iPhone NFC misinformation alive and well on reddit

Once in a while I get a surge of traffic from reddit and like to see which post was linked and the attached discussion. This was very hard to do before reddit added comment searches and even so it takes a few days before a new entry shows up in search results. The latest one was about iPhone X and NFC.

Question: What’s the difference between X and XS ? Which is better ? My second question: Recently I bought an X Japanese Version. Is it different from regular X ??

Answer 1: X to XS is Just a small minor cpu upgrade and minor antenna fixes making the iPhone bottom speaker/microphone holes assymetrical, if you bought a X from Japan and are planning to use it for commuting using apple pay there, make sure to check the production date, pre2018 iPhone X has a suica gate problems that got fixed with the Rev B iPhone X. iPhone X suica problem

Answer 2: Also, all Japanese iPhones have a different NFC reader, so they won’t work with non Japanese tap and pay terminals and other NFC points, eg on public transit and similar

Yikes, all the good and bad of reddit in one post. The question is a good one but the good natured answers are equally helpful and utterly misleading.

Answer 1 is a little off in that bad iPhone X NFC was not a Suica problem, NFC was unreliable across the board regardless of type (A-B-F) or protocol (EMV, FeliCa, etc.), with iPhone X NFC crapping out completely later on (after AppleCare expired naturally). The Rev B thing was just my made up name for units manufactured after April 2018 with reliable NFC. And even though most people have moved on to newer iPhone models with much superior NFC performance, the big bad iPhone X NFC problem continues to haunt users. For me, with 3 replacements and a lot of headaches, iPhone X was the worst iPhone ever. iPhone X users deserved a NFC repair program but never got one because at the time Apple Pay Express Transit was only available in Japan. Apple at its Tim Cookian worst.

Answer 2 is completely wrong. The poster has no idea what they are talking about. All iPhone models have the same NFC hardware. It doesn’t matter what country the iPhone was purchased in, it all just works in every Apple Pay supported region for all NFC flavors. That’s the beauty of Apple’s global NFC hardware strategy that began with iPhone 8 along with NFC switching savvy Apple Pay Wallet that Android has yet to match…not even Google Pixel.

JRE POINT Reboot

The JRE POINT website and apps (iOS•Android) received a makeover on August 29. The purpose of the reboot was to increase security with Face/Touch ID login, and add some long overdue features such as removing the single Mobile Suica registration limit. With the new service, account users can register up to 20 Suica cards of any type and also share JRE POINT with other JRE POINT ‘family’ member accounts.

As with all JR East online services that get a reboot, things did not go very well. The first 48 hours were full of glitches and the app basically did not work for many people. After a few update patches things are working for the most part, the JRE POINT iOS app is currently 3.0.4 but still needs some fixes as auto login only works half the time. By far the best new features are the ability to add more than one Mobile Suica card, handy for families, as well as point sharing although it’s rather cumbersome.

From a UI perspective, JRE POINT app is very similar to Eki-Net in that the UI jettisons native iOS and Android controls for a clumsy web UI. The only reason for using the app instead of the web site is to use the JRE POINT barcode at checkout and play the stupid little games for extra JRE POINT. The Face/Touch ID login support is less appealing than you might expect, it’s only used in lieu of the 6 PIN code to access point transaction history, or change login ID and password.

I’ve updated the JRE POINT guide for the new features and UI. Let me know if you find anything missing.

Foreign VISA cards blocked for select Japanese mobile in-app and online payments

Notice: this post will be updated with new developments, latest info here


SoftBank Payments network chart

When foreign issue VISA cards in Wallet stopped working for some kinds of Apple Pay in-app purchases from Japanese merchants starting on August 5, the first people to howl in pain were Apple Pay PASMO users who suddenly couldn’t recharge the stored fare balance or renew commuter passes with their Chase Sapphire VISA cards. Chase Sapphire still codes for 3x travel points on PASMO you see and long time resident Suica users had migrated to PASMO when JR East and VISA shut down 3x travel points.

I did the usual duty of talking with Mobile Suica support, official line: there should be no problem, contact the card issuer. I then contacted Wells Fargo card services support, official line: there should be no problem with your VISA, contact the merchant. Entirely expected of course but I did confirm that Mobile Suica transaction attempts were not even showing on the Wells Fago system. They said it might be a ‘communications issue’.

