tampabay.com

No cash? No card? Just stick in finger

A Tampa Coast to Coast convenience store has installed a device that scans your fingerprint to process payment through a debit account.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published June 20, 2006


TAMPA - Customers can pay with cash, plastic or their index finger at a new Coast to Coast Family Convenience store here.

Taking a big step beyond the ease of the Mobil SpeedPass, Coast to Coast has installed what's claimed as Florida's first biometric payment system.

There are no cards or PIN numbers to remember. Just stick your finger in the scanner and be on your way.

While applications are available to process credit and store loyalty card transactions by fingerprint, this one is limited to processing only debit account transactions.

"People either love it or think it's a sign of the coming apocalypse,'' said Amer Hawatmeh, owner of the new convenience store at 110 E Bearss Ave. who signed up a few hundred customers for Pay By Touch. "But to me, it's the wave of the future.''

Pay By Touch is one of several speedier payment technologies racing to build enough retailer acceptance to ace out rivals and overcome consumers' rising concerns over identity theft.

It's all on the road to payment gurus' vision of a cashier-free future, in which customers just walk out the door while their transaction is automatically processed.

The big credit card companies, for instance, are deploying a card reader developed by MasterCard International that picks up a radio signal to record a transaction when a card is merely tapped on or waved around a reader at the checkout stand. Other wireless systems in use in other countries use built-in payment system prompts broadcast to and from a cell phone to activate vending machines.

Pay By Touch is a closely held San Francisco startup that uses finger-scan technology to authenticate payment account holders. Backed by $130-million in venture capital money, Pay By Touch recently paid $82-million to acquire BioPay LLC, its biggest finger-scan competitor that has won a following in Europe big enough to authenticate $7-billion worth of transactions to date.

Pay By Touch now has tests under way with several convenience stores, gas stations and supermarket chains around the United States, including Harris Teeter in the Carolinas, Farm Fresh in Virginia and Jewel Osco in Chicago.

"Finger scanning is new, so we want to get people used to it by building acceptance at high-frequency, high-traffic retail locations such as gas stations and grocery stores,'' said Leslie Connelly, spokeswoman for Pay By Touch. "We're also going into places where people who don't have a banking relationship cash paychecks.''

The company is a bit puzzled by customer privacy fears. After all, they say, how can using a unique fingerprint for identification be riskier to theft than a plastic card, key chain token or account number that's tapped into a computer or spoken over the phone?

The company pledges not to sell or rent personal information, or access to it. The fingerprint image recorded is not the same as those collected by the federal government or law enforcement.

It's similar to the finger-scan technology used at theme park gates. Those systems take measurements of patrons' hands and fingers and link them to a multi-day pass to prevent several people from using one person's pass.

The Pay By Touch computer records a multitude of point-to-point measurements and stores them in an encrypted form in an IBM data center. Images of both index fingers are kept in case a shopper's trigger finger is hidden by a bandage.

To create an account, you must let the store get a fix on you and your bank account by scanning in a sample check and a driver's license. You can also apply online and be assigned a PIN number. The number is keyed in the first time you buy something to link your fingerprint to the personal account information.

The shopper needs neither a card nor a PIN number after that. Just place a finger on the scanner.

Retailers are paying a minimal amount to test the system. But many retailers such as Coast to Coast are drawn to Pay By Touch because it can process debit account payments or eChecks, an Internet version of a paper check, without subjecting the store to interchange fees that cost the retailers 2 to 3 percent of the transaction.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.