You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about the dangers of digital pickpocketing and the need for RFID protection. The idea that complete strangers can steal your identity or credit card information just by walking past you may have you thinking about trading your classic leather billfold in for something more equipped for the digital age. But you may still have questions about what exactly RFID blocking is and whether it’s something you really need to worry about.
There is a growing number of credit card companies offering “contactless credit cards” embedded with an RFID chip to help make purchases faster and more convenient. Additionally, all passports and some driver’s licenses now have these chips as well.
While most credit card companies are pretty good about securing the data stored on RFID cards, anyone can easily purchase an RFID reader online, allowing them to access credit card information from several feet away via radio signals. Luckily, products like RFID blocking wallets can interrupt RFID frequencies, so you never have to worry about your card being compromised.
How Does RFID Work?
Simply put, Radio-Frequency Identification, or RFID, is the use of radio waves to transmit information from an RFID “tag,” or chip, to a reader.
RFID technology has been around since the 1960s and has boomed in recent years. Today, RFID chips containing digital information are stored in items like passports, security badges, key fobs, pet ID tags, medical equipment, library books, and even some driver’s licenses for tracking purposes or for storing personal details such as account information.
More recently, RFID tags have been embedded into credit cards allowing users to make purchases by simply holding their card near a payment terminal rather than swiping it or inserting it into the chip reader.
“Contactless credit cards,” as they’ve come to be known, work by holding the card near a card reader that is equipped with an RFID scanner. The RFID chip then communicates with the card reader via electromagnetic frequency to share credit card information with the store’s systems to complete the transaction.
This innovation has proved useful, making credit card transactions more convenient and up to 10 times faster than traditional payment methods.
How Do Criminals Use RFID to Steal Information?
Luckily, cards equipped with RFID technology are actually pretty well protected against most fraudulent schemes. RFID cards are even considered one of the most secure payment methods there is when it comes to credit card transactions thanks to advanced encryption and password strategies.
However, handheld RFID readers with the same technology as your local retail stores can easily be purchased online for as little as $20. These RFID skimmers can easily pick up signals from a credit card, passport, or ID from several feet away. Some smartphones even have built-in readers, allowing people to scan credit cards with their phones through an app.
Your card doesn’t even have to be left out in the open to be vulnerable. RFID readers can pick up signals through clothes, bags, and wallets. You could be walking down the street, dining at a restaurant, or waiting in line at the grocery store when a digital pickpocketer could walk by with an RFID skimmer and download your data almost instantly.
Once a thief has access to the personally identifiable information stored on your RFID tag, including your name, credit card number, and a wealth of other personal data, they can commit identity theft or create a clone of your credit card to make unauthorized purchases.
How Do I Know if My Card Has an RFID Chip?
If you’re unsure whether you have an RFID chip in your credit card or ID, you’re not alone. RFID tags are embedded inside cards and are not visible from the outside, so unless you already use your card for contactless payment, you may not even realize it’s there.
So how do you know if you have an RFID card? If you have a newer credit card, chances are you do. Many mainstream credit card companies are implementing contactless credit cards, including American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Discover.
An easy way to tell if your credit card has an RFID chip is to look for an RFID symbol on the front or back of the card. The symbol looks similar to a sideways WiFi symbol or radio waves.
However, it’s important to note that not all cards with RFID capabilities will have a symbol on them. If you don’t see the telltale icon but want to know for sure whether you have a contactless card, it’s best to call your credit card company to find out for sure.
When it comes to passports and IDs, it’s a little simpler. All U.S. passports issued after Oct. 26, 2006, have what the Department of Homeland Security calls an “e-passport chip,” or RFID tag, containing the same information found on the hard copy.
As far as IDs go, only “enhanced driver’s licenses” have RFID chips in them. An enhanced driver’s license allows travelers to cross the Canadian, Mexican, and Caribbean borders more easily and at a lower cost.
However, not all states have the ability to issue these special licenses yet. In the U.S., only those residing in Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Washington, or Vermont with an enhanced license need to consider RFID protection for their ID. Plenty of other states are working toward implementing these IDs, however, so it’s a good idea to stay up to date on the current policies where you live.
