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rob carrick

One user's take on Interac Flash: Love the technology for speeding up the traditional debit transaction, but having issues when using it in stores.

Politely, Interac's Caroline Hubberstey suggests I might not be using Flash right. She noted that words such as tap, wave and flash have been used to describe how to make a "contact-less" transaction that doesn't require you to key in your PIN.

"The actual function is, briefly hold your card to the reader," said Ms. Hubberstey, head of external affairs for the Interac Association. Which, she adds, is "not a great marketing term."

Introduced in 2011 by a limited number of banks and credit unions, Interac Flash sells itself by letting you quickly pay for purchases of up to $100 at grocery and drugstores, gas stations, fast-food restaurants and more. By getting people through checkout lines faster, it benefits both customers and store owners.

If time is money, then Interac Flash is money saved. So why is every retailer in the country not wired into this service, and why are many people not using it? We should all be getting used to this technology because it's a precursor to using our smartphones to pay for things (you can already do this in some cases).

There is some technique required for using Flash. You have to hold your card within four centimetres of the electronic reader to work, and a quick tap may not do the job.

I suspect my own issue is a Flash security feature that isn't as well explained as it might be. In addition to the $100 limit on transactions at any one retailer, there's also a $200 limit over time. Once you reach that level, you have to do a debit transaction the old way to reset your ability to use Flash.

The point is to get you to key in your PIN every so often and establish that it's you using your card. But in having a Flash transaction rejected without seeing an explanation about the $200 limit, people may get the idea that Flash is hit-or-miss technology.

I started a discussion about Interac Flash on my Facebook personal finance page recently and was unsurprised to see many people questioning the security of this technology. Canadians are very cautious about privacy and security, understandably so. But Ms. Hubberstey insists Flash is safe.

First, there is no information changing hands in a Flash transaction that would be of use to criminals, she said. Even if there was, she argues that the $200 limit is of minimal interest to crooks. "Criminals today want to do large-scale fraud."

Most importantly, she said there's a zero-liability policy in place for Flash, as there is for other unauthorized Interac debit transactions. It means that if someone steals a debit card and runs up $200 in purchases, cardholders are not responsible. "They report their card lost or stolen to their financial institution and they are reimbursed for those transactions," Ms. Hubberstey said.

Flash is part of a contact-less banking trend that includes MasterCard's PayPass and Visa payWave, both of which are options for credit-card transactions of up to $100. Banks and retailers could certainly do a better job of explaining these options and showing which are available in each particular store's checkout line. Interac Flash is the most appealing of these choices because the money comes right out of your account.

As useful as Flash is, only some financial institutions offer it. The Interac website lists Bank of Nova Scotia, Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and four credit unions. "Other Canadian financial institutions are also working to provide their customers with Interac Flash soon," the website says. Snap to it, banks. This is useful technology.

Even the banks that offer Flash seem less than enthused. My old debit card was around long enough that its shiny plastic coating was in an advanced state of decay, but I still had to contact my bank to order a new card that was Flash-enabled. A card is usable for Flash if it has a symbol that looks like tiny white radio waves.

As for the user experience with Flash, Interac's Ms. Hubberstey said her 81-year-old mother is an enthusiast who appreciates that she doesn't have to put on her glasses to use debit. "She actually gets annoyed if a merchant doesn't have Interac Flash," Ms. Hubberstey said in an e-mail.


The Interac Flash File

What is it?

An enhancement of Interac debit that allows you to pay for items without swiping or inserting your debit card and keying in your PIN.

Which banks offer it?

Interac lists Bank of Nova Scotia, Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Sunova, Conexus, Cambrian and Affinity credit unions as the first to offer Flash.

Which merchants accept it?

Dozens, including 7-Eleven, Best Buy, Boston Pizza, Canadian Tire, Cineplex, Esso, Harvey's/Swiss Chalet, IKEA, Loblaws and Ontario's LCBO stores.

What are the spending limits?

You can't go higher than $100 for any single purchase: at a cumulative $200 over time, you must do a transaction where you key in your PIN in order to reset Flash.

How much does it cost?

Depending on the bank, it may be free or considered part of your monthly allotment of Interac debit transactions.

What if someone steals my debit card?

Interac says a zero liability policy protects users from unauthorized use of their card.

Rob Carrick