EMV, named after its founders Europay, Mastercard, and Visa, is the international protocol standard for in-store smartcard payment. In December 2019, EMV was reported to run in over 9 billion credit and debit cards worldwide. Despite the standard’s advertised security, various issues have been previously uncovered, deriving from logical flaws that are hard to spot in EMV’s lengthy and complex specification, running over 2,000 pages.

We have specified a comprehensive model (extended here) of the EMV protocol, using the state-of-the-art model checker Tamarin. Using our models, we identified several authentication flaws that lead to two critical attacks: one affecting Visa cards and another affecting Mastercard cards.

The attack on Visa allows criminals to complete a purchase over the PIN-less limit with a victim’s Visa contactless card without knowing the card’s PIN. In other words, the PIN in your Visa card is useless as it won’t protect your card from being used for fraudulent, high-value purchases.

The attack on Mastercard allows criminals to trick a terminal into transacting with a victim’s Mastercard contactless card while believing it to be a Visa card. This card brand mixup has critical consequences since it can be used in combination with the PIN bypass for Visa to also bypass the PIN for Mastercard cards. As a result of our disclosure process, Mastercard has implemented defense mechanisms, which we experimentally confirmed as effective against the attack.

Demonstrating the attacks

To demonstrate the feasibility of the attacks, we developed a proof-of-concept Android application. Our app implements the attacks as man-in-the-middle attacks built on top of a relay attack architecture, using two NFC-enabled phones.


The outermost devices are the payment terminal (on the left) and the victim’s contactless card (on the right). The phone near the payment terminal is the attacker’s card emulator device and the phone near the victim’s card is the attacker’s POS emulator device. The attacker’s devices communicate with each other over WiFi, and with the terminal and the card over NFC.

For the attacks to work, the criminals must have access to the victim’s card, either by stealing it, finding it if lost, or by holding the POS emulator near it if still in the victim’s possession. The attacks work by modifying the terminal’s commands and the card’s responses before delivering them to the corresponding recipient.

Our app does not require root privileges or any hacks to Android. We have successfully used it on Google Pixel and Huawei devices.

Attack on Visa

The attack consists in a modification of the Card Transaction Qualifiers (CTQ, a card-sourced data object), before delivering it to the terminal. The modification instructs the terminal that:

We have successfully tested this attack with Visa Credit, Visa Debit, Visa Electron, and V Pay cards. A video demonstration for a 200 CHF transaction is given below.

This attack may also affect Discover and UnionPay cards. Our findings have been covered by ETH Zurich, The Hacker News, ZDNet, Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF), ACM TechNews, heise, and a full technical report is given in our paper:

The EMV Standard: Break, Fix, Verify
David Basin, Ralf Sasse, and Jorge Toro-Pozo
42nd IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (S&P), 2021

Attack on Mastercard

This attack primarily consists in the replacement of the card’s legitimate Application Identifiers (AIDs) with the Visa AID A0000000031010 to deceive the terminal into activating the Visa kernel. The attacker then simultaneously performs a Visa transaction with the terminal and a Mastercard transaction with the card. In the Visa transaction, the attacker applies the aforementioned attack on Visa.

For this attack to work, the terminal’s authorization request must reach the card-issuing bank, and for this various conditions must be met, including that:

We have successfully tested this attack with four different cards, two Mastercard credit and two Maestro debit cards. A video demonstration for a 400 CHF transaction with a Maestro debit card is given below.

This attack may also affect JCB and American Express cards. Our research has been featured by ETH Zurich, The Hacker News, and a full technical report is given in our paper:

Card Brand Mixup Attack:
Bypassing the PIN in non-Visa cards by Using Them for Visa Transactions
David Basin, Ralf Sasse, and Jorge Toro-Pozo
30th USENIX Security Symposium, 2021


What cards are affected by these attacks?

We have successfully bypassed the PIN for Visa Credit, Visa Debit, Visa Electron, V Pay, Mastercard credit, and Maestro debit cards. Further EMV cards may be affected but we have no proof of this in the wild.

Has there been any response by the affected companies?

We have disclosed the attacks to both Visa and Mastercard. As the result of a successful disclosure process with Mastercard, the payment network has implemented defense mechanisms against the attack affecting their cards.

What role did Tamarin play in this research?

Tamarin is a state-of-the-art verification tool. With it, we analysed the full execution flow of an EMV transaction with unboundedly many executions occurring simultaneously in an adversarial environment, where all messages exchanged between the terminal and the card can be read/blocked/injected. The outcome of this analysis were the two novel attacks we focus on in the paper, as well as the rediscovery of existing ones. We also used Tamarin to design and verify (under all adversarial conditions explained above) defenses to all attacks.

There have been many attacks on EMV before, what makes these different?

Practical attacks reported before are either conspicuous –thus hard to exploit in practice, or do not seem lucrative for criminals –due to being possible for low amount purchases only. Our attacks allow criminals to carry out high-value fraudulent transactions and are performed using an app that look just like a commercial payment app such as Apple/Google Pay, thus evading detection.

What went wrong? How can such problems be avoided in the future?

Critical data sent by the card during a transaction are not authenticated. Complex systems such as EMV must be analysed by automated tools, like model checkers. Humans cannot deal with the volume of execution steps and branches a complex system has, and so security breaches are often missed.

Should we protect our cards in a “metal wallet” to prevent them being read remotely?

This might help. Although you still have problems if they are lost or stolen.

What actions should I as a citizen take now to protect myself?

Protection measures recommended by banks apply. Block your card immediately upon realization it is lost or stolen. Check your bank statement regularly, and immediately report to your bank whenever you see an unrecognized transaction. Additionally, we recommend that, whenever you carry a Visa card, make sure nobody is holding a device near it against your will. Also, be aware of your back pocket in queues.

Where do I find the Android app?

Nowhere. We do not make it available.


Prof. Dr. David Basin
Dr. Ralf Sasse
Dr. Jorge Toro

Institute of Information Security
Department of Computer Science
ETH Zurich