Industry Terms: Downgrade Fee

October 15, 2012

This is the latest installment in The Official Merchant Services Blog’s Knowledge Base effort. We want to make the payment processing industry’s terms and buzzwords clear. We want to remove any and all confusion merchants might have about how the industry works. Host Merchant Services promises: we deliver personal service and clarity. So we’re going to take some time to explain how everything works. This ongoing series is where we define industry related terms and slowly build up a knowledge base and as we get more and more of these completed, we’ll collect them in our resource archive for quick and easy access.

Today we will define the term Downgrade Fee.  This fee is a surcharge added to the Discount Rate of the total processing fees for a transaction. There is no standard on what a Downgrade Fee must be called so the terminology can vary by processor. A Downgrade Fee may be assessed for a variety of reasons including a customer’s card type, issuing bank, how the transaction is entered and other merchant actions.

Under a Tiered Pricing model more than 50% of a merchant’s credit card transactions experience Downgrade Fees, on average. Downgrade Fees generally cost merchants an additional 1%-3% per transaction on top of the Qualified processing rate. Host Merchant Services saves merchants money on these fees by using the Interchange Plus pricing system.  For an in depth analyses of Tiered Vs. Interchange Plus Pricing, see here and here.

The main cause of these Downgrade fees, are card-not-present transactions.  These transactions occur frequently with MO/TO or E-Commerce processing, however the downgrade itself can be avoided.  As a security measure, processors who charge Tiered pricing tend to raise rates on transactions where risk may be involved.  In these cases since the merchant has not physically handled the card, there is a downgrade fee applied.  This can be avoided however, by requiring additional information from the customer.  When a merchant requests a cardholder’s CVV code, the 3-digit code on the back of a Visa or MasterCard, another layer of security is applied thus avoiding the potential downgrade, and saving the merchant money on fees. Additional information helpful in avoiding Downgrade Fees, are cardholders’ billing ZIP code and numerical street address, this is known as an Address Verification System, or AVS.

Downgrade Fees are often the fees that merchants report as “hidden fees” because they are rarely disclosed before the merchant account activation. Host Merchant Services advises merchants to request as much information as possible when keying in sales, as to avoid downgrades, as well as charge backs. This added knowledge, and our Interchange Plus system of pricing creates a culture of savings for all of our merchants.

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