Monday, July 20, 2015

The great Google Wallet Card experiment

A few weeks ago, the family and I drove across the country and back, over 1000 miles each way. A drive like that necessitates stopping at lots of gas stations along the way, often in remote, middle-of-nowhere type of places. With all the recent problems surrounding card skimming, the prospect of swiping my debit card at random shady gas stations along I-95 was not appealing.

So, I decided to do a little experiment. Google Wallet is a multi-featured service that lets you do things like tap-to-pay with your phone, send money to friends, manage store loyalty cards, etc. Similar to PayPal, Wallet also lets you transfer money into your virtual wallet and then use to pay for things. You can add funds to your Wallet balance from any bank account for free, or from a credit card for a small fee. Once money is in your account, you can use it to buy things online, to send to friends, to buy things with your phone, or to buy things using the Google Wallet physical card.

The Google Wallet Card, which has been around for over a year now, and is simply a physical MasterCard that is sent to you in the mail. When swiped at a store, it lets you spend your Google Wallet balance anywhere you want. The card has some key features, though, that make it perfect for using at shady middle-of-nowhere gas stations:

  • There is no backup funding method. When your Wallet balance hits zero, the card will simply be declined.
  • It is treated as a gift card, so you cannot over spend your balance. Even gas pumps will stop at the exact amount left in your balance.
  • Money can be added instantly from a bank account
  • The card can be locked and unlocked from the Wallet app. When locked, it will be declined everywhere you try to use it.
  • If compromised, you can permanently deactivate the card from the Wallet app.
  • You get instant notifications on your phone every time you use the card.

So, a few days before we left for our trip, I transferred $400 from my bank account into my Wallet balance. As we stopped at various gas stations along the interstate, I felt much safer swiping the Wallet card. Between stops, I would go into the Wallet app and lock the card. Then at the next stop, I'd unlock it with the app, buy gas, then lock the card again. I have no reason to believe that my account was compromised, but knowing that even if it was, the thief could only get access to whatever was in the Wallet balance (or not get access to anything if the card were locked), made me feel a lot better. Plus, if the card were compromised, I could deactivate it right from the app and request a new one, no phone call required, and no worry about my primary bank account being compromised, too.

All along the drive, I exclusively used the Wallet card to pay for gas. Of course, I had my other cards with me just in case, but there were never any problems. It worked perfectly and the experiment was a great success. I also loved getting the immediate notifications of remaining balance every time I used the card.

There are rumors that the Google Wallet card may be eliminated soon, and I sincerely hope that's not the case. Along with Wallet itself, Google never advertised the card, never promoted it, never really made any fuss about it at all, and yet it remains a ridiculously useful piece of tech that deserves more recognition. I know I'll keep using mine for as long as I can. If you want one yourself, go to to request one. Note that using tap-to-pay with Wallet is Android only, but all other aspects of the service, including the card, can be used on Android or iOS.

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