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How safe are 'contactless' payment cards?

Updated on May 4, 2013

Contactless cards, are they worth the risk ?.

We are talking about the new breed of contact-less debit/credit cards that allow you you 'swipe & go' in much the same way you might swipe a security card to access a building. Many financial institutions across Europe have sanctioned these for use.

The cards themselves look no different to a normal card with the exception that they contain an RFID chip (a bit like the security tags applied to some goods sold in shops). These use a multiwire loop arial which, when placed within range of a reader, use the signal from the reader to power-up & send data. In this case, the data contained on the card (in both the mag-strip, chip & RFID is your name/address, D.o.B., card number, account sort code, account number & valid from/to dates. The only data the card doesn't contain is the SVC (the 3-digit number on the reverse of the card) & your PIN. Incredibly, this data is unencryptedwhich means anyone with a reader can access your data without you even realizing.

How easy are these readers to get hold of ?. What if I said that 80% of Android smartphones and tablets sold in the last 2 years had the ability to read/write these RFIDs ?. You might think I'm joking but I'm not. Several companies including Samsung have been fitting their phones with NFC (Near Field Communications) chips as a means of not only allowing 'touch & share' & very local data sharing, but also as a means of wirelessly charging the phone ( the charger base acts as a very short-range transmitter & it's signal is picked-up by the loop arial, turned into power and then passed to the charging circuit via the NFC chip).

With the availability of free apps designed to use the NFC to actively scan and record the data from any RFID-equiped device that passes within 10 feet, the ease at which an ID thief can rapidly build up a database of card details is frightening. What is more alarming is that there a number of high-profile retailers whose websites don't need the SVC number or your PIN in order to process a payment.

In the UK, Barclays spent a huge amount on an ad campaign to launch their contact-less payment service & even FirstBus have invested in contact-less card reader technology to allow passengers to pay for their fares using debit & credit cards. With all the investment in technology by big companies, should we all rush to embrace this new payment system ?.

Can we, as users, reduce the risk of data (& ID theft)?.

Yes, there are 2 options open-

  1. Contact your card issuer & ask for a card without contactless payment built in. Most of the good ones will oblige without fuss.
  2. If your card issuer refuses to replace your card, then, according to info on 'Linuxcentre', it is possible to deactivate the RFID chip by cutting through the loop arial. By trial & error, the author of the piece discovered that the loop arial passes with the top 7mm of the card. So by cutting a 7mm slot down from the top edge (the edge nearest the mag-strip) about halfway along the card, you will disable the contactless payment system whilst leaving the rest of the card fully functional. It is entirely down to you if you want to stick the slit back together with non-conductive adhesive. The loop will still remain broken.

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