Payments in a pandemic – the impact of COVID-19 (and what the future may bring)

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Article by Eddie Black
Consultant Engineer and New Product Introduction Manager at Ingenico


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on all areas of society. The virulent nature of the disease has led to many changes in our daily lives and the payments industry has not been immune to the need for transformation.

A payments evolution

Perhaps the most significant change in the early stages of the crisis was the ‘rise of Contactless’. The hand washing revolution made us acutely aware of what we were touching, including how we were paying for those all-important essentials. As a result, people are now handling cash less frequently, touching payment terminals less often. Merchants, equally concerned about hygiene in-store are also driving this transformation.

Supermarkets and pharmacies no longer want our cash and are encouraging shoppers to pay by Contactless card instead. Some countries have taken steps to disinfect their bank notes, or even burning them; increasing the use of Contactless technologies further.

As an industry, the payments community was quick to respond on a global scale, bringing forward an increase to the Contactless limit for payments; providing a safer, cleaner way to pay for higher value goods and services by reducing the frequency of PIN entry.

Here in the UK, the new limit is £45, and it’s made a big difference.

During the height of the national lockdowns, Mastercard announced that 78 per cent of all transactions across Europe are now Contactless, and the latest European research into consumer habits and viewpoints indicate this is a change that will stand the test of time.

Ingenico has been a key contributor to this change; having rapidly enabled its terminal estate to accept the increased limit. In the UK, over half a million payment terminals were updated in the SME market alone within a few weeks of the change.

Safe ways to sanitise your payment terminal

Whilst Contactless provides a safe, convenient way to pay and avoids the physical contact with the payment terminal, transactions above the £45 limit in the UK still require customer verification. And although Contactless payment with a mobile phone wallet supports higher values, this doesn’t suit everybody, and PIN entry on the terminal is still a mandatory requirement.

This creates a potential hazard, with often many hundreds of card holders interacting with a single payment terminal over the course of a business day. The requirement to be able to easily sanitise terminals, without degrading the device, has come into sharp focus.

The obvious way to achieve this is with a cleaning fluid. Everyone is familiar with the use of alcohol-based hand sanitiser, so why not use this on the payment terminal? This will sanitise the terminal for sure, but constant usage will create other challenges.

Today’s payment terminals were not designed for intensive sanitisation. It can have cosmetic impacts on plastic casings and, in some extreme cases, cause the plastic to disintegrate. In order to meet this new use case. Ingenico has performed careful studies to identify the best way to sanitise, and avoid damage.

Whilst the choice of cleaning fluid is important, so is the method of application. It’s fine to spray fluid onto the handles of supermarket trolleys, but such an action on a payment terminal can cause the fluid to find its way into the terminal causing damage to the electronics. A gentle wipe is what is required.

Other ways merchants are cleaning payment terminals – but beware…

Some merchants have introduced their own solution – a payment terminal cover. This can either be disposed of after several payment transactions or be of a more robust nature so that the cover can be sanitised.

This may seem a reasonable solution to the problem. However, the regulatory body, the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) who mandate the security requirements for payment terminals, will not endorse such covers due to fraud concerns. Covers may be used to conceal keypad overlays to capture PIN data or to conceal skimming devices. Their response can be found here.

Another method for sanitisation is to use a UV-C light. This is proven to kill the virus, though initial tests have shown that over time, the UV-C light can cause the plastic to degrade. There are also further concerns around the use of UV light in relation to its effectiveness in eliminating the virus unless under strict controls.

It also has the potential to impact the user’s health if not controlled carefully. This topic is discussed further in a webinar from TÜV SÜD’s Dr Marvin Boell here. Alongside the potential for damage, and the health concerns, the UV-C light solution is also expensive to implement.

So, where do we go in the future?

  • Contactless payments are here to stay. Research conducted by YouGov for the ATM network, Link, shows that 58% of people in the UK are using cash a lot less and 54% are avoiding it altogether by using alternative payment methods.
  • Changes to the design of payment terminals are already being considered too. Hot topics include an investigation into the use of medical grade plastic material as this will support intensive sanitisation.
  • Studies into the use of anti-bacterial plastics are also under way. These are materials that inhibit the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi, but the resilience of these materials to viruses needs to be understood first. The Ingenico Lane/7000 is already available with anti-bacterial plastic.
  • In addition, the design of products may change, particularly to the keypad – the focal point of card holder interaction. Product design will be reviewed to understand if the design can be improved to reduce the opportunity for the virus to attach to the keypad and facilitate the sanitisation.
  • There is a move in some markets to a solution based upon a payment terminal (for the merchant) and a separate PIN Pad (for the card holder) to facilitate social distancing.
  • Regardless of the virus, but accelerated because of it, the future will see the introduction of alternative methods of payment and card holder verification.
  • Will alternative payments such as the use of QR codes gain acceptance? Is there a bigger role for the mobile phone to play in card holder verification? PCI SSC have published standards relating to PIN entry on mobile phones or direct Contactless payment on mobile phones.

All of this adds up to new questions around hygiene, resilience and maintenance that terminal manufactures like Ingenico, and national regulators need to answer. Getting merchants back on their feet must be the priority, and the payments industry needs to bring solutions to bear to continue to make payments safer, and seamless.

#COVID-19 #Payment #Terminals #Innovation

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