Marks & Spencer customers complained that they unwittingly paid twice when their contactless cards were activated. How can you prevent charging errors?
Some shoppers have complained to the BBC’s Moneybox that they had been charged twice for transactions in Marks & Spencer – once when their contactless card came near a reader without their knowledge, and again when the shop assistant got them to make a chip-and-pin transaction. It’s the classic “new technology” shiver story that probably has you urgently checking your credit card statement for peculiar little transactions (under £20, with a little wireless logo beside it).
What seems to have happened is that shoppers have had ‘contactless’ cards that use Near Field Communication (NFC) technology and brought them too close to the card reader in the store, which completed the transaction. The shop assistant, waiting for the shopper to input a pin using the same or a different card, ignored that transaction and set up a new one with the pin. Result: double charging.
NFC, though, is very short-range, working over distances of 5cm (2in) at most. “I’d be surprised if this is reading cards that are more than 4cm away,” says Dave Birch of Consult Hyperion, which provides consultancy into electronic transactions. “Reading something in your backpack? No. Reading a card that’s in your wallet which you put down on or by the reader while you looked for the card you wanted to pay with? Yes.” (His office tested it on Monday with a real M&S reader. Result: doesn’t work beyond about 5cm.
Even so, it’s worrying. But never fear – you can buy wallets or purses with metal mesh woven into the fabric that will prevent this happening. (“We’ve tested them – they do work,” Birch concedes.) Notable users of similar tech include Ryan Fogle, the alleged American spy who was nabbed in Russia last week. He had an “RFID shield” – basically, a metal sleeve – protecting his passport, which has an NFC-style chip in it that would have his details.
The cheaper alternative is to wrap your contactless card in aluminium foil. (And perhaps a little for your head? Seems a shame to waste the opportunity.) The even simpler alternative, I’ve found, is to have more than one contactless card in your wallet. The card reader then can’t decide which card you want read, and declines the transaction. London-based commuters can put their Oyster card in their wallet alongside a contactless card – and hold up rush-hour tube travellers as the gate’s reader get confused. A great new way to make friends. Well, acquaintances.
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