Pickpocketing has become electronic. A thief can carry a scanner, such as a Near Field Communication (NFC)-enabled mobile phone, stand close to victims in any public venue and tag their credit card information in seconds without the card even leaving their pockets. Thieves can do the same to any card that carries radio-frequency identification chips (RFID) waves. These include work identification badges, passports, some driver’s licenses and medical bracelets.
What Is RFID Technology?
Swipe and pay credit card systems, such as MasterCard PayPass and Visa PayWave, embed a small chip in products that enables vital ID information to be transmitted wirelessly to the clerk, reducing transaction time. In contrast to traditional credit cards or ID cards that have a strip that conveys the information, products with RFID chips only require proximity for the data to be swiped. Hackers take advantage of this by using an easily downloaded card-reading app to swipe all that they need to know. The thief has to stand at least six inches away from you for at least 30 seconds to do so, which is long enough for you to detect nefarious activity. Here are three ways to signal-jam your RFID cards.
Buy RFID Blocking Products
Some manufacturers offer a variety of RFID blocking products, such as RFID wallets, RFID passport protectors, card sleeves or secure badgeholders. A Kickstarter company, Articulate, designed stylish handbags and clutches that protect against electronic theft. SignalVault produces a microchip that disrupts a hacker’s activity. Recursion and Armourcard offer a card-sized jamming device to block RFID signals. Some products also use virtual switch technology to turn the card on or off, depending on where the card is held.
Shield Your Cards
Bundle two or more cards with RFID chips together. The scanner can't read them because their proximity confuses the information. You can also wrap the card in thick aluminum foil, sandwich a strip of aluminum foil between two or more cards, or simply place the aluminum in your wallet. The foil should be more than 27 microns thick. BizTech reported that such a shield provided better protection than eight of the 10 tested commercial products. The aluminum acts as an electromagnetic buffer to protect your information.
Replace RFID Cards
The RFID symbol is recognizable by its nested horn-shaped cluster of four curved lines, otherwise known as a Universal Contactless Card Symbol. It also looks like a radio broadcast frequency wave. If you see this symbol on any of your cards, you can ask your card issuer to replace RFID-embedded cards with non-RFID replacements or with the more secure Europay MasterCard Visa (EMV). Chase, Apple Pay and Android Pay, formerly Google Wallet, are safe. Chase changed its contactless payment system in 2015. Apple Pay and Android Pay use the sharply decreased NFC chips with additional security to safeguard card information. On the other hand, issuers tend to replace cards with RFID technology, so be on the lookout for these if you want to protect your cards from theft.
The Bottom Line
More than 25% of all credit card payments are made with RFID technology. This eases transactions but also encourages electronic pickpocketing. Cardholders can protect themselves through a variety of commercial and do-it-yourself ways that range from buying specially designed devices to shielding credit cards through inexpensive means. The good news is that hacking in the United States is rare, largely because RFID-technology limits transactions in America to $25, and a thief has to invade the person's space for 30 seconds to swipe the information. The good news is that, as of 2014, a growing number of banks are replacing older cards with newer EMV chips that protect your cards better than RFID-embedded cards do.