Barcodes lift mobile payments at Christmas

The build-up to Christmas saw purchases via smartphones hit record levels, according to large retail stores. Key to this uptake was the use of barcode scanners to quickly compare prices online and snap up the cheapest offer.

One large UK store chain, John Lewis, reported that mobile access to its online clearance sale climbed nearly 120 per cent over last year's levels and the amount of cash spent online using smartphones rose 46 per cent since the retailer's sale began at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Heady stuff, and perhaps a real indication that consumers are using smartphone technology to investigate purchasing opportunities prior to using the handset to buy the item.

Price comparison via a smartphone is becoming a fast-growing activity, with major retailers including Amazon, eBay and John Lewis all offering barcode scanners as part of their mobile apps. has gone a step further by allowing its smartphone customers to simply photograph a barcoded item on a competitor's shelf, and then check the price against the same item in the Amazon store. Assuming that major retail stores have reasonable 3G coverage--and the network is not temporarily overloaded--then the consumer now has the option to drive a harder bargain with the store owner than ever before.

But this upsurge in mobile commerce has attracted the attention of those wanting to relieve consumers of their cash by hacking into their mobile transactions. A new report from the software security firm McAfee Labs claims that attacks on mobile devices, especially those targeting mobile banking, are high on the list of threats. The company says that two crimeware kits designed to remove money from online bank accounts--Zeus and SpyEye--have been "improved" to work with mobile apps so as to bypass two-factor authentication and gain access to smartphone-owners' cash.

McAfee highlights in its 2012 Threat Predictions report (.pdf) Zitmo (Zeus-in-the-mobile) and Spitmo (SpyEye-in-the-mobile) as two families of mobile spyware that forward SMS messages to attackers. The company says that it expects to see hackers leverage this type of programmatic technique in greater frequency as more and more users handle their finances on mobile devices.

So, perhaps we need to be a little cautious when using smartphones to make the best possible buying decisions, and remain wary so as not to fall prey to scheming criminals. --Paul