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Google’s making mobile payments ‘Hands Free’

Sienna Kossman

Google wants you to start paying out of pocket, but not how you’d expect. Through a new mobile payment app called Hands Free, Google is making it possible to make in-store payments using your phone, but without ever actually taking it out of your pocket or bag.

Hands Free, which is available for download on Android and iOS mobile devices, was launched March 2 for public testing in the South Bay area near San Francisco at a small number of retailers, such as McDonald’s and Papa John’s. The full list of participating retailers is available through the Hands Free app.

Here’s how the hands-free payment app works, according to Google:

“Once you’ve installed and set up the app, Hands Free uses Bluetooth low energy, Wi-Fi and location services on your phone to detect whether you’re near a participating store. When you’re ready to pay, you can simply tell the cashier, ‘I’ll pay with Google.’ The cashier will ask for your initials and use the picture you added to your Hands Free profile to confirm your identity.”

That’s all there is too it, per Google, although it doesn’t shed much light on the process from a merchant’s perspective. When I first read this all I could imagine was a confused, young cashier wondering just exactly how someone could use a search engine to pay for a sandwich. It made me chuckle as I reflected on amusing cashier-customer interactions I’ve witnessed surrounding new payment technology, such as chip cards and mobile wallets.

At stores participating in the Hands Free pilot program, Google is also experimenting with its visual identification process to help the pay-from-your-pocket process go even faster. If you were to pay with Hands Free, a Google-installed camera would automatically confirm your identity based on your profile picture tied to your Hands Free account. Google boasts that all images captured by the in-store Hands Free camera are deleted immediately, which coincides with other security promises this new app details. Hands Free won’t share your full credit card number with stores, only with the payment processor.

Now, I wouldn’t want fraudsters using my phone while it’s still in my purse, to make unauthorized payments, but Google says it has that covered, too, although the security details are vague.

Hands Free can make payments only when the app detects that your phone is near a participating store. In addition to the visual identification process, Hands Free will also send you a notification after each purchase so you can keep tabs on your out-of-pocket purchases. Users will also be alerted to unusual activity and suspicious transactions won’t be processed without approval.

This all sounds good, in theory, as it echoes what some card issuers, such as Discover, do to alert customers quickly to suspicious purchases made with their card. However, fraud alerts aren’t always accurate, so for now I’m taking these Hands Free security promises with a grain of salt.

The concept behind the Hands Free payment seems similar to MasterCard’s payment wearables announced in October 2015, which would allow cardholders to pay for in-store purchases just by moving their keys, jewelry or clothing — such as pants — near a payment terminal that processes contactless transactions.

Hands Free is joining a populated mobile payment space, that’s for sure. There are the regular players, such as Android Pay and Apple Pay, but there’s also Samsung Pay, Google Wallet and mobile wallets supported by specific card-issuing banks, such as Chase Pay.

It’ll be interesting to see how users respond to Hands Free, which seems to promise more mobility than most mobile wallets. After all, one of the obstacles preventing widespread mobile wallet adoption is a lack of incentive for making mobile phone payments, according to an Engadget report. Some consumers, myself included, might argue that pulling out a card is just as easy as opening a mobile app on your phone, so maybe a hands-free mobile payment app really would be more convenient and encourage consumer use.

If you’re curious about Hands Free and live in the South Bay area, this might be worth trying out to see if it’s really as easy as Google wants it to be. Those who download and use the Hands Free app to pay in the South Bay area will get an automatic $5 discount on their first Hands Free purchase.
Just make sure to report back and tell us about your experience! The rest of us will be paying out of our pockets, but with our hands, for the time being.

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