Business Insider Edition

Here’s how Bank Zero’s patented debit cards work – and why your card number will never have to change

Phillip de Wet , Business Insider SA
 Nov 13, 2019, 12:14 PM
Bank Zero card
(Zero Research patent 2018/06287)
  • High-tech challenger Bank Zero says its debit cards – with "advanced card security" – are now live, and it is on track for launch in 2020.
  • A patent awarded to Bank Zero CEO Yatin Narsai shows how two invisible card numbers underpin that extra security.
  • It also shows why Bank Zero believes it will never need to change your card number, so you will never need to update your online subscriptions.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.


It now has debit cards in testing and is in the "final countdown towards starting public operations in the first half of 2020" the challenger Bank Zero said on Monday, after delaying its launch earlier this year.

The advanced security features of those cards will "dramatically minimise the negative impact of card data theft and card skimming on Bank Zero customers" the nascent mutual bank said in a statement, without providing details.

But a September 2018 South African patent application by CEO Yatin Narsai for "a financial transaction card" shows how Bank Zero believes it can cut down on fraud – and eliminate the inconvenience that comes with changing card numbers used to subscribe to online services.

See also: Bruce Whitfield – Bank Zero has delayed its launch, and South Africa’s soft economy isn’t helping Discovery Bank and Tyme either

At the heart of the plan is three different card numbers used for every Bank Zero card, two of them invisible to customers.

In modern bank cards the card number is encoded in three different places, Narsai says in the patent application: visibly embossed onto the card face, plus in the magnetic strip on the back and in the microchip or "processor memory".

There is no reason those three numbers can't be different from one another – and that allows for "lane processing" differentiation.

The number actually displayed on the card "can be used in situations where highly secured 2-factor authentication can easily be implemented", such as online payments, Narsai says, and then locked for use only in such transactions. A second, different number in the mag strip can be locked for use only for swiping at point of sale devices where smart cards can not be used, and a third number can be unique to the smart card, for chip-and-PIN type transactions.

A card-skimming device of the type scammers attach to ATMs will be able to read the card number on the magnetic strip – but will not be able to use it for fraudulent online transactions, even if they capture a customer's PIN with a hidden camera too.

The system also means "that expiry dates can now be set for ultra-long durations", Narsai says in the patent, which will mean fewer deliveries that need to be organised by the online-only Bank Zero.

Perhaps more importantly for its customers, "the card number shown on the plastic need not change when the card is replaced" – so subscriptions to online services can remain intact even when a card is lost or stolen.

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