Setting up a merchant account
Once you have setup your limited company account the first step to accepting credit/debit card payments is to setup a merchant account.
What are Merchant Accounts?
Merchant Accounts are special bank accounts used to collect debit/credit card payments through your business. The funds are usually held in the merchant account for a certain period of time before they are remitted to your business account. The merchant service provider may also levy a small charge for each transaction depending on the type of card used by your customer and the amount paid.
How do I setup a Merchant Account?
There are currently nine banks in the UK offering merchant services to businesses looking to accept card payments, these are often referred to as acquiring banks. The merchant service provider will require a range of information to enable them to make a decision as to whether they can provide you with a merchant account and the terms under which this account will be operated. You may be asked to provide any of the following information when completing your application.
- You current or projected turnover
- Business accounts
- Average transaction value
- Frequency of transactions
- The type of product or service you are selling
- The time expired between the point at which the payment is taken and the point when you complete the order or service.
- The percentage of transactions taken by card.
- How your product or service is delivered to the customer.
- A reference form a current supplier.
- It takes around one to four weeks to open a merchant account. Each business is considered on a risk basis and the terms that are offered will reflect the risk involved in supplying your business with a merchant account.
What are the alternatives?
There are now so many new services appearing to allow payments to be collected electronically. If you're looking for a quick way to collect payments without the need to setup a merchant account, you could try a service like GoCardless.com. GoCardless provide an innovative solution that allows payments to be made directly through the banking system. They offer a very low flat rate and all payments are backed by the Direct Debit guarantee. GoCardless is fully integrated into the free accounting system Quick File and allows you to raise one-off payments and Direct Debits with ease!
You may also wish to use a service like PayPal or Stripe. Both PayPal and Stripe are ideal for occasional use. It's quick and easy to setup but the rates may not always be favourable for higher volume transactions.
It's also worth exploring Bitcoin, Bitcoin is radically different to any of the other services in that it's not a company but rather a decentralised network that maintains a public ledger of transactions, the fees are very minimal and bitcoin solves the problem of international payments as it works as a currency in it's own right. Companies like BitPay.com make it very simple for merchants to accept Bitcoin with the minimum of fuss, you can also use an online wallet such as Blockchain.info.
What terms can you expect when opening a new account?
It is important to remember that every business is considered on its individual circumstances. As many new companies looking to acquire merchant services do not have any trading history these are deemed as a higher risk to those that have been trading for some time. Below are a number of factors that may result in less favourable terms:
- Online payments. Payments made online may be subject to a higher risk of fraud as they are more anonymous than a card payment made over the phone or in a shop.
- Turnover. The higher your current or estimated turnover the higher the risk involved in supplying merchant services. Unfortunately there are unscrupulous individuals who collect payments through a business identity and disappear without fulfilling any of the orders. Although this is rare, is does happen and the banks are left to recover the loss.
- Time to completion. Companies that have an above average amount of time from when they take the payment to when the order is fulfilled are deemed has higher risk for reasons similar to those mentioned in the above point.
When the merchant service provider has assessed the risk involved in supplying your company with a merchant account they will issue a set of terms under which the services are supplied. For many new companies this means having an extended deferred settlement period, most established companies receive funds from their merchant account within 3 days from when the card payments were processed, for new companies that are deemed a high risk this may be extended to 30 days. Also the individual transaction costs may be higher for none-established businesses.
If you are reading this and thinking that the merchant service provider will consider you a high risk then don't worry. All new businesses are considered as a high risk and the terms that are issued when you open your account are not cast in stone and you will be able to renegotiate these terms with your provider when you build up a trading history. Also many merchant service providers allow you to deposit a security amount that they retain for a certain period of time to enable them to provide more favourable terms. You can even earn interest on this amount while it is in their possession.
What are Chargebacks?
Chargebacks occur when an individual has purchased a product or service from your business and later raises a dispute with their bank relating to the fulfilment of the order, this may be because the customer has not received what they have paid for or what they have received does not match the description that was available at the point of sale. Chargebacks can also occur when a fraudster uses your business to purchase goods with a stolen credit card.
How are Chargebacks processed?
Here is a brief series of events that occur before a chargeback is processed in the event of a customer grievance:
- The customer takes up his or her dispute with the business that they made the original purchase with in order to recover part or all of a funds they have paid to the company.
- If the issuing bank is satisfied that the customer has carried out all reasonable steps to attempt to recover the funds amicably then they may raise a request for further information (RFI) with the companies acquiring bank.
The acquiring bank then advises the company that they have received an RFI giving details of the transaction and the nature of the claim being made.
- The company must defend its case by providing supporting documentation in defence of the company's actions.
