Test drive: Loop’s digital payment device

Loop Credit Card Scanner

The main kind of cosmetic surgery I have been considering is a reduction in the size of my rear end. The right side of it, specifically. That’s where my overstuffed wallet typically occupies a pocket, bulging with credit cards, membership cards, loyalty cards, a coupon or two, and occasionally even some cash.

And technology is getting close to providing an affordable, non-surgical solution to my unsightly problem. A Woburn-based startup called Loop has just started shipping a $39 iPhone plug-in called the Loop Fob. Working in conjunction with an app on your phone, it can store up to 100 debit or credit cards. And it lets you pay by just touching the device to a credit card terminal, right where you or a clerk would ordinarily swipe. The company says its technology is compatible with about 90 percent of today’s credit card terminals.

Here’s how it works:

Once you have a Loop Fob ($39), you download the company’s app and then plug the Fob into your phone’s headphone jack. It’s basically a miniature credit card reader. When you swipe a card — and some of them take a couple tries — the Fob digitizes the information and stores it on your phone. You can also take a picture of the front and back of the card, in case a clerk asks you to see your card to verify a signature or you need to see the CVV number. The most important card data, like the number and expiration date, get automatically imported when you swipe. I was pleasantly surprised that the Loop Fob didn’t require me to remove my phone’s protective case in order to use it; almost everything else that plugs into my headphone jack does.


I stored three cards on the Fob: a work Visa, a personal MasterCard, and a debit card for a bank account at Cambridge Savings Bank. (I felt fairly secure in doing all that because Loop’s founders previously built ROAM Data, a major player in mobile point-of-sale technology.) You pick one card to be your default card, and that card’s information gets loaded onto the Fob. Then you can disconnect the Fob and put it into a little rubber case that connects to a keychain. (See the photo above.) You can also opt to leave it plugged into the phone, and switch back and forth between cards as necessary — but that’s a bit awkward.

At the conclusion lunch yesterday, at Dolphin Seafood in Harvard Square, I lay the Fob on top of the check. When the waitress came over, I explained that she had to press a button on the side and just touch it to the credit card reader. (The Loop generates a magnetic field that relays the information to the reader without actually doing a swipe.) She tried, but came back and said it hadn’t worked. “Our cash registers are really old,” she said apologetically. My next attempt, at a nearby CVS, worked great — and the cashier seem dazzled by the Fob, asking me what it was. The Fob worked fine at Dunkin’. I plugged the Fob into my phone and switched to the personal card when I went to McDonald’s, and then switched to the debit card when I dropped by a different CVS at the end of the day. With my small sample size of four merchants, I had a 75 percent success rate. And I do wonder if I had tried to use the Fob myself at the restaurant — admittedly not an ideal scenario at a business lunch — whether I would’ve gotten a different result. (Update: I tried using the Fob at my neighborhood Starbucks this morning. It didn’t work, even after three tries, which was a pain, since I didn’t have the gargantuan wallet with me and there was a line behind me. The kindly barista told me I could take my drink, and bring payment later. That takes my success rate down to 60 percent.)

Every time you access the Loop app on the phone, you need to punch in a PIN number. That’s designed to keep others from peeking at your credit card numbers. And you can also set the Fob to deactivate after a set amount of time whenever it’s unplugged from your phone.

But there’s still a lot that Loop doesn’t do. It can’t replace a bank card, because that needs to be gobbled up temporarily by the ATM. It can’t be your CharlieCard, because that has an RFID chip inside it. You can’t even be sure that it will always work with the credit and debit cards you’ve loaded onto it, which could create an embarrassing situation if you aren’t carrying cash or plastic. You can take pictures of other cards, like museum memberships or loyalty cards, but I have always had a hit-and-miss experience in actually getting those to work. And of course, when you show up at a business that’s cash-only…

For now, using the Fob is a cool parlor trick. And it’s an affordable gadget to acquire if you want to be the first in your office to have one, or to strike up conversations with waiters and counter clerks who haven’t seen one before. A next-generation product from Loop, a phone case that serves as a back-up battery for your phone and also can impersonate all your credit cards, seems more appealing. (It’s set to go on sale in early April.) That product obviates the need to keep plugging in the Fob every time you want to switch to a different card. But the Fob and ChargeCase are also two more devices that you need to remember to keep juiced up, unlike an old-school credit card. Loop says a single charge-up of the Fob is good for about 400 transactions.

Loop has raised $12 million in funding, and ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for the Fob and forthcoming ChargeCase last year. Here’s a company-produced video that gives you a sense for the reaction you get when using Loop’s technology. Loop says it’ll soon support Android devices, too.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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