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'Contactless' cards vulnerable to electronic pickpockets

May 30, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
More and more debit and credit cards contain tiny computer chips that make it easy to pay with the wave of your card. But those cards make it easy for thieves to steal your money too.

When it comes to stealing money, thieves will almost always find a way to get it, even if technology gets in the way. Here's how to protect your credit and debit cards so you don't become a victim.

It may be convenient to pay with a wave of your debit or credit card, but Consumer Reports Senior Editor Andrea Rock says so-called "contactless cards" make your personal data vulnerable.

"Thieves can collect the information while it's being transmitted by using a card reader that costs less than a hundred dollars," said Rock.

To demonstrate, Rock tucks a card reader in her purse and security consultant Henry Bar-Levav puts a contactless card in his pocket. She bumps into him and in that moment she can steal his credit card information.

"From that little bump in the parking lot it's possible to download your account number, expiration date and security data to a computer," said Rock. "From there it's simple to use blank cards to make counterfeits."

Recursion Ventures, the security consultants who demonstrated the card's weakness, were able to use the bogus card to successfully charge a transaction.

You may have contactless cards in your wallet and not even know it. Chase cards say "Blink" and MasterCards are called "PayPass."

"The technology is active whether you use the card for contactless payments or not," said Rock. "And there's not much you can do except ask your bank if they'll replace the card with a regular one."

Another option: a protective sleeve, like one Rock made out of duct tape lined with aluminum foil.

"Recursion's tests showed that it worked better than many of the ones you can buy," said Rock. "But even that didn't block the signal completely."

So while waving your card is easy, making sure it's secure is not.

If you become a victim typically you wouldn't be liable for any charges made by the thief who stole and used your account data. But remember, if it is a debit card, they can drain your account in minutes and it will take you some time to get your money back from the bank.

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