You probably know that the embedded computer chips now found in most credit and debit cards are meant to protect you from financial fraud. And you also may have heard that thieves could now steal your card number just by walking near you, or you may have seen ads for products to prevent this kind of theft, known as RFID skimming. But before you run out and buy an RFID wallet, here’s what you need to know.
Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) is the use of radio waves to read and capture information stored on a chip attached to an object. An RFID chip can be read from up to several feet away. RFID chips, or “tags,” have been used by businesses for years to manage inventory and shipments, and they have been used in access badges for security systems.
More recently, RFID chips have been used to make credit cards that can be read without being scanned through a machine, and they have also been added to some passports and driver’s licenses. The idea is to improve convenience and security—sort of like grocery stores without checkout lines because your purchases and credit card are automatically read on your way out the door. However, security experts have shown that a thief with an RFID reader could also steal your credit card number or personal information just walking by you. It’s a scary thought, but it’s very unlikely to happen for a few reasons.
First, most of the new chip credit cards are not RFID-capable: in other words, they don’t actually transmit information that could be captured without sticking the card in a reader. Second, even if you have one of the special contactless cards, such as Visa PayWave or MasterCard PayPass, those cards securely encrypt the information they transmit. Last, RFID scanning is not an “efficient crime” – it’s time consuming for a criminal to walk within a few feet of every potential victim. And this crime is hit-or-miss and depends on whether people are using this technology and whether enough information can actually be stolen. It’s far easier and faster to steal hundreds or thousands of credit card numbers and identities with a good Internet scam or by simply buying the information on
Identity theft, including credit card fraud, is a real danger, but the threat of RFID skimming is the least of your worries. If you really want to protect your credit cards and personal information, be on the lookout for internet scams, be careful when using public wi-fi networks or using your mobile device for transactions in public places, and of course use strong passwords on all your accounts, and change them often. If you really do need RFID protection, there’s a cheap, easy solution: researchers at Consumer Reports magazine found that while RFID wallets don’t always work, simply wrapping an RFID-capable card or document in a piece of foil works just fine.