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VOL. 44 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 2, 2020

Try touchless payment to avoid dirty money, COVID-19 risk

By Gregory Karp

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If you’re looking for a self-improvement task in this pandemic era, try teaching yourself to use contactless payments with your phone or “tap-to-pay” credit and debit cards.

Any germaphobe will tell you that the surfaces of bills and coins have always been gross. And handing your credit card to a cashier who has the sniffles and a hacking cough? Even in pre-pandemic times, also gross.

Americans have been relatively slow to adopt touch-free payments even though they’re more convenient and secure than swiping credit and debit cards.

Since January, no-touch payments have increased at 69% of retailers surveyed by the research firm Forrester on behalf of the National Retail Federation. And two-thirds of retailers surveyed now accept some form of no-touch payment.

Learning to use contactless payments might be awkward at first, and some of your favorite retailers might not be equipped to accept them. The point is to give it a shot the next time you’re not in a rush in a checkout line that can handle contactless payments.

Tap to pay

True, the word “tap” doesn’t exactly scream contactless. But “tap to pay” credit and debit cards really only need to be within a couple of inches of the payment terminal. The cards have little antennas inside.

How to tell if your payment card has contactless capability? It will have a logo that looks like a sideways Wi-Fi symbol of radiating waves. Retail payment terminals that accept contactless payments have the same symbol.

These cards don’t require a smartphone to complete a contactless payment, and you don’t have to use a PIN. Nine of the top 10 U.S. credit card issuers are actively distributing new contactless cards to customers, Visa has said.

Smartphone payments

With this option, you call up your wallet app and hold your phone near the terminal, and your phone will ask for authentication. That’s the normal unlocking procedure with your phone, whether punching in a code or using thumbprint or face identification. Many smartwatches work, too, as long as they have the required technology, called NFC (near-field communication). The most popular services are Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay.

Is it secure?

As you beam your next payment to a retailer’s checkout terminal, you might wonder, “Will I have my credit card number stolen?”

The nontechnical answer is that it’s safer than the old method of swiping your card. That’s because the card or phone sends encrypted payment information to the terminal — it essentially masks your real credit card number.

Gregory Karp is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: gkarp@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @spendingsmart.

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