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Stolen iPhones and Digital Payments (II)

Categories : Cash generates security, Cash is a contingency and fall-back solution, Cash is easy to use, Costs of cash versus costs of electronic payment instruments
March 4, 2024
Tags : Crime, Digital payments, Mobile Payments, Security, UK
Digital payments become a nightmare after losing your mobile phone, as I learned from two robberies in London last year.
Manuel A. Bautista-González

Ph.D. in U.S. History, Columbia University in the City of New York

Post-Doctoral Researcher in Global Correspondent Banking, 1870-2000 – Mexico and South America, University of Oxford

This post is also available in: Spanish

Like other global cities, mobile phone thefts have increased in London. Bands of criminals often target tourists and locals enjoying a night out to steal their phones. Most of the time, they resell the devices as soon as they get them due to their high resale value in the black market, limiting the potential loss to their victims. Increasingly, though, robbers maximize their earnings by making transactions with the phone’s digital wallet and contactless abilities or transferring funds from their victim’s banking apps to third-party accounts.

In this piece, I continue describing some downsides and risks of mobile phone thefts everyone faces by relying on mobile, digital, and contactless payments.

Credit Cards

U.S. Apple Card

I did not need to freeze or cancel my Apple Card as Apple deleted it from the stolen phones. Thus, the thieves could not make transactions with it. However, Apple and Goldman Sachs assume their users will always have an iPhone to freeze the card or pay their balances. Apple advises customers to call the U.S. customer service line to freeze or cancel the card and flag any fraudulent transactions. By default, the card will charge users the entire balance at the end of the month. Customers are expected to get a new phone as soon as possible or call the issuer to pay a different amount.

The above was fine in October, as I got a new iPhone immediately. After the robbery in December, I had to wait until I got to Mexico. I had given an iPhone 12 to my friend and colleague Gustavo Del Ángel (CIDE and a member of CashEssentials’ academic network) in April, seeing that I did not need it. Gustavo gave it to my parents when he went back to Mexico. Once I got to Mexico on December 18, I used that phone and signed on to iCloud, and I could use my Apple Wallet to pay the card balance.

American Express Mexico

Out of precaution, I removed my American Express Aeromexico Rewards credit card from my Apple wallet when I moved to the United Kingdom. This meant I did not have to worry about it in October. However, I carried the physical card in my wallet in December. As with the HSBC UK’s debit card, the thieves made several transactions under the 100-pound contactless limit. American Express refunded them and issued a new card. It arrived two days after I landed in Mexico City.

QR Payments and Mobility Cards

The theft in October took place mere steps away from my hotel so that I could walk there safely. Did the Uber arrive to pick me up in December? I vaguely remember that it did, and he left hurriedly, not wanting to get involved in an active crime scene. Other people leaving the cocktail bar also hurried away. When the robber left me, I stopped a cab and explained the situation. I told him I could transfer funds to pay for my ride when I returned to Oxford. “Hop on; this ride is on me. I want you to be safe; I will take you to your hotel,” he said graciously. His empathy saved me from having to walk after the episode.

After both robberies, I had to figure out how to return to Oxford without the Trainline app’s digital tickets on my Apple Wallet. Luckily, I could retrieve the digital tickets using my tablet. I had no trouble using the Tube in October, as I had a physical Oyster card with funds. In December, however, I could not pay for my fare. At King’s Cross police station, the woman who filed my crime report wrote a note requesting all transportation providers to let me travel for free, as I had been a crime victim. I did not think it would work, but when I showed it to the London underground employees and the Oxford bus driver, they let me in, no questions asked, and said they were sorry for what I had gone through.

On my way to Heathrow on December 17, I booked a ticket for The Airline bus using my tablet. The  Gloucester Square bus station’s WiFi did not work. Alejandro gave me access to his phone’s data, but another problem arose. The QR reader on the bus was too small to read the QR on my iPad. Luckily, our friend Tony Lorenzo took a picture of the QR with his mobile phone, and that worked, preventing me from paying twice for the same bus trip to the airport.

Lessons Learned

After having my phone robbed in October, I removed all unnecessary cards from my new device. I downloaded my banking apps to my iPad and ensured I could also access them on my computer. I also decided always to carry cash in my wallet. My risk planning did not account for having my phone and my purse robbed at the same time, mere days before an international flight. I will keep two phones when I return to the United Kingdom in late February. The one I carry with me will only have Monzo for daily payments; the other will have my banking apps and never leave my house.

I will also carry extra cash in my shoe, something I did in Mexico City before I moved to New York City in 2011. Then and now, cash is my ultimate safeguard against petty crime. I might be an outlier regarding how many financial entities I deal with, but the issue remains. The multiplication of payment options reduces interoperability and ease of use. Digital payments are convenient until they are not. Then, they become a nightmare.


This post is also available in: Spanish