How can payment systems combat the coronavirus pandemic?

Welcome to the first post in our series on ‘Contactless payments in the age of coronavirus’. In this post, David Orme, SVP of Sales and Marketing at IDEX Biometrics, discusses how can payment systems combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Our payment systems face a double threat – from smart card fraud and viral contamination. New types of card will be safer in both ways.

Coronavirus can be transmitted through the air or by physical contact with an infected surface. Surfaces get infected by an earlier touch from another person, but that person does not even need to be visibly suffering from Covid-19: the virus only needs to be slowly transferred from place to place until finally it gains an opportunity to multiply, and potentially kill.

According to a recently published study, the surface is very important: some preserve the virus for up to three days while others, like copper, reduce its longevity to just three hours. Unfortunately, materials favorable to the virus include those we usually trust for their hygienic qualities – stainless steel, silicone and plastic. All are widely used in hospitals, nursing homes, and food preparation industries. We encounter plastic surfaces almost every day on keypads; computers, telephones, ATMs, and checkout counters. Many of these are in public places and used constantly – the perfect storm.

Our smart card is also plastic

Almost as frequently, we encounter plastic debit cards, credit cards, door and security alarm swipe cards, discount cards and so on. These too change hands often and help the virus to persist. If we can minimize contact with shared plastic surfaces, especially those as heavily used as keypads, we can make a significant contribution toward stopping the spread of this virus.

We can’t simply abandon plastic. No card, no lunch. Reverting to cash could actually be worse: paper too makes a great home for the virus, and in many countries, like the UK, paper currency has already quietly become plastic. Nothing passes through more dirty hands than cash.

Entering a PIN involves contact with a keypad, but most alternatives are unsafe. Handing it to the cashier is neither sanitary nor secure – card numbers are easily stolen, skimmed, shimmed or cloned. There are more ways of defrauding online payments than we have space to describe, and contactless payments are great – but not if your card has been stolen.

If not PINS and passwords – how?

Tap-and-go contactless payment cards are ideal, apart from the lack of security. If your card is lost or stolen, anyone can use it. You don’t even have to lose it: it is relatively easy for a concealed scanner to hack your card as you walk past. The only reason it isn’t common is because low spending caps are imposed on contactless payments. If banks raise your spending limit, lost and stolen fraud  levels in particular will rise.

The new biometric smart cards promise to solve both problems. They can be used contactless but only by their registered owner, allowing us to make secure payments without ever touching a pad or letting go of our card.