A guide to the top mobile payments options

Martyn Williams

Backed by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, Softcard is another NFC-based payment system. The service requires a dedicated Softcard app, customized by each carrier, and a special SIM card that has a secure payment chip. The SIM card is available free. It works with phones running Android 4.4 (KitKat) or above and Windows Phone 8.1 and supports cards from American Express, Chase and Wells Fargo. For other banks, Softcard will set up a virtual American Express card that can be used in much the same way Google Wallet uses a virtual Mastercard. With that, any debit or credit card is supported.

The eBay-owned payments company is pushing beyond the virtual world into brick-and-mortar retail. One version, in use at Home Depot, allows PayPal account holders to purchase goods by tapping in their phone number and a PIN code at payment terminals. A newer version involves the customer "checking in" on a PayPal app when they enter a store that accepts the payment system. That action alerts the store to your presence and paying is as simple as telling the cashier you want to use PayPal. The check-in action transmitted your presence and account details to the store, so the cashier just needs match the charge to your account. The app is available on Android, Apple and Windows Phone.

CurrentC (get it? "currency") has been developed by some of the biggest names in retail in the U.S. including Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. It will be launched in early 2015 and, while many details are still unclear, appears designed to solve two problems for its backers. The first is the roughly 2 percent fee that credit card companies charge on each transaction. CurrentC will work with a customer's bank account, avoiding the fees although also losing the fraud protection offered on cards. Secondly, customers will be able to share personal information, like their name, birthday and contact details, with a store, presumably for incentives although quite how that will work is yet to be detailed.

A big difference lies in the technology used by CurrentC. Unlike Apple Pay, Google Wallet and Softcard, it doesn't use NFC but instead displays a barcode on a phone screen that is scanned by the cashier.

The system was under the radar until October when two CurrentC members, CVS and RiteAid, stopped accepting NFC payments right after the launch of Apple Pay. That brought a wave of negative publicity and eventually forced the company to divulge a little more about its plans. The CEO said additional forms of payment, including cards, might be supported and CurrentC could switch from a barcode to NFC or Bluetooth. But for now, we're just waiting to see what the retailers will come up with when it launches.

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