Lately I have become obsessed with contactless credit cards. This started about a year ago, when I was in London and tried to pay for a sandwich with my American credit card. I thought I was in the clear since it was a card with an embedded chip. This is a technology that is still so new in the States that many card terminals still can’t read these cards, despite regulations that have required merchants use them for several years. At what I would call the deli in London, my card didn’t work: the only way to pay was either pounds – the money version — or using a contactless card.
Contactless is big in the UK, as I found out – and probably in many places all over the world too. We are often the last to adopt new banking tech in America, despite our prowess in other areas. You can pay for your train ticket with contactless, and in many other vending machines, as an example. It made me feel like I was coming from a third-world country with my shiny new chip-enabled credit card.
But all wasn’t lost: I quickly figured out that I could use my phone and Apple Pay, and I could eat my sandwich. All you need to do is load your normal credit card into your Apple Wallet and you are good to go. Are the two the same? Not completely, but generally at a credit card terminal in the States you’ll see these two icons side by side, indicating that both Apple Pay and contactless cards are accepted:
Why the need for contactless? It is all about security: since your card never leaves your grubby hands, no one can surreptitiously steal its information. Yes, a hacker could monitor the radio frequencies around the card reading equipment, but that is a lot harder and more expensive problem to solve than a waiter carrying a portable card reader in their pocket to collect data from a bunch of cards.
Back in London, just in case, I made a trip to the local ATM, and got some pounds. But it bugged me that I didn’t have an actual contactless card. That got me started into looking for a bank that offered them. I quickly found myself down the rabbit hole of poorly designed banking websites and quickly got frustrated, so I dropped the project.
Then three things happened last week that renewed my interest in contactless cards. First, I began reading more about the latest card skimming exploits and particularly from criminals targeting gas stations. These skimmers are small devices that are placed literally over the card reader at the pump and collect your account information from the magnetic strip on the back of your card. The criminal then collects this data and sells it to others. Brian Krebs writes frequently about skimmers, if you want to read more.
I thought it might be useful to find local gas stations that use Apple Pay to better protect myself. Unfortunately, this became Another Project at searching poorly designed banking websites. For example, here are two that can help you locate contactless merchants: Square has this page for Apple Pay-enabled merchants and Mastercard has this page for merchants who accept contactless cards.
If you start looking around when you get gas, you will see few pumps that support contactless, with one estimate that there are less than one percent of them in the US that are currently accepting contactless payments.
I was once again motivated to go contactless especially when I heard that Apple Card was now available. This is a contactless credit card offered through Apple and Goldman Sachs. It doesn’t even have its card number printed on it. Instead, it is designed to operate with your iPhone’s Apple Wallet. Apple has done its usual great job when it comes to the experience of applying for and getting a credit line. This took me about three minutes. Maybe less, I wasn’t really timing it. What makes it so fast is that Apple already has most of the information it needs for your application, which is for another story. And while the Apple Card has its issues (you can’t do joint cards with your spouse, for example) it is an interesting concept.
While I was getting my Apple Card I saw that a new type of bank branch opened in my neighborhood from Commerce Bank. The branch is the first one that has a fancy new type of ATM that also includes a video conferencing link with a banker. I made an appointment to go visit the branch and talk to a banker about what they offered. One of the reasons I also wanted to talk to them is because Commerce offers contactless cards on all of its credit and debit cards. Needless to say, it took longer than three minutes to apply for one in person.
So now I have lots of contactless options. I am certainly ahead of the curve here at home: it is easy to find stores that don’t accept them more than those that do. But at least the next time I am in London, I will be able to pay for my sandwich.