Myth or Truth? Can your BlackBerry–or any other cell phone–erase, disable, or otherwise damage your:
- Credit card?
- Debit card?
- ATM card?
- Gift card?
- Hotel key card?
- ID swipe card?
- Electronic car key?
[ PostScript 2009-02-10: I now have more definitive proof... ]
[ If you already read this article, jump down to end to see my follow-up. ]
What Has Happened to Me
Gift Card Story
Today I went to my favorite grocery store that also has the cheapest gasoline in town. But to get the best price, you have to transfer money to one of their gift cards, then use the gift card at the pump. I have a “rechargeable” gift card that I keep in my wallet solely for this purpose.
So, I have the girl at the checkout put $50 on my gift card while my groceries are being bagged. I realize I’ve already put my wallet away in a zippered pocket of my winter vest, so I just stick the gift card in my pocket. I’ll just have to pull it out three minutes from now when I go gas up my car.
I load up my groceries and drive across the parking lot to the gas pumps. I park at a pump, swipe my gift card…and it doesn’t work. The pump display says, “Reinsert card.” I swipe the card again–same result. I try it several times, and finally the pump display says, “See cashier.”
Instead, I go to another pump and repeat the process. Same result. It seems the card isn’t working. I guess I should see the cashier.
I put the card back in my pocket where I had it before…but wait…my BlackBerry Storm is in that same pocket. Uh-oh.
(The cashier was able to reprogram my gift card and recover the money on it–whew.)
Hotel Room Key Stories
In the last year or so, I have stayed in hotels/motels where the rooms used keys with magnetic stripes on them–much like a credit/debit/gift card.
I remember in three different cities I’ve had these experiences:
When I first entered my room, I emptied my pockets on the dresser, including my BlackBerry Pearl and my room key card. The Pearl was on top of the key card. The first time I tried to use the card, it wouldn’t work. I took it to the front desk, and they reprogrammed it. It worked after that.
Until the next day, and it happened again. At the front desk, they asked me if my cell phone had been close to it. I said, “yes.” They told me to keep them apart, that cell phones can erase the room key cards.
I kept my room key and my Pearl very far apart after that: no more problems.
Basically, the same story. I put my Pearl and key card on the dresser together. The key card quit working after it had been working. I got it reprogrammed and it was fine.
Do I never learn? Apparently not. Same story as before: Pearl and room key card got close together. Key card quit working. Reprogramming fixed it.
What Others Say
If you research this topic on the Internet, you’ll find people arguing both ways: it’s a myth, it’s a reality.
For example, some argue that the TV show MythBusters “busted” the myth…or did it (if you didn’t see the episode, read the account of the show carefully). They may have proved that an electric eel couldn’t erase a credit card. I’ll definitely rest easier knowing that!
MobileMagazine.com reported that the SideKick 3 cell phone erased a credit card. But that phone apparently has a magnetic latch that will lift a fork. How many cell phones have anything like that?
Maybe slightly more credible than the above is a story reported by Reuters and the LA Times. Reportedly, Nissan North America issued a warning that customers who place their electronic key too close to their cell phones could find the key disabled, and advised them to keep their car keys and cell phones at least an inch apart. I couldn’t find the original warning supposedly issued by Nissan.
How Could This Happen?
How much do you know…or want to know…about electromagnetism? I’m going to guess that most readers would rather pass on that subject. I do happen to have a degree in electrical engineering, and had to suffer through a year of classes on electromagnetic theory. So, if you’re a reader who wants to lecture me on the subject, please–I don’t need another lecture.
But to keep it simple, the stripes on the back of most plastic cards are magnetic. Information is stored on that stripe magnetically. Electrical and electronic devices, like cell phones, emit electromagnetic radiation. That radiation can, in theory, alter the information stored on the magnetic stripe of a card.
How the radiation from a cell phone might affect an electronic car key is probably a different case. But to keep it simple, let’s just say that an electronic car key might be vulnerable from electromagnetic radiation, too.
The BlackBerry…or the Holster?
How many of you know that the BlackBerry has a holster (the one provided by RIM, or many cases sold by third parties) with a magnet in it? The purpose of that magnet is to signal to the BlackBerry when it is inserted into the holster. Why? Because you can program your BlackBerry to ring/vibrate differently when in the holster than it does when out of the holster.
