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Secure ePayments Card Processing

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      09.09.2004 17:12
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      But what a lot of hoops you need to jump through in order to reach full integration. Background: Now to start off, this is a review about the HSBC E-Payments online business service - a merchant gateway in techie terms; basically its a way of accepting credit card payments online. So this may not be of interest to all of you, unless you're thinking of forming your own business or know someone that is. But in any case, reading about my experiences of this company may be interesting, or at least amusing. Okay, now rewind back to May 2003, I was building my first commercial website for the company I was forming. Fairly basic stuff, using a domain provided by my ISP's home ADSL package, using mostly static HTML and graphics. I had some brief flirtations with server-side programming, but nothing more sophisticated than a form that processed input and fired off an email to myself and the customer. A few months down the line, it became clear to me that in order to compete with the 'big boys' in the trade, I would have to buck up my ideas and build a proper, fully-fledged E-commerce website. And an important part of that was to be able to accept credit/debit card payments via my website. Overview of accepting online payments: As always I did an ENORMOUS amount of research into what I needed, looked up merchant solutions, credit card payment systems, read peoples' experience in trying to actually get a bank to open a merchant account for them (mostly not good). And I learned quite a lot about how it all works, which can be boiled down to the following: In order to accept credit card payments online you need: Option 1: a) A website b) A MERCHANT business bank acco unt c) An acquiring bank service OR Option 2: a) A website b) A bank account (should be a business account to keep the old bill away) c) A 3rd party credit card payment bureau Now, unless you have a good trading background, years of trading history, full accounts, and preferably an offline credit card processing system already, most banks aren't going to want to go within a mile of you, let alone allow you the honour of opening a merchant bank account with them. Plus the cost of setting up a merchant bank account is astronomical, meaning that start-ups without a stack of cash on hand should stay WELL clear of option 1. With option 2, we're starting to get somewhere. Most banks will just invite you for an interview, ask a few questions, perhaps check your credit history, and then give you a business bank account. Me being me, turned up with 30 pages of business plan which to be honest I doubt my bank manager even skimmed, let alone read from cover to cover. If I was going for a loan then the plan would have been a requirement, but in any case, going into business without a plan is NOT a good idea. Unless you're Richard Branson, and incredibly lucky. Now for the real meat and potatoes of this option, the 3rd party credit card payment bureau. Basically this means you send your customers to another website, and they deal with the fraught business of taking the credit card payment on your behalf. There are a bewildering number of companies that provide this service, many you'll have undoubtedly heard of, such as Paypal, noCHEX, and so on. Paypal and noCHEX, whilst being the easiest to setup and cheapest to sign up for (free), will not paint your site in a professional light, particularly if your customer is forced to open an account with t hem, when all they want to do is to key in their credit card details. I believe both Paypal and Nochex do now offer 'express' payment services, meaning customers don't have to open an account with them immediately, but even so, when a customer reasonably 'in the know' is redirected to Paypal, they'll get a distinct feeling that you're running a 'small fry' store, which may or may not affect their decision to buy from you. Paypal has also had a lot of bad press over its freezing of accounts without warning, so if you're serious about your business I'd recommend paying a few pounds extra for a different service. Moving up the payment food-chain, bureaus such as Worldpay and PaySystems will charge a one time setup fee and monthly fees, but provide a much more holistic and professional service. After doing my research, I decided to go with the new payment processor on the block, HSBC Secure E-Payments. My reasoning was, although there hadn't been much discussion of this provider yet - the HSBC name and the fact that my business account was with HSBC too swayed me. And what a bad decision that was to be... Signing up: The signup process was lengthy, and the number of contracts I had to read and sign was enormous. I had to give full details of all my business incomings and outgoings, yearly revenue, projected revenue, everything. As a startup, it was pretty much all guesswork, but this seemed to be okay. £200 non-refundable setup payment and £20 monthly fee paid, we were in business! Except we weren't. Setting up: The documentation provided was some of the worst I've ever encountered, and as a software engineer, I was shocked at the lack of technical information available to me. Phoning up the E-Payments te am to get information at every turn is absolutely essential. Okay, so the first stumbling block I hit was trying to get the example programs working. After many hours of fiddling about with them, I discovered that HSBC requires you to connect to their servers using an https secure website. Which naturally, my ISP hosted website didn't provide as these secure certificates cost £80+. So I went looking for a new host that offered https in their standard package. I found one, for only £30 a year, total bargain. After I'd paid for that, I tried to install the example programs on the server. No joy. Why? Because the HSBC E-Payments example programs are extremely 'platform dependant' and don't support FreeBSD (the operating system the new host was running). I attempted to recompile the HSBC source code to run on FreeBSD, but due to my lack of experience in this, and the fact that HSBC were using precompiled libraries, I got absolutely nowhere. I got rather upset at this, and told both HSBC and my new host to sort it out. HSBC told me that FreeBSD is not listed as a supported platform, and my host told me that this was outside their remit. So, I move onto another host, asked them a LOT of questions, whether they support EVERYTHING I need to get this HSBC thing up and running. Which they do, they have some customers using HSBC E-payments already. Hurray, this shouldn't be difficult then... To cut this short, I ended up having to pay £69 for them to install one of HSBC's custom libraries, but then FINALLY THE EXAMPLE ; PROGRAM WORKED!! The above saga took around 3 months, and cost me a lot of my hair. Then all I had to do was to hook it up to my shopping cart... This took time also, as the HSBC software is so incredibly fussy about the input it receives, and the linking method is hardly what I would call ideal. The service: The E-Payments credit card website is basic but functional. Help is on hand for most things, although a step by step guide would have been useful for people like me who are newbies to the credit card capturing and authorisation process. You can enter credit card payments here manually - ideal for telephone/mail orders. As far as the support was concerned - the staff on the end of the phone were generally helpful, although there is so much 'not our problem' in the company that infuriated me on more than one occasion. Conclusion: I've done a computer science degree and have been working with computers for absolutely donkey's years. While I'm more clued up with offline work than online work, the fact that I had so much difficulty setting this system up means that I couldn't possibly recommend the service to others. The fact that the system supports so few operating systems, and the fact that it requires SO MUCH WORK on the part of the merchant (i.e. you) to even get working, is absolutely criminal; HSBC want to buck up their ideas. My recommendation? Go with Worldpay or another tried and tested 3rd party payment bureau. And do LOTS of research, and/or get a company to setup the system for you! Some webhosts do all-in-one e-commerce and integrated payment systems - have a search around - these deals will save you much heart-ache. Price is £200 for setup, plus £20 per month ongoing. Commissions are variable based on your business, but are competitive. Seem to be somewhere is the region of 3%. Capital letters courtesy of: http://www.chuckleweb.co.uk/fixit.php

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