Small businesses that accept credit card payments will be among those most affected by a new federal consumer protection law scheduled to go into effect next year.

Beginning in January, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT) will limit what information can be printed on any electronic credit or debit card receipt. FACT forbids card expiration dates from appearing on receipts and mandates that no more than the last five digits of a credit or debit card number be listed on any electronic receipt.

As credit card fraud and identity theft have grown, many small businesses have already begun to limit the information printed on credit card receipts. But concerns about cost have caused some small business owners to opt against purchasing new credit card machines or altering existing ones.

The new law will require business owners to upgrade all old equipment within two years. Starting Jan. 1, 2005, all new machines sold must print receipts according to FACT standards. But equipment currently in use does not need to be brought into compliance until December 2006.

To enforce the new law, the Federal Trade Commission is empowered to issue fines and prosecute businesses for noncompliance under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which also holds businesses liable for consumer losses resulting from failure to comply with FACT, opening the door to civil lawsuits filed by defrauded consumers.

Small business owners looking to purchase new equipment should ensure that any new machines print receipts in accordance with FACT. The new laws will not apply to businesses that record credit or debit card transactions only with a handwritten receipt or card imprint.