Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)-blocking technology is a multi-million-dollar industry. Consumers concerned about someone stealing their credit card info using RFID readers can buy wallets, purses, and even luggage with built-in RFID-blocking protection.
The problem is, they're probably wasting their money.
What is RFID?
To put it simply, RFID is a method for transmitting data across radio waves. A scanner then picks up and reads the data. RFID has had many uses over the years, including enabling contactless payment in some credit cards.
When RFID-enabled credit cards first came on the scene in the U.S., they transmitted credit card numbers and expiration dates across radio waves without encryption. This meant that, theoretically, if someone was nearby with an RFID reader, they could intercept that data. This interception is one form of credit card skimming.
When people learned about RFID, they became convinced that criminals would steal their credit card information from inside their wallets. That fear led to the RFID-blocking industry blowing up. Suddenly, RFID-blocking wallets were a thing.
How do RFID-blocking wallets (or purses, or clothing) work? They're lined with a material that interferes with the transmission of RFID signals. Some blockers work better than others, but a few sources suggest that several sheets of tin foil can be just as effective.
Why RFID-Blocking Tech is Unnecessary
Roger A. Grimes, Data-Driven Defense Evangelist for KnowBe4, Inc. has been saying for years that RFID-blocking technology is a waste of money. Not because it doesn't work, but because RFID-related crime isn't a real threat. Here's why:
There are very few RFID-enabled Credit Cards in the U.S. today
First of all, RFID-enabled credit cards were never very common in the U.S. While skimming data from these cards was possible, it wasn't a threat that applied to the majority of cardholders. Additionally, second-generation RFID-enabled credit cards encrypt data before transmitting it. This means that they aren't susceptible to skimming. It's likely that most of the first-generation unencrypted cards have now expired, which means there shouldn't be many around. In case you're wondering, most credit cards use different technology for tap payments.
No Evidence of RFID-related Financial Crime
The main issue with RFID-blocking products is that although RFID crime is technically possible, there are virtually no confirmed instances of it in the U.S.
Grimes maintains that after years of searching, he still hasn't found any concrete evidence of an RFID-related financial crime (like credit card skimming) being committed.
"I still haven't seen proof of an RFID-crime that would have been prevented by RFID shielding products, for sure. I still haven't seen proof of any RFID crimes, but I do think they have happened … such as used to steal a first-generation RFID-enabled starting car … but even in those cases, when I pull up the crime reports or call the police departments involved, or talk to the car manufacturers, none have ever been able to tell me definitely that RFID was involved in the crime, and certainly no one has delivered any proof."
If there's no real evidence that RFID crime is a current threat, what's the point of dropping hard-earned cash on RFID-blocking products?
Emphasizes Grimes, "From every expert I talk to, none think that a crime that would have been blocked by an RFID-shielding product has been committed. But let's say that one day that we learn of one. Is that really a problem that needs to be protected by a huge industry?"
RFID Crime Not Likely to Become a Threat
Grimes doesn't believe RFID-related financial crime will ever become a major problem in the US, mainly because using an RFID reader to skim credit card info just isn't an efficient crime.
"First, the built-in technologies are making it harder to pull off. Second, it's a very low payoff for the risk involved. An RFID criminal has to be present in person … there are cameras everywhere, and what little they can get would amount to maybe hundreds to thousands of dollars of crime."
Bottom-Line: You Don't Need an RFID-Blocking Wallet
If you're worried about someone skimming your credit card info with an RFID reader, Grimes is reassuring: "Don't be worried about it. It doesn't exist (yet). There are lots of threats in this world. Focus on the ones that are actually more likely to happen."
Lloyd Research Institute Director Dr. Gene Lloyd agrees, saying, "Any technology is susceptible to attack, but the current version of RFID now includes encryption, and anytime we include encryption into the equation, we increase the level of protection exponentially. This makes the fancy wallets unneeded."
The bottom line? Save your money and skip the RFID-blocking wallet.
If you want to protect yourself from credit card fraud, review your transactions regularly and immediately report any unauthorized activity.
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