What is RFID blocking, and do you really need it? (Hint: it depends…)

It seems like RFID blocking technology is showing up everywhere these days. It’s appearing in wallets, bags, and even items of clothing. But what is RFID, and how do these products block it? Is this technology necessary to keep your information safe? The short answer is that RFID blocking is not necessary, and companies that tout their RFID blocking products more often than not are capitalizing on consumer misinformation about new technology.

Radio frequency identification, or “RFID,” is not, strictly speaking, a new technology. It’s been around since the late 1960s. First used as a method of keeping tabs on inventory, RFID chips work by transmitting data through electromagnetic (specifically radio) waves that are then picked up and “read” by a scanner. It’s kind of like a barcode, except the advantage is that RFID tags don’t need to be visible to be read by a scanner. They merely need to be in its vicinity. RFID technology has also been used to track livestock and pets, facilitate automatic tolling systems, enable automatic gates, and provide vehicle identification and performance monitoring. Starting in about 2004, some credit card companies began to incorporate RFID technology into their cards to enable what’s known as “contactless payment”–think those “tap & go” options on credit card readers. Each card contains an RFID chip that transmits payment information through the electromagnetic field to be read by the credit card machine. RFID technology also began to be used in other kinds of identification materials, including passports and driver’s licenses. In general, RFID makes scanning these documents quicker and easier, shortening your time waiting in line at customs, for instance.

But RFID technology is not without controversy. Some groups have expressed concern that these RFID chips present a unique security risk. As Walt Augustinowicz, a producer of RFID blocking products, explained to NPR, RFID chips don’t have an “off” button, so they’re subject to a form of digital theft known as “RFID skimming.” Skimming occurs when a someone uses an RFID reader, often equipped with a strong directional antenna, to obtain a card’s information from a distance and without the owner’s consent. The thief can then use the data they have captured to make their own purchases.

In other words, skimming is a kind of pickpocketing that does not require that someone ever even touches you. Scary, right? A slew of YouTube videos demonstrate the ease with which thieves can skim the cards of unsuspecting victims. Sometimes videos show a thief lurking on a busy street corner stealing the information of innocent passersby. But is the threat of having your cards–even your entire wallet–“skimmed” a real and present danger, or are these videos merely scare tactics?

Despite what one expert calls the “doomsday” scenarios of many of these videos, there is little reliable evidence that RFID skimming is a real threat. In fact, in the last decade there have been no reports of skimming thefts at all. Some contend that RFID skimming crimes go unreported because supposed victims do not realize their information has been stolen. Yet, as others suggest, it seems hard to believe that someone loitering on a corner with a giant antenna wouldn’t get caught on nearly-ubiquitous CCTV. It’s even harder to believe that credit card companies wouldn’t stand up and take notice if widespread fraud began occurring in a particular locale. This is especially true considering credit card companies, by law, are liable for fraudulent charges made with your card over the amount of $50. The fact that these companies have not expressed concern suggests that these crimes are simply not occurring at a meaningful rate, if at all.

Closeup of a credit card with a gold chip

But how could this be when these videos make skimming look so easy and lucrative? There are a few simple reasons why skimming is not a realistic threat. One is that less than 5% of credit cards on the market today still use RFID technology. Companies have instead adopted what’s known as EMV chips, which require contact for payment and cannot be “skimmed.” In other words, out of the roughly 550 million credit cards in circulation in the United States, only about 26 million use RFID chips. Moreover, the cards that do utilize RFID chips also use unique, encrypted codes for each individual transaction. That means that if a thief did skim your credit card, he or she would only be able to make one purchase with that information.

Even though the threat of RFID skimming is negligible, products that purport to block RFID skimming have proliferated in recent years. The first of many companies to specialize in RFID blocking products, Identity Stronghold, was founded by Augustinowicz a little more than a decade ago. RFID blocking has become a booming, billion-dollar industry. Not wanting to miss out, REI and other more mainstream companies have also begun to sell products which claim to offer consumers protection. These products range from RFID blocking wallets and passport sleeves to RFID-proof jeans and backpacks. Most of them work by blocking the electromagnetic signal that RFID chips emit. Yet, the efficacy of any given product can vary widely. On top of this, many RFID blocking products do not even interrupt the electromagnetic signal as well as a couple of thick sheets of aluminum foil wrapped around your credit card.

Some manufacturers of these products will tell you that no one can fully prevent RFID skimming. They claim that their products simply reduce the risk of being skimmed and the range at which it can occur. Others blatantly ignore the fact that their products often fail, promising consumers “complete protection against cybertheft.” Some even tout their products’ ability to “jam and scramble” RFID signals. Claims like these are incredibly misleading. The most these products can do is interfere with electromagnetic and radio waves by using materials, like aluminum foil, that either reflect or absorb them.

If these products often don’t work, why do people continue to purchase them? The easy answer is consumers’ misinformation and fear. Most of these companies thrive on jargon and technical-sounding specifications in their products’ descriptions, like antenna length and safety distance measurements. Many capitalize on and even intensify consumer confusion. For example, one product asserts that “98% of credit cards will be converted to microchip by 2017.” Misleading at best, most of these microchips are EMV (which stands for Europay, Mastercard, and Visa) chips, not RFID technology. Ambiguous statements like these capitalize on consumers’ unfamiliarity with how new credit card technology works and converts that unfamiliarity into fear.

There are also serious downsides to RFID blocking technology. For example, jeans with RFID blocking –typically located in the pockets–don’t just block potential scanners from skimming your credit card. They also disable your phone from receiving a signal, making it constantly search for one and drain your battery. The same goes for purses, backpacks, and fanny packs that block RFID. This is because cell phones use those same electromagnetic waves to send and receive signals.

RFID blocking wallets also block the cards you want to be read remotely by scanners, like Oyster cards or contactless bus passes. In this case, RFID blocking technology becomes a hassle and an inconvenience–made all the worse by the fact that “skimming” crimes have never actually been reported.

So, is RFID blocking technology worth it? The real answer is, “probably not.” Given that very few credit cards use RFID technology these days, that reports of actual skimming thefts are non-existent, and that RFID blocking products trade in outsized claims of their protective capabilities, you shouldn’t buy a wallet just because it contains RFID blocking technology. In light of the tangible downsides, you actually might want to think twice before you buy one at all.  Now, we’re not saying that purchasing a wallet with RFID protection is a bad thing…it’s not.  All we’re saying, is that don’t go out of your way (or spend an exorbitant amount of money) to make sure you get RFID protection.  There are some wallets that come with it standard.  That’s perfectly fine.

If you are still concerned about the prospect of RFID skimming, there are a few things you can do. First, determine whether your card uses RFID technology. You can tell by looking at your card. If the card has an image on it that looks like a sideways WiFi symbol, or if it says something like “blink,” “tap and go,” or “express pay,” it might use an RFID chip. If you’re unsure, follow up with your credit card company. Remember that only 5% of credit cards use RFID. It’s far more likely that you have an EMV chip.

If you’re still worried, you can always make your own RFID blocker–and one that works better than most of the products available on the market. Simply wrap any concerning card or cards with a few layers of aluminum foil. Aluminum will disrupt the electromagnetic field and disable any threatening scanners.

The sad truth is that there are much easier, familiar, and comparatively low-tech ways for thieves to steal your information, such as telephone scams and ATM skimmers. If you really want to avoid cybercrime, you’re better off checking your credit report often and practicing good password management than you are buying RFID blocking products.

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