Keeping an eye on important items like passports and bank cards can thwart pickpockets. But what about the thieves who don’t need to get that close? Many passports and cards use RFID technology, and some of them can be open to RFID theft without those things ever leaving your person. This is where RFID wallets and purses can add extra protection to your valuables.
What is RFID?
RFID stands for radio frequency identification, which was first created during World War II to identify British aircraft as they returned to base after a mission. It’s a technology that uses radio waves to passively identify a tagged object. Today, it’s mostly used for several commercial and industrial applications, like banking, shopping, transportation, and more.
For example, credit cards often have an embedded RFID chip that allows you to make payments by simply pressing the card on the scanner. This means you don’t need to insert the card into the card slot. It’s very convenient, but it can also be dangerous.
People have been concerned about RFID chips for years, not just about credit cards. For instance, all passports in the US issued after 2006 have RFID chips that can track photos and information.
What is RFID Theft?
RFID theft, also called skimming, happens when someone uses a scanner to read and duplicate a piece of personal information from someone’s RFID-enabled gear (like IDs, debit and credit cards) without their knowledge. While it’s rare, security researchers have demonstrated successful attacks that could result in things like identity theft and credit card fraud.
When you’re standing in a crowded place, someone can potentially scan the RFID chip in your pocket or bag using a special device, steal your personal data, and clone your card. This is why there are RFID-blocking wallets and purses to ensure that no one can steal your data.
Tech-savvy thieves use RFID reader that uses radio waves to read data. The electronic scanner sends a signal, which is received by an antenna embedded into the card and connected to the card’s RFID chip. These devices can steal your private financial information without even touching your wallet. All they need to do is to be close enough to your wallet with their hidden card reader.
Who are Most Vulnerable to This Type of Theft?
Travelers and people who live in urban areas and those who frequent places like airports, commuter trains, malls, and coffee shops are at the greatest risk of being victims of RFID theft.
How Do RFID-Blocking Wallets Work?
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Wallets with RFID-blocking technology contain a component made of specific types of metal that work to block unwanted scanning or skimming. This technology may cover a range of frequencies, but 13.56 MHz is the frequency to remember when shopping for an RFID-blocking wallet. Debit cards, credit cards, and passive ID badges often operate on this frequency.
Such a reader can scan not every kind of card, but the danger is there. In this time and age when data theft is prevalent, you can never be safe enough.
The purpose of an RFID wallet is to block these radio waves, which, fortunately, are relatively easy to block and interrupt. An RFID-blocking wallet can block signals using electromagnetic enclosure technology known as the Faraday cage. This makes credit cards electromagnetically opaque by distributing radiation or electrostatic charges around the cage’s exterior, protecting its contents from electric charges.
If the wallet is well-made, there’s no way someone can steal your data, as it can block all electromagnetic fields and prevent communication between your cards and RFID scanners. However, not all these devices are created equally. Some are more effective than others, and even the most effective can fail due to wear and tear.
The material designed to block RFID signals is included in the lining of the wallet. While the cards or passport are wrapped inside that material, a scanner cannot read it.
Does my Card Come with an RFID Chip?
If your card is equipped with PayWave (usually used for contactless payment), indicated by a logo on the front or back of the card, then it has an RFID chip embedded in it. This logo looks like a Wi-Fi symbol turned on its side, representing the radio frequency used by the card to make it contactless. American Express Card, Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and a passport all carry an RFID chip.
The absence of the PayWave logo doesn’t mean that your card doesn’t come with an RFID chip. You may want to call the customer service number on the back of your card to verify if your card is chipped with RFID. If you can’t get an answer, you should protect your cards anyway to avoid being a victim of identity theft.
The little metallic square on a credit card does not indicate RFID, but it’s actually a microchip that enables a more secure transaction. Most contactless payment cards have EMV (chip-and-pin) protection. These cards use chips to secure RFID communications by generating a single encrypted code for every transaction.
What Frequencies do RFID-enabled Wallets Protect?
There are three different types of frequencies: low (LF), high (HF), and ultra-high (UHF).
Low-frequency devices operate at 30 to 300 kHz with a read distance of up to 10 centimeters. These are usually applied for security passes and employee IDs that give building access. They are a bit slower than high-frequency enabled cards but are stronger and can be detected through metal.
High-frequency devices have a read distance of up to 1 meter, operating at 13.56 MHz. These frequencies are used for credit cards and government-issued documents, like passports.
Ultra high-frequency devices cover ranges from 300 MHz to 3 GHz, and can be read from a distance of up to 12 meters.
RFID shielding in wallets and purses often protects HF devices unless stated otherwise.
Is there an Additional Cost for RFID-protected Wallets and Purses?
Generally, RFID-blocking items tend to cost more than their typical counterparts because adding RFID shielding material increases production costs.
If you don’t want to replace your wallet yet, you can buy small sleeve inserts to wrap your cards in to add RFID protection to your normal wallet. You can look for RFID sleeves and choose from the many options available.
Alternatively, you can create your own RFID-blocker sleeves. All you need is duct tape, aluminum foil, and clear packing tape. To do this:
- Lay down duct tape strips to make a sheet. Make sure they overlap slightly. Make the sheet larger than you will need the finished pouch to be.
- Carefully lay the aluminum foil onto your duct tape sheet. It must lay flat for best results.
- Then, layer it with clear packing tape to protect the aluminum foil and prevent it from touching the chips on your credit cards. Overlap the strips slightly to ensure there are no holes. Cover the entire area that has duct tape on the opposite side.
- Using scissors, trim away the edges to make a rectangle. Cut the material so that it will be slightly larger than a credit card when folded in half.
- Finally, close the pouch and duct tape the edges. Trim any excess material.
Do You Need to Buy RFID-Blocking Wallets?
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You can, but it’s not a need. If your credit cards don’t come with RFID chips, then you don’t need one. But even if you do have RFID-chopped cards, your risk is low because, presently, RFID thefts appear to be rare.
Because of the risk of identity or information theft, makers of RFID-enabled cards and passports keep upgrading their technology. Still, the bad guys and security researchers keep on working out how to break it anyway.
Lately, RFID keeps falling out of favor because people are now making wireless payments through mobile devices and mobile wallets. For example, Apple Pay had more users on its first day in the market in 2014 than all active users of RFID credit cards combined. Apple Pay is more secure than RFID and works with all major credit cards as long as it supports Apple Pay.
While it’s theoretically possible to steal information wirelessly through RFID theft, actual occurrences are slim to none. The truth is there are much easier and more profitable ways to steal information and financial data.
However, the possibility is still there, and the chance is not zero. So when it comes to RFID-blocking wallets, the reason for buying one is “it’s better to be safe than sorry.”