Ultimately the banks will make a decision based on the information provided from both sides and either initiate or cancel the chargeback. If the chargeback is initiated the company's acquiring bank will take the money from the company's merchant account reserves and send it back to the card issuer who will in turn credit the customers card.
- The process would be similar in the event that the dispute relates to a fraudulent transaction, the difference being that it is usually a cut and dry case and the company will not be in a position to defend the claim.
If the company fail to satisfy the customers request then the customer may then take up the dispute with their card issuing bank, at this point the bank will not take the dispute further unless the customer has tried to resolve the situation amicably with the company (i.e. completed step 1).
Protecting yourself against credit card fraud.
Credit card fraud is one of the largest risk factors in taking credit and debit card payments and costs UK businesses nearly half a billion pounds each year. Merchant service providers are always looking to implement new measures to reduce the risk of fraud but unfortunately due to the anonymity of modern communications it is difficult to keep ahead of the increasingly sophisticated methods used by fraudsters.
Here is an overview that will help you determine some of the key characteristics of fraudulent transactions:
- Inconsistent Delivery Address. If you are delivering high value items you should only deliver the goods to the address where the payment card is registered. Most merchant service providers will have tools to flag transactions that have been made with inaccurate billing addresses.
- Inconsistent Card Verification Code. Credit and debit cards have a small code on the signature strip that can be used as additional security when making payments. The merchant service provider can flag a transaction where the CV code does not resolve with the card. Many fraudsters never gain physical access to the card, they simply buy the numbers for a given card on the black market, it is less likely that they will have access to the CV code along with the card number and expiry date so you should always use the CV number as an extra check.
- A lack of concern when spending money. Many fraudsters have no regard for the money they are spending. After all they never worked hard to earn the money in the first place so why should they be bothered. The simple message here is be suspicious of individuals who do not hold reservations or pay much attention when parting with money. Big businesses invest millions in parting consumers with their money it is rarely ever easy and if it is then it's probably not the kind of money you want to be taking.
- Quick delivery.Beware of individuals who push for a quick delivery or fulfillment of an order. We all like to get what we have paid for in the least amount of time as possible but a pushy customer in this respect may indicate that they are trying to take delivery of the goods before you can realise that their payment is fraudulent.
- High risk countries. There are certain countries that are considered a higher risk in terms of fraud. Some of these high risk countries include developing nations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Israel and Egypt. It is always advisable to be more vigilant when dealing with international orders.
As more and more businesses are trading online I have also included some additional guidance on how you can minimise the risk of online credit card fraud.
- Bin Check. The first 6 digits of a card number is called the Bank Identification Number (BIN), this number indicates the country where the card is registered and the issuing bank. If your merchant does not provide this information you can use the following online tool to check the origin of the card http://www.testtown.net/cardinfo/.
- Free Email Accounts. Many people these days use free email accounts as they provide an easy way to access your email on the move. These types of accounts like Hotmail and Yahoo are not difficult to setup and can easily be created using bogus information. It is advisable to be more cautious when dealing with such accounts .
- Telephone number. Many payment systems do not make the telephone number mandatory. If the customer has not provided a telephone number then they probably don't want you to contact them in this way, this is not unusual but it should be considered inline with the other details provided. If the customer has left a telephone number you may like to give them a call and speak to them in person.
- Postcode Lookup. If you are providing a service that does not involve sending out any deliverables then you could check a customer's postcode to ensure that it is valid and resolves to the address they have provided. MultiMap.com is a great tool for checking addresses.
- IP address. Where possible record the customers IP address, you can then use this against an online tool such as this http://www.geobytes.com/IpLocator.htm to check the country from which they are making the transaction. Don't rely too heavily on this as many sophisticated fraudsters use proxy IP addresses that cannot be traced.
You should always consider each transaction based on the information you have at your disposal. Occasionally customers will omit to provide certain information or may accidentally mistype their postcode or telephone number this is normal and does not necessarily indicate suspicious activity. If however a number of flags are raised then do not be afraid to contact the customer to verify their identity. If you are dealing with a genuine customer they are likely to appreciate your commitment. Ask the customer to provide you with a fax or photocopy of their passport or credit card. If you have any serious doubts then always resort to an alternative method of payment such as a bank transfer or cheque.
You may find the following links useful in answering any further questions you may have about opening a merchant account.
Financial Fraud Action UK - FFA UK is the UK banking industry's body that works with police, retailers and organisations including Crimestoppers to fight plastic card fraud.
Merchant Account Review - A guide to taking card payments through your business from Expert Market
Barclaycard Merchant Services - Barclays merchant services division
Streamline - Popular Merchant Service provider part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group of companies.
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