Editorial Policy

Use your cellphone to protect your card

Tina Orem

September 4, 2014

If you are of a certain age, you remember when televisions didn't have remote controls and there was no such thing as cable. There were just three, maybe four, channels (if you exclude the public access channel), and if anyone wanted to change the station, he or she had to get up off the couch, walk to the TV and turn a knob.

Invented in the 1950s but not ubiquitous until the 1980s, remote controls solved the soap opera drama that occurred in American households every time a station went to commercial or someone wanted to flip back and forth between shows that happened to be airing at the same time. Remotes gave viewers more reasons to sit on the couch, but they also gave viewers true control over an important device.

That's the idea behind new technology that AT&T and a few other companies are rolling out:  remote controls for credit cards. Here's how it works.

Let's say you're going to hit the mall this weekend. Chances are you'll bring a few things along: your credit card(s), your keys and your phone.Click to email me

Because your phone is with you, credit card companies can theoretically use it to verify that you're actually at the mall. That could be creepy, but it could also save you money. After all, if the credit card company sees a charge coming through in Florida, but you're in Texas, something fraudulent is probably happening.

But if they can confirm that you're actually at the store — especially if you're traveling internationally — your phone becomes a remote control to make your credit cards work.

AT&T calls its plan Location Information Services. It ran a pilot program this summer. The service's application programming interface allows credit card issuers to access AT&T network data in order to locate a customer's device, even in over 100 other countries.

Syniverse Technologies, which is a huge global transaction processor, has a similar idea. Its Mobile Intelligence Portal allows card issuers to compare transaction locations with cardholders' mobile locations, across all major U.S. carrier networks.

Syniverse, which is headquartered in Tampa, Florida, has a partnership with MasterCard.

A third company, San Jose-based Ondot Systems, has a Card Control product that lets smartphone users switch their credit cards “on” and “off” with an app. Users can switch cards on or off for short durations, allow or deny international transactions and even control when and where a dependent teenager uses a card. Users can also set spending thresholds, allow or deny eCommerce or mail-order purchases, and even disable the card for entire categories of merchants (gas stations, airlines, etc.)

The idea of controlling credit cards from afar is appealing, but there is one big catch: Customers must give their financial institutions explicit permission to track their locations.

That is, of course, if you ever get off the couch.