If you have a smartphone purchased in the last few years, it almost certainly came with NFC capability.

The technology allows users to effortlessly transfer money, share files and knock out a growing list of other tasks. But that data transfer can create vulnerabilities. BBB has tips on what NFCs can do and how to stay safe when using them. But first….

What Exactly Is NFC?

NFC stands for Near Field CommunicationIt’s a data transfer that only works within a very short physical range. We’re talking inches, not feet. Some forms of this technology require you to tap one device against another or wave them back and forth in close proximity.

NFCs are based on RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, a process that uses radio frequencies to identify objects. Near Field Communication is high-frequency RFID that makes it easy for one device to communicate with another.

What Does It Do?

Near Field Communication uses a series of protocols to make transactions easier and faster. People use them to make contactless payments, share digital content, connect one device with another, and a list of other tasks that gets longer every day. 

How Do They Work?

An NFC relies on proximity, so when users get close to a device they want to interact with, typically they receive a prompt asking for permission. They follow on-screen prompts from there. It’s convenient because it doesn’t involve downloading an app or signing up to get started.

When you activate some NFC technologies, they enable Bluetooth and use that to make your data transfer. That means you don’t have to fumble around with your phone to find Bluetooth settings, choose the device you want to pair, enter the key or code, and so on.

Other NFC technologies enable Wi-Fi between two devices so they can “talk” back and forth. The big benefit here is that Wi-Fi direct has much greater bandwidth, so big files transfer faster.

What Smartphones Come With NFC?

New handheld devices become available all the time, so the compatible device list is constantly changing. NFCWorld maintains an exhaustive list of phones and tablets both available now and coming soon. But for most people, their mobile is already capable. Android devices running 4.0 or later come with the ability to use NFCs for financial transactions. Phones with Android 4.4 or later allow users to exchange files and messages via NFC. iPhone was a little later to jump on the bandwagon. However, if you have iPhone 6 or later, it supports Near Field Communications.

Are They Just for Financial Transactions? 

The possibilities and uses for near-field communications are, for the most part, just limited by the imagination. Here are just a few things people can do with them already:

  • Open car doors
  • Share contact information
  • Share any link you program it to have
  • Make wireless payment using smartphones and tablets
  • Create an automatic Wi-Fi/Bluetooth pairing between phone and vehicle for hands-free driving
  • Pay for and receive access to public parking and transportation
  • Send photos or video between digital cameras, cell phones and media players
  • Allow shoppers to receive and redeem coupons
  • Prevent hard sleepers from turning off their alarm until they’re actually awake
  • Enable healthcare workers to monitor medications and track physical symptoms
  • Create interactive toys and games

Simplified connectivity is great and being able to exchange funds without having to dig into our wallets was becoming popular even before social distancing was a thing. Now it’s even more helpful because it means we don’t have to touch cash or transaction terminals. But every time a technology is widely adopted, hackers start focusing on how they can exploit it for unfair gain.

Near Field Communications and Cybersecurity

Convenience is great, but if you’re like most people, you might recognize when data is just floating around, there’s a security risk, especially when technology is linked to your credit card or bank account. So how risky is NFC technology? 

The good thing is if you’re bumping your phone with a friend’s to share music or checking out with a trusted vendor, the security risk is fairly low because of the proximity requirement. Devices must be four centimeters or less apart, and during the split seconds the data transfer actually takes to occur, it would be hard for a hacker to get in there without you noticing. 

It takes more than just a bump for a transaction to occur; both sending and receiving devices must be ready to accept the data transfer. It would be difficult for a hacker to brush against you in a crowd and wirelessly withdraw from your bank account. You’re not likely to collide with a stranger in the grocery store and accidentally send their phone all your personal information. But that doesn’t mean NFCs are without risk.

One problem happens when people lose their phones or have their devices stolen. If a thief can unlock your device, or if you don’t secure it with a strong password, there’s nothing to stop him or her from waving it over a payment terminal or ATM to get your money. 

NFC tags are also vulnerable to tampering. For example, users have tapped smart tags thinking they were about to access movie trailers or visit a vendor website, but instead had their personal information sent to a bad actor. 

7 NFC Security Tips

Keep your data safe by taking these precautions:

  • Password protect your mobile device
  • Enable two-factor authentication for all monetary transactions
  • Read data usage policies before you download apps to make sure they protect your privacy
  • Update installed apps regularly
  • Turn your NFC off when not in use (With Android devices this is under settings. With iPhone NFC is disabled within individual apps)
  • Update your device as required so you receive security patches and firmware updates
  • Only use Near Field Communications with vendors and individuals you know are trustworthy

Source: BBB.org & BBB Serving Central East Texas

Have you heard about or experienced an NFC-related scheme or fraud? You can help spread awareness and protect others when you report it to BBB Scam Tracker. To find trustworthy businesses, go to bbb.org.