDS of people may be unable to use their credit cards in shops after April 1, because of plans to stop seven-digit phone numbers working on that date, banks say.
Credit card companies and banks have asked the telephone watchdog to extend the time that both the old numbers and the new eight-digit ones with the '2' in front will work.
The result may be a phased withdrawal of the seven-digit numbers exchange by exchange to allow the banks to make the changes area by area - although the public will not be told which areas are affected.
The watchdog has told the firms and Hongkong Telecom to get together to work out an extension programme before the new fixed-line operators start their service in July.
Each credit card machine which is swiped to make a purchase dials a central number to check the card before accepting it. Someone had to visit each machine to change the telephone number.
If the firms did not get extra time to change the numbers, many of the 30,000 machines around the territory would not work after the cut-off date, the credit card companies told the numbering advisory committee of the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) last week.
Since October, when the new numbers started to work, Hongkong Bank had managed to change a quarter of its 10,000 terminals, said group telecoms manager, Tim Cureton.
American Express had changed the numbers on 200 terminals, leaving 6,000 to do. In total, 50 had to be changed each day between now and the April deadline.
With shopkeepers unwilling to let someone tamper with the terminals during the busy Christmas and Lunar New Year shopping periods, and difficulties getting temporary staff, 'I think we would expect a bit of slack', Mr Cureton told the committee.
'Merchants are incredibly reluctant to let us fiddle around with the machines, and the last thing the bank wants is an irate customer,' he said. Changes could only be made once the shop shut, he said.
Thomas Cheng of American Express said discussions with Hongkong Telecom since July on a possible extension of the dual access period 'could only be described as obdurate'.
Committee chairman and senior assistant director of OFTA, Anthony Wong Sik-kei, said shops had to understand the need for the change.
'All of us don't like the numbering change. It incurs a cost to everybody.' But any longer dual access period for both old and new numbers would hold up the issue of new numbers.
'There's no way we can stop issuing telephone numbers. Already Hongkong Telecom is telling us they are running out of numbers.' A compromise might be found if the credit card firms and Hongkong Telecom could work together to allow some exchanges to accept both numbers for longer. Then the banks could get some areas done by March and leave some for April or May.
'Any longer period will be better for us,' said Mr Cureton.