How Can I Protect Myself From RFID Theft?
While it’s definitely scary how easily a thief can steal your information in this digital age, it’s actually pretty simple to protect yourself from RFID theft.
First and foremost, stay aware of your surroundings. Be wary of any strange characters who seem like they’re trying to get close to you or who are generally acting in an unusual manner, which you really should be doing anyway!
But regardless of whether you’re hyper-observant of odd behavior or the carefree type who tends to be trusting of those around you, the use of RFID-blocking products like our minimalist GeoGrit wallet can put your mind at ease.
Wallets made from RFID blocking material interfere with the radio frequency emitted from your chipped card, preventing an RFID reader from picking up a signal and accessing your personal information.
But how do you know if you already have an RFID wallet? When you buy an RFID blocking wallet, it should be clearly labeled as such. If it’s been a while since you bought your last billfold, you can always use an RFID scanner to find out if you’re protected or play it safe by purchasing a new one (you deserve one anyway.)
Are There Other Ways to Block RFID?
One of the oldest and cheapest tricks in the book for blocking RFID is wrapping your cards in aluminum foil.
While this method does somewhat successfully work as a DIY RFID blocker, it is by no means foolproof. While aluminum naturally interferes with electromagnetic frequencies, aluminum foil often has other metals or minerals mixed in, rendering it a bit less reliable and a lot less fashionable.
Even though there’s a good chance you could wrap your cards in aluminum foil and never have an issue with RFID theft, there are still some downsides to this approach.
Unless the idea of meticulously cutting rectangular pieces of foil and wrapping each card in it sounds like an enjoyable task, you might be better off just buying something designed to do the job. Plus, think about the awkward encounter you’ll have each time you have to unwrap and rewrap a credit card while standing in a checkout line.
A slightly (and I mean slightly) more practical alternative is the RFID sleeve. These RFID blocking sleeves are cheap and offer reliable RFID protection, but they’re still pretty inconvenient as you have to insert each card into its own sleeve.
Another more extreme option is to simply disable the RFID tag in your card. There are plenty of methods for doing this on the internet, including microwaving your card or disabling wires by cutting, drilling, or heating them. The issue with all of these alternatives is the obvious damage it’s likely to do to your card, which may render it entirely unusable or cause retailers to reject it as a payment method.
While any of these options will get the job done, the easiest and safest way to keep your information out of the hands of fraudsters is by using an RFID wallet or bag.
How Serious Is the Risk of RFID Skimming, Really?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, credit cards were the number one most common target for fraud among all payment methods in 2020. Many of these reports were related to credit card skimming, in which a criminal will acquire credit card information by planting a device in an ATM, gas pump, or other machine or, of course, by using an RFID reader to download credit card data from afar.
With the overall use of contactless payments in the U.S. rising 150% since March 2019, more people now than ever are at risk of becoming a victim of credit card fraud through RFID skimming.
While some might argue that the actual estimated risk of a thief walking by with an RFID reader and skimming your information is pretty low, it’s actually impossible to say how frequently or infrequently it happens.
When credit card fraud occurs, there’s no way of determining whether the information was acquired via an RFID reader or through one of the many other ways thieves can obtain personal data.
Additionally, contactless credit cards are regarded as a more secure option than magnetic stripe cards and equally as safe as chip cards. Each time a contactless transaction is performed, a unique, one-time code or password is created so personal account information is never shared.
Credit card companies in the U.S. are also required to encrypt any personal data exchanged during purchases, making the information stored on an RFID chip nearly impossible to read.
These security tactics may be effective, but they’re not entirely foolproof. Not yet anyway. And since there’s no way to truly gauge how often criminals use RFID readers to steal information, we think it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Our GeoGrit wallets are expertly crafted right here in the U.S.A to provide secure RFID protection in a compact, minimalist design.If you’re looking for a durable, RFID-blocking, minimalist wallet, check out our selection here. All of our products are designed, manufactured, and shipped in America and are backed by our 30-day risk-free trial and lifetime guarantee. To learn more about GeoGrit, read our story here.