The magnetic stripes on the backs of credit and debit cards are problematic. The root of the problem is that they contain absolutely nothing in the way of security. The information they contain is completely unprotected and vulnerable to a type of attack known as “skimming,” where someone with a bit of technical savvy can simply walk up close to you, and make a copy of the contents of your magnetic stripe. Once they have it, it’s a simple matter to clone your credit or debit card and go shopping at your expense.
An intermediate step was taken over the last couple of years, with the introduction of smart cards that build in some security features and help better protect the magnetic stripes. This was a good first step, but the reality is that the number of skimming-based attacks is on the rise. The new security chips have not proved sufficient to the task.
Fortunately, there are better solutions available. Those solutions have, in fact, already been implemented in other countries, leaving the US in the position of being a bit of a laggard on this front, though not for much longer. Later this year, several major US banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and the Bank of America will be rolling out new ATM’s later this year that will allow “contactless transactions.”
The way these new ATM’s will work is that you’ll interact with the machines by way of an app on your smartphone. No card required, and no vulnerable magnetic stripe to contend with. This move will definitely increase security, and should dramatically reduce the risks of skimming-based attacks, but creates a new and different problem.
With more and more of us coming to rely on our smart devices for essential services, the integrity of those devices becomes more important than never. Given that smartphone theft is the fastest growing type of crime in the country, this will be the next area of concern. The unfortunate reality is that this problem has no simple solution, but providers are working towards providing ways to lock and erase smart devices as well as secure them through new means such as fingerprint and biometric scanning. For now it is important to make sure that you have enabled security on your devices and for goodness sakes, lock your phone!