Contactless Payments Gone Wild!

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When I was issued my undergraduate ID card—longer ago than I care to admit—I was amazed by the idea that I could use it to unlock gates and doors electronically, with a simple tap to a sensor. Even more amazing to me was the fact that the ID worked through my pocket. I’d never seen anything like it. It was often easier to take the ID out to use it, but I loved hip-bumping the sensors when my hands were full. I’m not the best at multitasking, but this I could handle. Since I graduated from college, I’ve been the happy recipient of several other electronic IDs, for work, for grad school, for a rented workspace, and so on. And these cards didn’t just work through pockets, they worked through wallets. I admit it, tapping my closed wallet to a sensor to pass through a door or turnstile still makes me a little giddy.

Using this kind of electronic keycard is the nearest I’ve come to making a contactless payment, though I’m fascinated by NFC technology. Clearly I’m not the only one interested; contactless payments are becoming increasingly common, especially in the United Kingdom. Adoption of this new technology has not been without its problems, however. Recently, Marks and Spencer—a huge retail chain in the UK—has been experiencing the occasional hiccup with its recently introduced system, with customers being charged via their contactless credit or debit cards while trying to pay by another method—typically with a different card. In many of these instances, the customers weren’t even aware that they had cards capable of contactless payment, which must have made the situation supremely confusing.

Lack of awareness aside, the heart of the problem seems to be that the contactless payment terminals will occasionally register a card that is far enough away that it shouldn’t be able to read it. The terminals at Marks and Spencer are only supposed to be able to process payments from cards that come within about two inches of the reader, and only if it’s from the top. Despite this safeguard, some people have reported their cards being charged while a foot away from the terminal, and to its side or below it. For example, when they placed their wallet or purse on the counter beside the terminal while extracting a different card. This article details one woman’s experience.

It appears that contactless payments are overriding other payment options, and there have been cases of double charging when the salesperson doesn’t notice the contactless payment was processed. Hopefully this problem will be alleviated as both customers and retailers become more accustomed to contactless payments. As far as I can tell, these mistakes are fairly rare. That doesn’t mean they’re not serious, and indeed and Marks and Spencer appears to be doing their best to figure out—and solve—the problem. In the article mentioned above, a store manager deals with the malfunction admirably, asking the woman to try to repeat the error so he could see what happened, and then refunding her two unintentional payments.

Have other retailers had similar issues? I’ve heard rumors of Pret a Manger—a high-end sandwich shop also based in the UK—having similar problems, but was not able to substantiate them. This leads me to believe that if problems have occurred, they’ve been pretty rare.

The British Post Office is just starting to accept contactless payments for transactions up to twenty pounds. They started rolling out the contactless payment terminals last week and are scheduled to complete the process this fall. This is big; if anywhere can benefit from a way to speed up low-value transactions, it’s the post office—at least if the British postal system is anything like its American counterpart. It will be interesting to see if post office customers experience problems similar to those that have been experienced at Marks and Spencer, and if so how these problems will be handled.

With all advances in technology, there are hiccups. There are also occasional disasters. Let’s hope that these contactless payment problems are the former: simple hiccups—not one of those freaky bouts of hiccups that lasts years but the regular kind that goes away quickly on its own or with a good scare.

As a business owner who may be considering implementing contactless payments—or already has implemented them—it’s important to be aware that this kind of hiccup may surface, so you can deal with it elegantly if it does. My advice? If your system double-charges a customer, don’t force them drink a glass of sugar-water upside down, just apologize and issue a refund.


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