Find out what to do if your credit card machine goes offline, why this happens, and how you can avoid it in the future.
Everything was going smoothly: the customer came in, asked questions, found what they were looking for, and decided to purchase. The only thing left to do was for them to pay.
If only they could.
As you try repeatedly swiping their credit card, the same message flashes across the terminal screen: “System error”. The credit card payment system is offline, and you don’t know what to do.
Why does this happen? What can you do? And how might you be able to avoid it? Let’s take a look.
Why credit card machines go offline
Sooner or later, every business who accepts credit cards will likely face this difficult and frustrating situation. Understanding why credit card machines go offline can help you to know what to do. We’ll look at the three most common reasons credit card machines go down.
Internet service provider problems
Whether the connection is over a landline, WiFi, or mobile network, credit cards are all processed over the internet. Which means if there’s no internet, there’s no credit card processing.
Depending on your internet service provider, this can be a localized problem, regional issue, or even a country-wide outage. Either way, it means you won’t be able to accept any credit card payments until it gets sorted.
Tip: If you’re not sure whether you’re having problems with your internet service provider, find out if there’s a network issue in your area. Websites like Downdetector allow you to search for issues with internet providers. Simply enter the name of your provider and click the search button to see if there’s any reported issues.
Card reader malfunction
Another reason for credit card machines going down is the machine itself. Sometimes there is a glitch in the software that prevents the transaction from going through. Other times, the card reader won’t allow any transactions to take place until a software update takes place. For an in-depth understanding of when this happens, take a look at our complete guide to understanding credit card error codes.
Payment processing system failure
A third possibility for when credit card machines are offline is because the system that processes the cards is down. This happened early 2021, when businesses across the country who used a major payment processor were affected. Everyone from small car washes to McDonalds had to wait to accept credit card payments until it got fixed.
Sometimes the solution to credit card machines going down simply means resetting or updating a point of sale. Other times, though, it can mean waiting days for a system-wide network crash to come back online. If this is the case, what can you do to accept credit card payments while you wait?
What are the options for accepting credit card payments offline
As a business owner, the last thing you want to tell a customer who’s ready to make a purchase is ‘come back later’. If you say this to them, you might as well tell them not to never come back, since there’s a good chance that they won’t come back anyways.
Instead of dismissing customers, learn what you can do to accept the credit card payment while you wait for the system to come back online.
Depending on how old you are, you may remember these clunky, plastic and metal credit card imprinting machines. These devices were standard-issue pieces of equipment for countless businesses before the 1990s.
They work by first placing the customer’s credit card into the bed of the machine. Then, a carbon paper form is laid on top of the card. The sliding bar is then slid back and forth over the top, creating an impression on the carbon paper of the credit card numbers, name, and expiration date.
From there, you can handwrite any extra details you’ll need. These include any information not embossed on the front, such as the CVV number. You’ll also need to write on the carbon paper the total amount charged on the card, along with both yours and the customer’s signature. You then keep the original copy and give the customer the yellow paper copy.
Some may think they can simply write down the customer’s credit card information and enter it later, once the system comes back online. This, however, is not permitted by PCI compliance standards. (To learn what PCI DSS means, have a look at our PCI compliance article).
The only way to manually write down credit card information and enter it later is to use POS software that is permitted by PCI DSS to do so. This software allows you to store a customer’s card details in their offline-capable system, along with printing the customer a consent form to sign. Having this form on hand allows you authorization to keep the card details until you no longer need them or they request you delete them.
This, though, can be risky. You run the risk of the customer canceling the card before this transaction can take place once the system is back online. They also may challenge the transaction or withdraw their consent for you to keep their card’s details, giving them your merchandise or service without any payment from them.
How to avoid issues with credit cards systems going offline
You can’t control network failures. You can’t prevent processor systems from going down. However, you can use equipment that is made for these situations. Let’s see how these work.
As mentioned in the “manual entry” section above, there are some systems that are PCI compliant that let you store information offline. You can find POS systems like this from Square that are specially designed to securely store credit card details until an connection can be established and the payment can be processed.
Terminals that work on a weak connection
There is also equipment designed especially for areas with intermittent or slow internet connections. If you are frequently running into a ‘system offline’ situation with your card machine, it may be that your connection is just too slow for your equipment, which demands a faster connection than what you have available.
If your connection speed is limited, consider equipment that is made for slower speeds. These are often ‘budget’ card machines that only require EDGE or 3G speeds. If you often find yourself in this situation, it may be worth it to give up some of the features of the higher-end machines and go with a simpler, more reliable machine that can function on a slow connection.
While you never want to simply tell the customer to ‘come back later’, you can invite them to use another form of payment.
In fact, many businesses use a cash discount program. This incentivizes customers to use cash or check in place of credit cards, thus lowering processing fees for the company while offering the customer an alternative way to pay.
When credit card machines go offline, businesses need to understand what the problem is. If it’s not a quick solution, they can use card imprinters to manually capture the credit card information. Other options also exist, such as offline terminals or alternative forms of payment.
Have other questions about payment processing? Check out the PPS blog, designed to inform and empower business owners just like you.