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How a contactless payment took me by surprise

Q: What’s quick, easy and stays inside your wallet? A: A ‘contactless’ card. But what happens when it’s too quick and easy and you end up using this payment without even choosing to? That’s what happened to me…

A few days ago, I bought something by accident.

I don’t mean that I walked into a shop for a pair of tights and walked out with a handbag (although it’s happened before!). This was something I actively paid for using my credit card but without realising I’d done so.

How contactless payments work

It was all thanks to a newfangled technology that enables ‘contactless payment’ just by tapping your card on a reader. It’s built into many newly-issued credit cards – like my new Barclaycard – and even some mobile phones. And I managed to use it without any intention of doing so in a branch of Boots.

To be fair, I had every intention of buying the item in question (some £5 make up) and had taken it up to the till. The shop assistant had scanned the item and I was ready to pay – I’d even taken out my credit card and popped it in the card machine ready to enter my Pin.

That’s where things got confusing. I can’t quite remember if I got round to entering my Pin or not, but the next thing I knew it was telling me the card attempt had been cancelled. Some electronic error, I assumed, and was all set to try again when the assistant thanked me and handed me my receipt.

When I mumbled something about payment cancellations, she reassured me that all was well – I’d paid by contactless payment. Despite her reassuring tone, I felt a little perturbed.

Contactless payment protections

When I asked a chap at Barclaycard’s press office about my experience, he said that the contactless payment pad is generally entirely separate from the Chip and Pin machine, but perhaps Boots used a different system.

He reassured me that you can’t pay for items costing more than £15 without entering your Pin, and that we have the same fraud protection for contactless payments as ‘normal’ credit card payments.

He did acknowledge, though, that there was a risk of some payments being made without the customer realising, just by holding an enabled card too close to a reader (the contactless payment zone is between 4-10cm from the reader).

The future of payments?

I’m probably making a mountain out of a molehill here. After all, I wanted the item, and I wanted to pay with my Barclaycard – both of which I achieved. But I was thrown by the fact that I’d managed to pay in this way without even realising it was an option (I didn’t spot any signs about contactless payment anywhere near the till).

I’ve got nothing against contactless payment per se – so if I’d known about, and chosen to pay by, Boots’ contactless payment option I’d have had no problem.

Perhaps, as contactless payment devices and the places that accept them become more widespread, most of us will be tapping our cards (or mobiles) on readers without a care in the world. But until then, I for one would welcome a few notices up in stores so I know not to wave my wallet around too much.


Thanks for the warning Ceri. One more thing to worry about. 🙂

If problems are reported then security measures will be applied, but it could take some time. For years it was possible to use a credit or debit card at Tesco fuel pumps without the need for a PIN. Thank goodness common sense prevailed.

It’s incredible that we blunder our way forward with technology when it would not be too difficult to think about the likely problems.


I knew from TV advertising that Barclaycard had the Contactless Payment system but its only in the last few months that I discovered that the Bank of America also have the system and I have been using it.
Its so quick and easy to use and it allows purchases to be made swiftly where you would normally pay with Cash.It save the change problem for the Shops and Shoppers. It has largely lead to me not having to be concerned about carrying money.Its a technological advance that has made my life a lot easier.


Sounds incredibly annoying and confusing. It really is too easy to spend money with this new tech, but maybe it will be a good thing in the end (when we know what we’re doing and shops make it obvious, as Ceri argues.)

Little bit of news to add to the fire, MasterCard has launched a range of ‘contactless watches’ which use the same technology. Very James bond, but don’t look at the time when you’re out the counter… you may up paying for something you didn’t expect too 😉

Sophie Gilbert says:
29 November 2011

Like Wavechange says, another thing to worry about. Credit card users should have the option of being issued credit cards without the contactless payment technology built in if that’s what they want. If I were told I had no choice by my credit card issuers I would cancel my credit cards and moving to issuers who do give me a choice.


I’d completely forgotten my experience with this, but reading Ceri’s post suddenly reminded me.

It was about three years ago and in a branch of Itsu, which sells sushi to hordes of London office workers. I took my food up to the till and the rather distracted-looking staff member said “put your card here”, pointing to a piece of plastic.

Not really concentrating, I thought this was a new design of chip and PIN machine and was about to say I couldn’t see the slot to put the card in when he handed me my receipt and clearly expected me to get going.

It was incredibly quick – under 5 seconds.

I looked at him dumbly and he took pity on me enough to explain they were using a contactless payment system and I had, in fact, already paid.

Took me back to student days, when my campus had a chip-based cash on card system called Mondex, that I think NatWest ran.

Anyway, it all felt a bit disconcerting at first – but very quick indeed.

Jerry E says:
2 December 2011

If a Chip and PIN card is stolen, the thief can’t use it without knowing your PIN. If a contactless card is stolen there’s nothing to stop him or her. Do you trust your bank to refund you? I don’t.


i have several credit cards.

as far as a know, none of the providers has told me anything about them being contactless.

surely you should be told about such a thing.

Reece N says:
6 January 2012

I don’t see the need for “contactless” payment as I don’t see any realistic scenario where you are not able to touch the card reader with your card in order to make a purchase.

Surely the better solution is to make it “touch” payment where your card only has to physically touch the reader in order for the transaction to be processed thus avoiding any false positives preventing any mistakes of waving your card next the the reader.

It’s the same as contactless but without the unnecessary heightened possibility of a mistake.