Mobile Payment Vendor Claims PCI Compliance, Then Admits That It Was Fiction

It's not common to see a PCI security vendor issue a sales pitch E-mail blast and to then follow it up with an extensive correction to its retail IT prospects. But that happened on Wednesday (June 22), and for good reason: Not only did the company claim to be PCI compliant on mobile payment (when in fact no one can be), but it even created and posted on its site—and included in the E-mail—its own PCI Council seal of approval icon (when in fact none exists).

The actions of the vendor—TF Payments, a unit of ThoughtFocus Technologies, which is marketing the product as FocusPay—highlight some of the challenges involved when planning a retail mobile-payment strategy in an environment where the rules have yet to be established. And as a result, vendors are feeling pressured to promise capability with non-existent standards—and hoping no one notices. This time, however, someone did.

(Related story: PCI Hints At Mobile Payment Way Out By August.)

To be fair, many of these incidents (and we have seen quite a few bogus vendor PCI claims) stem more from a lack of PCI understanding within these vendors than outright attempts to lie. This is compounded when PR or marketing people put together such marketing documents, ads and presentations with no meaningful oversight from the technology people who know the areas better. That said, yes, many of these lies are just that—deliberate efforts to trick retailers. But there's no need to immediately assume maliciousness when unbridled ignorance (dare we say incompetence, in the area of reckless lack of oversight in finalizing sales materials) is in such abundant supply.

As for FocusPay, here's what happened. Daniel Stiel, a contractor working for FocusPay marketing, sent out an E-mail blast to retail IT prospects on June 11. In that message, the argument was made that "FocusPay-certified software and hardware is PCI-Certified" and "now you can turn your mobile device into a portable PCI-Certified POS system and accept all major bank credit and debit cards featuring the Visa, MasterCard, Discover Card logo on the front of the card." It also prominently featured a PCI image that looked an awful lot like an official PCI Compliance seal of approval, even though none exists.

Indeed, even "PCI Certified" doesn't exist for anything. As PCI Columnist Walt Conway noted last summer: "The first indication that should make you suspicious is when a vendor talks about being PCI 'certified.' As far as I know, nothing in the world of PCI is 'certified.' Payment applications may be validated, PIN encryption devices may be approved and service providers may be assessed or compliant, but nothing is certified. Maybe the vendor in this case is certifiable, but that is a separate discussion."Unfortunately for FocusPay, that E-mail found its way into the Inbox of Richard Mader, executive director of the Association For Retail Technology Standards (ARTS) at the National Retail Federation (NRF). Mader championed NRF's and ARTS' mobile payment blueprints and other efforts and has worked on mobile payments for years. He routed the E-mail to StorefrontBacktalk, and shortly after we contacted Stiel, the vendor issued an unusual E-mail correction on Wednesday (June 22).

"I wanted to follow-up on my E-mail from a few days ago that contained some inaccuracies, which I thought important to correct. Specifically, our earlier message contained references that our mobile application is 'PCI-certified.' We also included a graphic design element in the message that could have been interpreted as an official logo, which was not the intent," Stiel wrote. "While we do wish there was such a standard, the reality is that there is no such thing as a 'PCI-certified' mobile payment app or an official mobile certification logo."

Stiel said that the original letter was "a poor interpretation of what compliance certified" means and that "the intent was not to deceive." Stiel said he thought the FocusPay mobile app might have been approved earlier but had its approval withdrawn, although he wasn't sure. A review of PCI lists of approved mobile apps did not turn up an earlier approved version, but our lists are not complete.

Stiel also speculated that "certain components of the program" may have been PCI compliant, but he didn't have the specifics.

This type of confusion is likely to get more common over the next several months. Although it's always been good advice—bordering on the blindingly obvious—that retailers need to triple-check any vendor claims, never has that been more true than with mobile payment today.