Remember the old knucklebusters? I do (hence the gray). Back in the early 80's when I was waiting tables that's how we processed credit cards at the restaurant. I even remember checking "the book" - a publication with pages and pages of credit card numbers, to ensure card validity. Imagine keeping THAT publication up to date.
They live on.
I'm not kidding - just Google it and see. There are still manufacturers and resellers of manual credit card imprinters. In fact I have a few in inventory - little dusty, but if the right application comes along...
What the heck would be the purpose of a credit card imprinter in 2010? Well.... perhaps you are a merchant with low credit card processing volume, your credit card terminal malfunctions or the actual credit card magnetic strip is worn or demagnetized. Maybe you're a small mobile merchant looking to contain costs or a mobile merchant with no access to electricity, internet or phone line for real time processing. Perhaps your cell phone service provider is less than dependable (can you hear me now?) It could come in handy.
Credit card imprinters should have a custom imprinter plate permanently attached, that has the merchants name, merchant ID#, and at least a phone number. The manual imprinter requires a form or credit card slip with at least 2 copies - one for the merchant, one for the customer. It is the merchants responsibility to record the specifics of the sales transaction on the slip - description of the goods or services sold - cost of the sale/amount of the transaction and of course, a customer signature.
Credit card slips should be kept for at least six months to protect against chargebacks - also the reason for the customer signature. PCI DSS consists of keeping the slips under lock and key (the slips will have the full credit card number on them remember - not just the last 4 digits like electronic receipts. Why use an imprinter if I can just write out the whole darn thing? No proof the card was present, no protection in case of the chargeback.
Used to be a copy of these slips were submitted to the bank for funding (mailed no less!) - not very quick or efficient of course. Today, merchants using imprinters use a payment gateway or virtual terminal or even their POS credit card terminal to submit the transactions (batched out daily preferably). The transaction data from the slips are manually entered for authorization, and of course funding and the transaction is billed to the merchant at the keyed discount rate - mid-qualified, or higher.
Not only are the credit card imprinters still in circulation but there are different types such as portable (light weight, fits in the pocket) or the pump handle (precise, crisp impressions, durable, can be used with a variety of form types - etc.), all with various pricing naturally. If you are opening a merchant account - I'm hard pressed to believe that your merchant provider would charge you for a low end imprinter, seriously.
So that's the story on the manual credit card imprinter - marks the beginnings of POS equipment in the early days of credit card processing. Still available, possible applications I suppose, but losing steam daily.
Why, when you get right down to it, why not just use a Magtek card reader?