Is My Credit Card Info Safe on My Phone?

A person holding their smartphone over a payment reader held out by a shop employee.

Image source: Getty Images

As if losing your phone wasn’t already scary enough.

Key points

  • 2021 data shows that 85% of Americans have a smartphone, and mobile wallet technology means more and more people use it to pay for purchases.
  • Mobile wallets generate a unique encrypted credit card number to be used by a payment processor, keeping your actual number private.
  • Be mindful of keeping your phone (and therefore your financial data) safe.

The vast majority of Americans have a cellphone. Pew Research data from 2021 shows that 97% of Americans do, and 85% of those are smartphones. It’s kind of astonishing how quickly mobile phone technology advanced and we all got on board; like many people, I would be lost without my smartphone.

This phone obsession has also led many people to use mobile wallets to make paying for purchases easier. Gone are the days when you had to carry around an actual wallet with your credit cards and cash in it to pay for things. Now you can tap your phone on the payment reader at the checkout and be on your way. It’s very easy to put your credit card info on your phone in your Apple Pay, Google Pay, or other mobile wallet. But just how do these apps work?

How do mobile wallets work?

If you’re one of the 85% of Americans with a smartphone, chances are it has a mobile wallet app built right in. These are fairly straightforward to set up — you’ll be prompted to enter card numbers, expiration dates, CVV numbers, and your own information. You may have to verify the card information via two-factor authentication. This is for your protection and to ensure that someone who stole your credit card information can’t just add it to their own mobile wallet without some additional legwork (such as also getting access to your email or cellphone number).

A really cool feature of mobile wallets is that your actual credit card number won’t be transmitted when you use it to pay. Instead, your mobile wallet will generate a unique encrypted number instead, saving you from the possibility that a skimmer embedded in a credit card reader is capturing your credit card number. The cashier won’t know your actual credit card number either. This is one of the ways that your credit card info is kept safe on your phone. But will you have to worry about other safety issues?

Are mobile wallets safe?

Nothing in life is entirely without risk, but the features mentioned above make mobile wallets extremely secure. A thief would have to not only steal your phone, but also be able to access the data in it, and if you’ve set your phone up with facial recognition, fingerprint access, or a good old-fashioned passcode, your data is secure. (And you can remotely erase that data if your phone goes missing.)

And remember, you don’t even have to take out a credit card to use it to pay for a purchase, lessening the chances your physical card will be stolen (or accidentally left at the store or restaurant where you’re using it). You might even go so far as to stop carrying around your credit cards altogether, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this.

Mobile pay technology hasn’t been universally adopted, and there are still many places that aren’t capable of processing a payment like this, so you’ll need that physical card. However, it’s a good idea to keep credit cards that aren’t your “daily drivers,” so to speak, in a safe place at home. For example, I don’t use my travel credit card often, so I don’t keep it in my wallet; whereas, I use my grocery rewards credit card at least once a week, so in my wallet it stays.

What can you do to keep your data safe?

It’s even more vital to keep your smartphone safe if your credit card info is on it, and as such, it’s worth reviewing the steps for what to do if you lose your phone, namely:

  • Attempt to find it before you panic.
  • Remotely erase your phone’s data.
  • Contact your mobile carrier and the police.
  • Change your account log-ins and monitor your financial accounts.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provided some other tips for safe mobile wallet usage:

  • Don’t leave your smartphone visible and unattended, like in your parked car.
  • Watch your surroundings and be discreet when you use your phone.
  • Don’t use mobile payment services over unsecured wifi.
  • Always choose unique passwords.
  • Closely monitor the financial accounts linked to your phone.

These are all great tips for general smartphone and financial security, and they’re worth following. We’re living in the future, and while technology has made our lives easier, it’s important not to get complacent. Keep your phone secure and private to keep your credit card info safe as well.

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