I have my BlackBerry configured with a Notification Profile that I use in business meetings. If my BlackBerry is in the holster, it means I don’t want it to ever ring–because I don’t want a disturbance. But if I take it out of the holster, I want it to ring. I find that a bit easier than changing the profile from Loud to Vibrate, for example.
Could the magnet in the holster (or a case) the culprit? In every case where I had a problem with magnetic cards, my BlackBerry was in its holster!
There are a lot of facts to consider. Not all magnetic cards are the same.
Some, like credit/debit/ATM and ID cards, are not designed to be “recharged” or “reloaded” or reprogrammed frequently, so are very resistant to damage from external magnetic fields. It seems unlikely that your BlackBerry can harm them.
But some cards, like gift cards and room keys, are designed to have their magnetic information changed frequently, so are thought to be more vulnerable. It just may be true that your BlackBerry or its magnetized holster/case could be a risk to these kinds of cards.
It’s easy to draw premature conclusions. Did my BlackBerry erase my cards? Or were the cards poorly magnetized in the first place? Or did my cards get damaged by something else?
I honestly don’t know. But I’m going to try to keep my BlackBerry away from my gift cards and room keys–just to be sure.
Please leave a comment below about any experience you’ve had:
- Hard a card erased and suspect your cell phone?
- Keep your cell phone and cards together all the time and have had no problems?
- Please give details about your phone and cards!
Since this article spawned some interesting discussion, I thought I’d follow up with more thorough testing that is more conclusive, if not a fully scientific “slam dunk.” Here’s what I did:
Gift Card Exposed to Holster and BlackBerry
|1. I started with a new Gift Card and loaded it with a $5.00 balance.|
|2. I made sure the Gift Card was good by doing a $1.00 purchase of gasoline.|
|3. I exposed my Gift Card to my BlackBerry Storm 9530 inserted into its original holster.
The phone was powered on but not on an active call.
|4. I tried to make another purchase of gas at the same pump. The Gift Card failed (with same error message as I had seen before).|
OK, that strongly suggests that the combination of phone plus holster damages a Gift Card. If you have any doubt about the strength of the magnets in the Storm holster, check this out:
Next, I used the same BlackBerry Pearl that I wrote about in the article above, without its holster, and transmitting a signal:
Gift Card Exposed to BlackBerry Only
|1. I replaced my damaged Gift Card at the issuing grocery store. I restored the balance to $5.00.|
|2. As before, I made sure the Gift Card was good by doing a $1.00 purchase of gasoline.|
|3. I exposed the Gift Card to my BlackBerry Pearl 8130, turned on, and actively on a call (e.g., transmitting a signal). The holster was nowhere present.|
|4. As with the earlier test using the Storm, I tried to make another purchase of gas. The Gift Card failed again.|
This time, the holster cannot be blamed. The phone itself–somehow (radiation or internal magnetism)–damaged the Gift Card.
As I noted earlier in this article, Gift Cards and hotel room Key Cards are frequently reloaded or reprogrammed. There is a belief that the magnetic programming is not as “permanent” as with Credit and Debit Cards or ID Swipe Cards. So, let’s test one of those type cards:
Debit Card Exposed to Holster and BlackBerry
|1. I used a Visa Debit Card / Check Card / ATM Card and made a purchase in a store: it worked perfectly.|
|2. I then exposed (severely) the Debit Card to (a) my BlackBerry Storm, powered on, in its holster, (b) my BlackBerry Storm, actively transmitting on a call, (c) BlackBerry Pearl in holster, and (d) Pearl actively transmitting.|
|3. I then attempted to make a purchase with the card: it worked perfectly.|
No damage to a Debit (aka Check or ATM) Card under any condition!
I realize the test procedures I used still leave interesting questions. I simply don’t have the time to do more extensive testing like you might expect from Consumer Reports or some scientific testing organization. But I don’t know of any better testing done to date.
I think what matters is that my testing provides strong evidence, if not irrefutable proof, that a cell phone in a holster/case with a magnetic latch, or a cell phone alone without its holster/case, can damage a Gift Card.
This testing strengthens my belief that a cell phone with/without a holster/case can probably damage a hotel room Key Card.
Lastly, my testing suggests that Credit, Debit, ATM, and ID Swipe Cards are safe from damage by either a cell phone or holster/case with embedded magnet.
As always, your comments and questions are welcome.