Life used to move slowly. We raked our leaves, cooked our supper, dialed our telephones and shopped along Main Street. Today, we blow our leaves, microwave our dinner, text our friends and click to add to our shopping cart. Convenience trumps deliberation. And we still have time to scan the Facebook newsfeed. But consumers need to realize they’re trading security for efficiency and creating a world in which we risk treading thoughtlessly into the ruthlessly cast net of both far-flung cybercriminals and electronic pickpockets brushing past us at the mall. Credit cards, in particular, pose a unique and complex threat to Americans of all stripes. Whether you’re a thrifty shopper making every dollar count for your family or a globe-trotting mogul swiping your American Express Platinum card at swank steak houses in Tokyo and boutique hotels in San Francisco, we are equally threatened by the proliferation of fraud. I’m urging consumers to pressure retailers, banks and credit card issuers to collaborate on three main points to improve our collective security. The remainder of this call to action for consumers will help explain why these changes must be addressed urgently.
First, we desperately need a new point-of-sale system that increases security while not burdening small businesses with unduly high implementation costs. There’s talk of adopting a chip-and-pin system akin to what Europeans have been using for nearly a decade. Second, credit card companies, and banks, should be more proactive in educating the public on the dangers of RFID-enabled credit cards. RFID — short for radio frequency identification — is the use of electromagnetic fields to transfer data and is growing more ubiquitous. But I’m willing to bet most readers are unaware there’s a similar chip implanted in the credit card you’re carrying now. Why? So our lives can become even more convenient, tapping our cards along a space-age point-of-sale device rather than, alas, taking the five extra seconds to run the magnetic strip through a reader. But devious criminals have invented tools to swipe your card’s data emitted by the RFID antennae, simply by walking by you in a busy mall or transit station. My firm, Identity Stronghold, has dubbed it “electronic pickpocketing,” and we are urging people to educate themselves so they can protect their finances and identities from the nefariously savvy villains in our midst. Third, if the Target breach and dozens of lesser reported episodes like it have taught us anything, it’s that retailers must invest in stronger back-end security to protect consumers long after they’ve left the store or powered off their laptop. I take solace in a recent move by First American Bank following a massive wave of fraudulent debit card charges allegedly linked to Chicago-area taxis. After allegedly trying to collaborate with MasterCard and Bank of America, the Chicago-area bank publicly admonished two of the nation’s largest and most powerful companies. We are at a pivotal point in our financial history. The economy is clearly improving, manufacturing is expanding and small businesses are hiring. However, we risk undermining our slow but steady climb out of the financial abyss if we don’t fundamentally address the raft of weaknesses in our payment system. I hope you’ll join me in demanding solutions from policy makers and executives who, up to now, have not been up to the challenge threatening us all. Walt Augustinowicz, who lives in Sarasota, is a radio frequency identification expert, consumer advocate and founder of Identity Stronghold.