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Can criminals steal money from contactless cards?

Harriet Meyer / 30 March 2016 ( 13 June 2019 )

Consumers who use contactless debit and credit cards could be at risk of a worrying new scam where thieves can steal money just by walking past them.

Using a contactless card to pay on a payment terminal
A whopping 7.4 billion contactless payments were completed in 2018

Consumers who use contactless debit and credit cards to buy goods or services could be at risk of falling victim to a worrying new scam. 

Reports suggest that criminals are buying card paypoints, and using them to withdraw money from people’s accounts by waving them close to pockets and bags on trains and other transport.

This scam was flagged in a social media post, picturing a man on a train, wandering near people with one of these portable card terminals – the same as those used in shops to authorise small transactions.

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How the scam works

The limit for a contactless transaction increased from £15 to £20 in June 2012 and again to £30 in September 2015. This has prompted criminals to consider ways to take advantage of vulnerable consumers.

How do contactless payments work?

It works by, in theory, a thief entering a price lower than £30, then tapping the device against people’s pockets where they hold their cards. The card would then be charged.

While this is rare compared to other forms of card fraud, it’s worth being aware of this scam to ensure you aren’t putting yourself at risk. 

This is particularly important given that figures show contactless payments are booming. Figures from UK Finance show that 7.4 billion contactless payments were completed in 2018.

In 2018, contactless card fraud totalled £19.5 million - this includes contactless debit and credit cards and payments made using mobile phones. However, this figure is relatively low (in 2018 contactless payments totalled £69 billion), and if cardholders are careful they should manage to escape falling victim to this type of fraud.

Beware of criminals operating in supermarket car parks.

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How you can protect yourself

• To safeguard against such a scam, make sure you keep contactless cards in your wallet. Keep this out of sight and in a bag when out.

• Avoid placing cards in your back pocket – which makes them an easy target for thieves, whether using sophisticated contactless technology or not.

• Check your bank statements regularly to spot any fraudulent transactions early.

• Contacting your bank as soon as possible should mean you get your money back.

• Some reports suggest wrapping a card in tin foil prevents it from being read, even when rubbed against a reader – this may sound a step too far, but if you’re really concerned it’ll help give you peace of mind.

• Metal cardholders and lined wallets are available from retailers and could also help prevent contactless technology fraud.

• If you are particularly concerned, you may be able to opt out of having a contactless card. Talk to your bank, as some allow this.

The hidden dangers of contactless cards

More and more of us pay for small items by tapping our contactless credit or debit card, says Paul Lewis. But there is a hidden danger. If you lose your card, the person who finds it – or stole it – can use it to pay for things even after you report it missing.

That is because contactless payments are not always checked in real time. In some stores, a cancelled card can be used months afterwards. If your card has gone missing, check your statements and ask for a refund for any payment you don’t recognise. Checking can be difficult as bank and card statements get longer and longer. But it is important to do it.

For more tips and useful information, browse our money articles.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.