I suspected a larger issue than just Apple Pay and an Android Suica user confirmed the same non-JP VISA problem with Google Pay Suica. I also alerted IT journalist Junya Suzuki who focuses on mobile payments. His first thought was something might be going on with the VISA Japan merchant acquirer side of the payment network. Merchant acquirers are very secretive and nobody knows who is the merchant acquirer is for Mobile Suica/Mobile PASMO. Maybe they were tightening online transaction security…or something else. Everything was clear as mud though one source did say this:

An acquirer made the decision stopping handling cards issued in other countries. Acquirer are different between Apple Pay and Google Pay, so that’s why I said Apple Pay. Another guy suggests Apple or such acquirer may face money laundering issue by registering Apple Pay with pre-paid Visa cards or so.

A reader asked me if Japan was banning non-JP VISA cards across the board along with a screenshot of Universal Studios Japan advance ticket sales page with a red colored important notice on the top that said: “We apologize that currently Visa and Mastercard credit cards issued outside Japan are not available until further notice.”

The evidence pointed to a larger problem than just Mobile Suica and PASMO. The USJ wording also suggests that JTRWeb have their hands tied ‘until further notice’ and echos what JR East PR told Suzuki san about the non-JP VISA recharge problem being beyond their immediate control. Something seems to be happening with the VISA merchant acquirer…but in different highly selective ways. For example why does Apple Pay Suica work with foreign issue Mastercard and AMEX but not VISA, or why does foreign issue VISA work for Apple Pay in-app purchases with Japanese apps like Starbucks, but not in-app purchase with JR East for Suica recharge?

Phishing attacks and VISA Touch promotion
It’s helpful to examine the impact of phishing attacks that hit docomo, Line Pay, PayPay and other QR code payment services in late 2020, and JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net and VIEW card) in early 2022. Responses to phishing attacks has been slow, varied and vague. Companies like to say they value customer security but are short detailing what they’re doing about it.

Docomo quickly suspended, then killed off, their problematic docomo koza e-paymnet service. Then Japanese credit card issuers got serious and responded by upgrading to EMV 3-D Secure v2 for browser and mobile app payments (edit: EMV 3-D Secure is the EMV e-commerce browser and app authentication spec for all members but card brands use their own naming) and are due to phase out 3-D Secure v1 by October 2022.

JR East upgraded Suica App to 3-D Secure v2 for in-house credit card purchases and changed the JRE POINT Suica recharge process to make it more secure, but seemly little else. Scratch under the surface however and you’ll notice unannounced recharge security blocks even in Apple Pay Suica. There are also new limits for certain Japanese issue cards registered in Suica App. Recharge with Revolut VISA for example is now limited to 3,000 JPY per day despite the fact that Suica App uses 3-D Secure v2. Clear as mud…again.

Which brings up to the most important point of the whole problem: why is the VISA payment network not accepting foreign issue cards for Apple Pay Suica and Google Pay Suica recharge when those digital wallets offer the highest levels of secure online transactions out there? A bumpy 3-D Secure v2 transition might explain what’s happening for online sites who don’t support Apple Pay and have not updated to newer protocol. But the transition has been going on for a while now, and it doesn’t explain what’s happening with Apple Pay Suica/PASMO and Google Pay Suica (Osaifu Keitai) which have nothing to do with EMV 3-D Secure.

The timing is perfect however when you consider that VISA is heavily promoting ‘VISA Touch’ EMV contactless. It’s very convenient that Apple Pay Suica and PASMO are suddenly sidelined as easy payment options for inbound visitors.

The Apple Pay difference
The security issue doesn’t apply to Apple Pay. Apple Pay comes with the extra security and guarantees that Apple provides to issuers and merchants, once a card is added to Apple Wallet, it is cleared for all things Apple Pay (ditto for Google Pay). This is why a plastic contactless card that doesn’t work on TfL open loop transit gates works when it is added to Apple Wallet. It’s the Apple Pay difference.

