Are tap-and-go credit cards worth it?

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Tap-and-go credit cards were built for speed.

Like their name suggests, they make purchases with a tap — instead of the oh-so-sluggish swipe by the cashier — saving precious seconds at the register. The added speed promises to make fast food faster, check-out lines shorter, movie tickets a breeze.

And nobody’s touching your card but you.

Yet, several years after the industry launched the technology, tap-and-go credit cards haven’t really caught on. They account for less than 10 percent of cards in circulation, according to William McCracken, CEO of Synergistics Research Corp., a financial services research company in Atlanta.

What gives? It’s likely, experts say, that shaving a few seconds off a purchase isn’t enough to sway many shoppers to give up their current cards.

Even if speed isn’t your thing, there’s at least one reason why you might want to consider a tap-and-go card — security.

It begins with how they’re made

Tap-and-go cards, also known as wave-to-pay, tap-to-pay or contactless cards, contain a computer chip and antenna instead of the magnetic stripe on the back of traditional cards. The technology sends data wirelessly to a nearby terminal, completing purchases with a process called near-field communication, or NFC.

Brands that use this technology include Visa payWave, MasterCard PayPass, American Express ExpressPay and Discover Zip.

The original purpose of tap-and-go cards was speed and convenience, says Peter Ho, product manager in the consumer financial services group at Wells Fargo in San Francisco.

But there’s another benefit that isn’t so obvious.

Tap-and-go cards use something called dynamic encryption technology, which generates a new security code for each transaction, Ho says. This is more secure than the familiar fraud-prone magnetic stripe.

A thief still can steal information from a tap-and-go card. “But the more important question is: Is that enough information for someone to do something bad with it?” Ho says. “And the answer to that is ‘no.'”

Searching for an audience

Credit card companies have been promoting tap-and-go cards for years as a better way to buy things. The reaction, so far, has been a collective shrug by consumers.

The low penetration doesn’t just come from tepid consumer demand. There’s also a lack of support by credit card issuers and merchants that pay for tap-and-go terminals and the payment network. Neither wants to make a big investment in the technology without the other’s cooperation, creating a standoff that has slowed the spread of tap-and-go, McCracken says.

The credit card industry also hasn’t quite figured out how it wants to use tap-and-go technology.

One potential application where seconds matter would be in the daily commute. If subways had faster payment systems, for example, it could help people catch their trains.

Stephanie Ericksen, head of authentication product integration at Visa Inc., says some big-city U.S. transit authorities are looking at this technology.

Drive-through windows also might be a natural fit, but the short range of NFC and wide variations in vehicle sizes and configurations make that application complicated.

“Some (merchants) are still trying to figure out the right ergonomic location for somebody who is in a low convertible versus somebody who is in a big truck,” Ericksen says.

Bottom line: Should you get one?

Everyone will have a different answer to this question. It depends on your financial situation, your personal preferences for speed, convenience and chip-enabled security.

Before you apply, make sure that the places you shop accept tap-and-go cards. Every credit card payment terminal should have a little logo that will tell you whether it can accommodate them. You also may be able to find out how widely a tap-and-go card is accepted by contacting the card issuer.

While you’re at it, you should also check with the card issuer about other options that are offered with their tap-and-go cards. Most of them include similar features as standard swipe cards, such as balance transfers, convenience checks and rewards programs. But it wouldn’t hurt to check.