It’s complicated, but it’s basically a man-in-the-middle attack that involves two smartphones. The first phone reads the actual smartcard, and then forwards the required information to a second phone. That second phone actually conducts the transaction on the POS terminal. That second phone is able to convince the POS terminal to conduct the transaction without requiring the normally required PIN.
From a news article:
The researchers were able to demonstrate that it is possible to exploit the vulnerability in practice, although it is a fairly complex process. They first developed an Android app and installed it on two NFC-enabled mobile phones. This allowed the two devices to read data from the credit card chip and exchange information with payment terminals. Incidentally, the researchers did not have to bypass any special security features in the Android operating system to install the app.
To obtain unauthorized funds from a third-party credit card, the first mobile phone is used to scan the necessary data from the credit card and transfer it to the second phone. The second phone is then used to simultaneously debit the amount at the checkout, as many cardholders do nowadays. As the app declares that the customer is the authorized user of the credit card, the vendor does not realize that the transaction is fraudulent. The crucial factor is that the app outsmarts the card’s security system. Although the amount is over the limit and requires PIN verification, no code is requested.
The paper: “The EMV Standard: Break, Fix, Verify.”
Abstract: EMV is the international protocol standard for smartcard payment and is used in over 9 billion 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 formalize a comprehensive symbolic model of EMV in Tamarin, a state-of-the-art protocol verifier. Our model is the first that supports a fine-grained analysis of all relevant security guarantees that EMV is intended to offer. We use our model to automatically identify flaws that lead to two critical attacks: one that defrauds the cardholder and another that defrauds the merchant. First, criminals can use a victim’s Visa contact-less card for high-value purchases, without knowledge of the card’s PIN. We built a proof-of-concept Android application and successfully demonstrated this attack on real-world payment terminals. Second, criminals can trick the terminal into accepting an unauthentic offline transaction, which the issuing bank should later decline, after the criminal has walked away with the goods. This attack is possible for implementations following the standard, although we did not test it on actual terminals for ethical reasons. Finally, we propose and verify improvements to the standard that prevent these attacks, as well as any other attacks that violate the considered security properties.The proposed improvements can be easily implemented in the terminals and do not affect the cards in circulation.