So we circle back to foreign issue VISA again. Why are cards cleared for Apple Pay, cards that worked fine until August 5, suddenly not working? Is JR East shutting down recharge for foreign issue cards like Hong Kong Octopus and China T-Union do without telling us? So far JR East support says that all credit and debit cards that support Apple Pay in-app purchase are good to go. They certainly want inbound visitors to use Suica. What little evidence we have so far points to a change on the VISA merchant acquirer side. Everybody else seems to be doing what they always do and haven’t changed anything.

VISA has a history of not playing nice with Japanese stored value cards on mobile. JP issue VISA cards didn’t work for Apple Pay in-app purchases and Suica recharge until last year, it took VISA 5 years to ‘resolve’ that issue. VISA cards still do not work with Mobile WAON and Mobile nanaco on Android and Apple Pay, they likely never will. My take is that VISA is happy with people buying things with VISA, they are certainly happy with people borrowing money with VISA, but they are not happy with people using VISA to move money into stored value prepaid cards for making payments, earning points, etc., that are not VISA.

Who knows? VISA has played hardball in the Japanese market before, maybe they are doing so again. Perhaps they refuse to be an ATM-like recharge backend for Japanese e-money cards unless they also get ATM-like lending rate surcharges, or maybe they want to promote open loop VISA Touch and Stera Transit at the expense Mobile Suica market and mindshare. You get the picture.

Junya Suzuki thinks the VISA merchant acquirers might be coming under pressure from potential money laundering risks. I think people have the right to move their money where they want to, after all we’re only talking a max Suica balance of ¥20,000 here. Whatever the reason let’s hope it is fixed soon, though I have learned over the years that card brand payment issues are never simple. Time will tell. At the very least I think we can say this is another skirmish in the ongoing digital payment turf wars.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block

JR East online services (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net), along with many other online services that have accounts with credit cards, have been inundated with phishing attacks since the Russia-Ukraine situation erupted in February. It has gotten to the point that JRE POINT announced temporary security limitations on July 6: a temporary suspension of JRE POINT service recharge for Mobile Suica (via Suica App) and a 5,000 JRE POINT app barcode use limit per transaction (plastic JRE POINT card use remains unlimited). All JRE POINT services were later restored with new security enhancements.

There is another security limitation Apple Pay Suica users need to be aware of: credit/debit card recharge security block. This does not apply to cash recharge at station kiosks, convenience stores, 7-11 ATM, etc., but it can happen with multiple credit card recharges in a short period of time, i.e. heavy users. Unfortunately JR East does not reveal what conditions trigger a recharge security block that displays an error message: チャージをご利用できない状態です/ Recharge is not available. The Mobile Suica support page specifically states that JR East “cannot inform you about the conditions and contents of restrictions.” User reports suggest a general daily recharge limit between ¥5,000~¥10,000, however I think it also depends on the credit card issuer. My JR East JCB VIEW card for example has never run into any recharge limits in 5 years of heavy recharge use.

Apple Pay Suica recharge security block appears to be somewhat rare, but it is happening more with the recent Mobile Suica phishing attacks. In general Wallet app recharge tends to be more robust than Suica app recharge but security recharge block seems to affect all credit card recharge. The only user recourse appears to be contacting the card issuer or using the Mobile Suica member online Trouble Report Form (Japanese only). No word on Apple Pay PASMO but users should expect the same situation.

Mobile Suica registered account information can only be changed in Suica (iOS) and Mobile Suica (Android) apps by applying for an account update, it cannot be directly changed in the app, it cannot be changed via a web browser. This offers a level of account security but too many people fall for phishing emails. Even my internet savvy partner fell for a Mobile Suica phishing mail and have to get his credit card reissued.

The short term solution for JR East is to implement 2FA across all of their online services with a single login ID credential instead of the multiple service ID account mess we have now…hopefully soon. The longer term solution will be eliminating ID and password login altogether using Passkeys.

Recharge your recharge, the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean jack in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market

I love articles like this one. It’s fun examining how the writer, freelancer Meiko Homma, takes old news bits, worn-out arguments and weaves them into a ‘new’ narrative with a titillatingly hot title: “QR Code payments won the cashless race, Suica utterly defeated.”

