Contactless cards: How do they work and is your money safe?

Just how do contactless cards works and is our money safe?

We spent £2.32 billion on contactless cards in 2014 so we should probably understand the tech to stay safe.

The popularity of contactless cards has surged over the last year, with a record £2.32 billion spent using this payment method in the UK in 2014.

How do contactless cards work?

Visa Contactless card token being used
                              Some card issuers have also given customers contactless tags to add to phones (Manu Fernandez/AP/PA)

They can be used to pay for items by touching a reader at the till, rather than having to enter a pin number. The current contactless limit for a single transaction is £20 and it will increase to £30 from September 1.

The cards contain a chip that holds your account information and an antenna that picks up power from a signal sent out by the card reader.

Card companies will limit the number of contactless transactions that can be made in a row before you are asked to enter your pin though, and the limit could be about £50 or five transactions.

How popular are contactless cards?

Person paying with a contactless card
                                                                           She better remember to touch out too (Philip Toscano/PA)

Their popularity has increased rapidly in recent months as a widening array of places now accept them and consumers have found them an increasingly convenient way to pay.

There are now 58 million contactless cards in circulation. More contactless transactions took place during the first nine months of 2014 than the previous six years combined, according to trade body the UK Cards Association.

What can I do to protect my card?

Two 50 euro notes in a padlock
                                                                       This probably isn’t a safe place to keep money (Niall Carson/PA)

There are metal cases which claim to protect cards, although Which? said it has not yet tested their effectiveness. But Which? said that in its tests, wrapping a card in tin foil prevented it from being read, even when it was rubbed against a reader. The consumer group believes therefore that while it is not essential, lining your wallet with foil can help to protect your card details.

To prevent the risk of accidentally paying with the wrong contactless card, it is also wise to take the card you want to use out of your wallet to touch it on the reader, rather than waving the wallet over the reader.

How likely is it that a fraudster will copy my card details?

Person paying with a contactless card
                                                           This is a fake card, so copying the details won’t help (Philip Toscano/PA)

Which? said that although the risks are low, it is possible, although someone would probably have to be very close to you to “lift” your card details without you knowing. In the consumer group’s tests, the card had to be touched against a mobile reading device, although it said that other readers might be more powerful.

Figures from the UK Cards Association show that in 2014, the total annual contactless fraud loss was £153,000 compared with total spending of £2.32 billion. This represents 0.7p in every £100 spent on contactless. Total card fraud losses (all forms, not just contactless) stood at 7.5p in every £100 spent on all debit and credit cards in 2014.

Will I get my money back if someone does use my card details fraudulently?

A padlock on a gate
                                                    Your money is safe says the UK Cards Association (Petros Giannakouris/AP/PA)

The UK Cards Association emphasises that consumers are fully protected against any fraud losses on contactless cards and will “never be left out of pocket”.

Card providers should reimburse victims of contactless fraud, as long as they have acted reasonably to keep their card safe.