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Stealing payment card data and PINs from POS systems is dead easy

Lucian Constantin | Aug. 4, 2016
Lack of authentication and encryption allow attackers to easily steal payment card data and PIN numbers from point-of-sale systems.

Normally PIN pads do encrypt the PIN numbers when transmitting them to the PoS software. This is an industry requirement and manufacturers comply with it.

However, man-in-the-middle attackers can also inject rogue prompts on the PIN pad screen by uploading so-called custom forms. These screen prompts can say whatever the attackers want, for example "Re-enter PIN" or "Enter card security code."

Security professionals might know that they're never supposed to re-enter their PINs or that card security codes, also known as CVV2s, are only needed for online, card-not-present transactions, but regular consumers typically don't know these things, the researchers said.

In fact, they demonstrated this attack method to professionals from the payments industry in the past and 90 percent of them were not suspicious of the PIN re-entry screen, they said.

Some PIN pads have whitelists that restrict which words can appear on custom screens, but many of these whitelists allow the words "please re-enter" and even if they don't, there's a way to bypass the filter as PIN pad custom forms allow images. Attackers could instead simply inject an image with those words, using the same text colour and font that normally appears on the screen.

It's also worth noting that this attack works against card readers and PIN pads that conform to the EMV standard, meaning they support chip-enabled cards. The EMV technology does not prevent attackers from using stolen track data from a chip-enabled card to create a clone and use it in a country that doesn't support EMV yet or on terminals that are not EMV-enabled and only allow card swiping.

Also, EMV has no bearing on e-commerce transactions, so if the attackers gain the card's track data and the card's CVV2 code, they have all the information needed to perform fraudulent transactions online.

For manufacturers, the researchers recommend implementing point-to-point encryption (P2PE), which encrypts the entire connection from the PIN pad all the way back to the payment processor. If P2PE cannot be implemented on existing hardware, vendors should at least consider securing the communication between their PIN pads and the POS software with TLS (Transport Layer Security) and to digitally sign all requests sent back to the PIN pad by the payment application.

Meanwhile, consumers should never, ever, re-enter their PINs on a PIN pad if prompted to do so. They should also read the messages displayed on the screen and be suspicious of those that ask for additional information. Mobile payments with digital wallet services like Apple Pay should be used where possible, because at this point they're safer than using traditional payment terminals.


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