Her article trots out some QR Code payment usage data from somewhere, the PASPY transit card death saga that illustrates the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping region limited transit IC cards going, the fact that Suica only covers 840 stations out of a total of 1630, all while conveniently ignoring recent important developments like the Suica 2 in 1 Regional Affiliate program, and big updates coming in early 2023: Cloud Suica extensions and the Mobile ICOCA launch.

It has the classic feel of ‘here’s a headline, now write the article’ hack piece passing as industry analysis we have too much of these days. The Yahoo Japan portal site picked it up and the comments section was soon full of wicked fun posts picking apart the weak arguments.

I’ve said it before and say it again: the winner/loser debate doesn’t mean shit in the post-Apple Pay Japanese payments market. PayPay for example, started out as a code payment app but has added FeliCA QUICPay and EMV contactless support along with their PayPay card offering. Just like I predicted, these companies don’t care about payment technology, they just want people to use their services. My partner and I actually see less PayPay use at checkout these days and more Mobile Suica. Why?

The great thing about prepaid eMoney ‘truth in the card’ Suica, PASMO, WAON, Edy, nanaco, is they are like micro bank accounts coupled with the backend recharge flexibility of mobile wallets (Apple Pay, Google Pay, Suica App, etc.). PayPay, au Pay, Line Pay and similar Toyota Wallet knock-off payment apps with Apple Pay Wallet cards, are deployed as mobile recharge conduits that smart users leverage to put money into different eMoney micro bank accounts and get the points or instant cashback rebates they want to get at any given campaign moment. This is where the action is.

And so we have recharge acrobats like Twitter user #1: step 1 recharge PayPay account from Seven Bank account, step 2 move recharge amount from PayPay Money to PayPay Bank, step 3 move recharge from PayPay Bank to Line Pay, in Wallet app recharge Suica with Line Pay card. Or like recharge acrobat Twitter user #2: Sony Bank Wallet to Kyash to Toyota Wallet to Suica.

Phew…none of this involves transfer fees so it’s up to user creativity to come up with the recharge scenario that works best for them. Does it count as PayPay use or Line Pay use or Mobile Suica use? Does it matter?

It’s not about winners or losers, it’s about moving money around. Mobile Suica is extremely useful because of it’s recharge backend flexibility, thanks to Apple Pay and Google Pay (which does not support PASMO yet). This is the case for US citizens working in Japan who get a great return of their Suica or PASMO recharge right now using US issue credit cards because of the exchange rate. This is something visitors to Hong Kong cannot do with Apple Pay Octopus as the OCL recharge backend is far more restrictive than JR East. The biggest gripe users have with Suica is ¥20,000 balance limit.

In the weeks to come we’ll be sure to see hand wringing articles debating the future of Suica, open-loop, etc.,etc., because let’s face it, IT media journalists need something to write about in these challenging times where everything has to be sold as winner/loser, black/white, 0 or 10, and nothing in-between, to get any traction at all. As for me, I think it’s far more interesting, and real, to observe how users are using all these nifty mobile payment tools.

UPDATE 2022-07-04: Thoughts on the KDDI network outage
That was fast. No sooner had the “QR Codes won the mobile payments race” article appeared when major Japanese carrier KDDI experienced a nationwide mobile network meltdown on July 2 JST, lasted a full day with a very slow, still in progress, recovery affecting more than 40 million customers. Suddenly social media channels were full of people complaining that QR Code payments didn’t work, assuming that Mobile Suica and other NFC mobile payments stopped too. Which was not the case though a few fake posts claimed, or just ‘assumed’ people were stranded inside stations. Fortunately there were numerous online articles setting the record straight.

It’s a lesson that people soon forget in our attention span challenged social media era. We saw plenty of QR Code payment downsides in the 2018 Hokkaido Eastern Iburi earthquake that knocked out power and mobile service across Hokkaido. At the time some fake Chinese social media posts claimed AliPay and WeChat pay ‘still worked’ in Hokkaido at the time, of course they did not.

Mobile payment disruptions happen with every natural disaster and war. Good and safe practices don’t come easy when smartphone apps lure us down the easy path without spelling out the risks. It’s a lesson we have to learn again and again, that while network dependent code payment apps have some benefits, they also have limits and security risks. One size does not fit all, NFC and code payments each have their place and role to play in the expanding mobile payments universe. The key is understanding their strengths and weaknesses.