Some Marks & Spencer customers have reported that the U.K. chain's contactless payment terminals have taken money from contactless cards even when those cards were still in purses or wallets, according to the BBC.
The retailer recently rolled out contactless point-of-sale terminals to 644 U.K. stores and reportedly processes more than 230,000 contactless transactions every week. But several customers told the BBC that they had the experience of inserting a chip-and-PIN card in the PINpad's slot, but being issued a receipt for a contactless card a foot or more away. The contactless system isn't supposed to work at distances of more than about two inches.
In at least one case, the customer was able to repeat the card mischarge several times, including once in front of a Marks & Spencer store manager. The additional charges were refunded.
None of this should be a complete surprise. After decades of complaints about how hard it is to get Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and infrared-based device-to-device technologies working reliably, POS and card manufacturers have finally managed to build a technology that consistently exceeds the nominal specifications, in the form of contactless/near field communication. Anywhere else, this would be a triumph. But with the specialized requirements for payments, it's a problem.
The fact that the problem is occasional suggests that it only happens with certain cards interacting with certain terminals—they just happen to work too well together. It's still a high-profile problem, though. The easiest solution may be to shield the PINpads on all sides except the top—in fact, best would be to have only a clearly labeled target space for tapping the contactless card. (Currently, many contactless PINpads seem to have a just-tap-anywhere design.)
That gets ever farther away from the elegant tap-and-go solution that contactless was supposed to be. But the last thing contactless—and Visa Europe, which is promoting it heavily in the U.K.—needs right now is an urban legend that every time a customer walks past a POS, a transaction will be rung up.
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