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Safeway Self-Checkout Security Hole Illustrates The Importance Of Button Sequence

Written by Evan Schuman
July 3rd, 2013

The self-checkout software at a Safeway chain in California, Vons, lets the shopper move directly to the payment area and then still buy more items. This bit of flexibility likely seemed a good idea at the time, until it was discovered that it meant that the next shopper could scan groceries and those groceries would be charged to the payment card of the first shopper.

Nearby stores within the Ralph’s and Albertson’s chains avoid this issue by simply forcing the shopper to close out the order before proceeding to payment, according to a California TV station’s report.

A shopper who got his groceries for free tipped off the TV station to the glitch. The Safeway stores had a “finish” button but was it not required that it be hit before proceeding to payment, the report said. “We are working on a solution that would prevent this problem from occurring,” the chain said in a statement. “In the meantime, we have placed signage at our self checkout terminals to remind customers to collect their receipt prior to leaving the store to ensure that they have completed their transaction.”

Of potentially greater concern, though, is that the store apparently knew of the hole and opted to watch for it and fix it after the fact, rather than tweak the software to prevent it. “Customers can swipe their debit card and enter their Club Card number and PIN at any time during their transaction, but their transaction is not complete and their payment does not go thru until they hit ‘finish and pay,'” said the statement. “Our system has flags that monitor the progress of each transaction and the attendant assigned to our self-checkout area is trained to monitor for these situations, but there still are rare instances where customers do not complete their transaction.”

One wonders how much time was spent watching and fixing these holes and creating and distributing the signs, as well as dealing with customers who were apparently paying for other shoppers. It’s also possible that many of those ripped-off shoppers never detected it, but they will now that media coverage has kicked in. How will those shoppers feel about Safeway’s “let the glitch happen and we’ll fix the individuals who notice later” approach? Compare all that to how much time it would have likely taken IT to simply force that the “finish” button be hit before payment was accepted? Ahhh, the wacky world of retail cost-benefit and analysis.


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3 Comments | Read Safeway Self-Checkout Security Hole Illustrates The Importance Of Button Sequence

  1. Robert Porter Says:

    It would have been interesting if you took a poll of the attendants before this went public about how many were trained and instructed to watch for this scenario. I wonder what the percentage of “yes, we look for that” vs.
    “Huh?” answer would have been. The retailer had no real incentive of fixing the problem. The items still get paid for, just by the previous customer. The only risk to the store was for some bad PR if this got out. They were gambling that it wouldn’t. And for some length of time (I wonder how long…), it stayed hidden from the general public.

  2. Evan Schuman Says:

    I have to disagree that the retailer had no incentive for fixing this. The revenue is the same, so there’s no incentive for letting it happen or continue to happen. This is not merely a PR problem. The shoppers who have to pay double will be furious. Will they blame themselves for not clicking the right button? Of course not. They’ll blame the retailer and likely think they were ripping them off. They might even assume that the next shopper paid for their goods, too, so it’s really a double-charge. This glitch poses a huge threat to the retailer and offers no benefit.
    Will the customers who benefit thank the store? Will they appreciate the store? No, they’ll likely think that store could just as easily have ripped them off. They’ll probably avoid self-checkout, which also undermines the retailer. This is truly bad on so many levels.

  3. Mandy Says:

    I honestly think that customers should be more wary of what is on their self-checkout belt before going to pay. Although, a lot of that can be solved by having better designed kiosks.

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