Saturday, December 13, 2003

Credit cards tune in to radio waves

Technology wipes out swiping

By Brian Bergstein
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - The familiar process of buying something with a credit card - handing the plastic to the clerk or swiping it yourself, then waiting for approval and signing the receipt - could be headed the way of the mechanical brass cash register.

For more than a year, MasterCard and American Express have been testing "contactless" versions of their credit cards. The cards need only be held near a special reader for a sale to go through - though the consumer can still get a receipt.

The card companies say the system is much faster and safer because the card never leaves a customer's hand.

"In some instances, it's faster than cash," Betsy Foran-Owens, a MasterCard vice president, said. "You're eliminating the fumble factor."

MasterCard has been testing its PayPass system mainly in Orlando, Fla., and promises a nationwide rollout in 2004, beginning primarily at quick-service restaurants and other places where people tend to be in a hurry.

American Express has mainly done pilot runs of its Express Pay service in the Phoenix area, although the company expanded it to New York ferry terminals on the Hudson River this week.

The new credit cards work much like the Speedpass system that ExxonMobil has accepted for quick payments at its gasoline stations since 1997. But the key-chain fobs carried by Speedpass' 6 million users are good only at ExxonMobil stations and a handful of other retail outlets.

In contrast, credit cards that incorporate the technology could be used anywhere regular plastic is accepted, as long as stores install the new readers. The card companies have worked out technical standards that would let one reader handle multiple brands of contactless cards.

Still, it will take time. Forrester Research senior analyst Penny Gillespie predicts that it will take a few years for contactless cards to go mainstream.

Visa USA has developed contactless capabilities but is holding off on a launch because "consumers seem to be content using the cards they have in their wallet," Visa spokeswoman Camille Lepre said.

The new cards have chips imbued with radio-frequency identification, or RFID, the technology that Wal-Mart, the military and other institutions hope to begin using soon to track inventory.

While old-fashioned credit cards store account information on a magnetic stripe that is swiped, the contactless cards keep their data on chips inside the plastic.

American Express' ExpressPay uses a key-chain fob, like the ones used by ExxonMobil Speedpass and similar to the tags in supermarket discount programs.

"I like that it's on your key chain and it's fast to use," said Kristie Beenau, 36, of Peoria, Ariz., who has used ExpressPay for about six months. "I charge everything anyways. Now I wave it rather than get my card out. It's more convenient."

MasterCard's PayPass comes on a regular-sized card that also has a magnetic stripe for swiping if need be. MasterCard also has done tests in Dallas with Nokia Corp. in which the RFID chip is embedded in the plastic casing of a cell phone.

The contactless cards have no battery or power. When they near a reader, they are jolted to life by the reader's electromagnetic waves. A small radio antenna in the cards instantly transmits account information to the reader.

The transaction then proceeds through the credit card network as if the card were swiped.

In theory, the transaction could be intercepted without a consumer's knowledge by a technologically savvy thief intent on cloning a card. That's because RFID transmissions themselves are not encrypted.

However, the thief would have to get quite close to his target or have a very sensitive reader.

Also, the account number on the contactless cards is useful only in the RFID system - it's not the same as a user's credit card number. A crook would thus not be able to use the card number to go on a fraudulent Internet shopping spree, for example.

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