Can a machine steal your money? According to British shoppers, they can, and did, at several Marks & Spencer department stores.
The stores were recently equipped with new "wave-to-pay" terminals that can accept both touchless card payment as well as payments made by swiping cards through a slot in the machine.
Many debit and credit cards can be used without actually touching a terminal. These contactless cards contain an NFC (Near Field Communicaiton) chip that can be read in very close proximity to the machine — but they may not be foolproof.
Last week, reports from London told of shoppers who had been charged twice for the same purchase — once from cards they had inserted into a payment machine, and a second time from cards still in their purses. Clearly, the payment system is not supposed to double-dip.
In principle, contactless systems are programmed to detect cards within about two inches from the top of the terminal — and to accept only one payment per transaction.
Marks & Spencer said it was surprised by the reports and refunded the money; payment provider Visa Europe said the complaints were "extremely unusual." An investigation is underway.
While this is the first time claims of faulty devices have been made, contactless payment cards have had known security risks since they rolled out in 2005.
With only a $100 reader in her purse, Consumer Reports editor Andrea Rock, demonstrated how "accidentally" bumping into her partner in a parking lot allowed her to capture his NFC-enabled credit card information from a card in his jacket pocket. [See also: 2-Minute Expert: What Are Mobile Payments? ]
While the risks of carrying contactless payment cards are minimal, it's wise to safeguard your accounts. Here's how:
- Identify your contactless payment cards. If your card has a symbol on it that looks like four semicircles (not unlike the icon for RSS readers), it has an NFC chip in it. Consider asking your bank to replace them with traditional cards.
- Consider using a protective wallet that blocks card readers. (Rock made her own using tinfoil and duct tape.)
- When you use a card at a NFC-equipped payment terminal, take the time to remove it from your wallet and then put your wallet back in your pocket or purse before swiping your card. This way you'll minimize the chance of the terminal detecting signals from other cards.
- Always check your receipt, including the partial payment card number, to make sure it matches with the card you used.
- Finally, regularly check your bank accounts. A faulty payment machine is one of the least likely ways you could be ripped off, but plain old identity theft is common, and your bank statement could provide the tip-off.
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