Criminals in the US are using the new Apple Pay mobile payment system to buy high-value goods – often from Apple Stores – with stolen identities and credit card details.
Banks have been caught by surprise by the level of fraud, and the Guardian understands that some are scrambling to ensure that better verification and checking systems are put in place to prevent the problem running out of control, with around two million Americans already using the system.
The crooks have not broken the secure encryption around Apple Pay’s fingerprint-activated wireless payment mechanism. Instead, they are setting up new iPhones with stolen personal information, and then calling banks to “provision” the victim’s card on the phone to use it to buy goods.
Criminals with the stolen IDs are understood to have targeted Apple Stores in particular because they both accept Apple Pay and offer high-value items, which can then be sold on for cash.
A credit or debit card can only be added to Apple Pay when its issuing bank beams over an encrypted version of the card details to store on the phone – which it should only do when certain the real owner is using it.
However, fraud using stolen IDs is understood to be far higher than expected, with total losses already running into millions, according to industry sources. That compares with an expected value of about $5bn for smartphone-based retail payments in the US this year.
Apple’s support pages for the service says: “When you add a credit or debit card to Apple Pay… Apple sends the encrypted data, along with other information about your iTunes account activity and device (such as the name of your device, its current location, or if you have a long history of transactions within iTunes) to your bank. Using this information, your bank will determine whether to approve adding your card to Apple Pay.”
US banks are using a “green path” for cards they approve straight away on such data, and a “yellow path” for cards requiring more checks. But some banks have made the task too simple by asking callers to verify their identity with the last four digits of their social security number (SSN).
Though meant to be secret, SSNs are commonly stolen in identity theft, and on average 11.5 million Americans are victims of identity fraud annually, according to US data, with the average incident costing $4,930. In 2013 total losses from ID fraud in the US totalled $24.7bn. Nearly two-thirds of cases involve credit card details.
“At this point, every issuer [bank] in Apple Pay has seen significant ongoing provisioning fraud via customer account takeover,” said Cherian Abraham, a mobile-payments specialist who is a consultant to US finance groups, on his blog.
He said organised gangs are behind the scams: “In some cases, fraudsters are calling the [bank’s] call centre themselves to ‘alert them to a trip out of town’ so that fraud rules looking for transaction anomalies (such as a customer living in California and transacting in Miami) do not trip up [as] fraudulent transactions.”
Apple Pay, introduced in October 2014 and only available on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus phones released last year, lets users pay by holding their phone near an NFC-equipped payment terminal and then confirm their identity with the iPhone’s built-in fingerprint reader.
On Wednesday, JP Morgan Chase said on an investor call that more than one million customers had added debit and credit cards to Apple’s service, while Bank of America has previously said 800,000 people had added 1.1m cards by the end of 2014 – almost certainly making it the predominant mobile payment method in the US, displacing Google Wallet, which launched in 2011. Despite being available first, Wallet has had very low transaction volumes due to the lack of NFC terminals and a more complex interface, retail experts say. Google has not provided any data on how many users it has for Google Wallet.
A spokesman for Apple reiterated that the secure mechanism for paying with card details stored on the phone had not been breached.
“Apple Pay is designed to be extremely secure and protect a user’s personal information,” the spokesman said. “During setup Apple Pay requires banks to verify each and every card and the bank then determines and approves whether a card can be added to Apple Pay. Banks are always reviewing and improving their approval process, which varies by bank.”
None of the US banks that offer Apple Pay contacted by the Guardian would discuss levels of fraud.
But it is understood that US banks are seeking more robust methods to verify peoples’ identities before adding cards to the service. Abraham warns: “Fraud scales – call centres don’t. There has to be an automated process that is invisible but secure. In hindsight the only thing Apple could have done better was to anticipate the problem, made it mandatory [to call] and helped build a better ‘yellow path’.”
Tim Sloane, vice president of payments innovation at the Massachusetts-based financial consultancy Mercator Group, said: “These are probably just some teething problems. If the banks can nail down the authentication, they should see less fraud on Apple Pay,” and added: “Battle plans always look great until you meet the enemy.”
Dave Birch, a UK-based mobile payments expert, told the Guardian: “in the UK there probably won’t be a ‘green path’” – meaning that people would have to call their bank to add any card to Apple Pay once it is introduced here.
The US lags behind much of the world in its adoption of secure retail payment systems and mobile payments. “Chip and Pin” systems, used throughout Europe for years, will only become compulsory in the US later this year. As retailers replace old magnetic stripe systems, which were vulnerable to widespread fraud, with new ones, they are also adding NFC capabilities, already used in the UK for Oyster cards and in many shops.
Abraham says: “Fraud in Apple Pay… came as a surprise to all”, adding that too much trust had been put in the on-device security: “The soft underbelly proved to be [the] provisioning of cards”.
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