What is RFID blocking, and do you really need it? [ANSWER INSIDE]

What is RFID? 

Radio-Frequency Identification, more commonly known as RFID, is a type of technology that has been around since the 1960s, but you might not know much about it. If you have a newer credit card, then you just might have an RFID icon on that card, although these types of cards are much more common outside of the United States. The symbol looks like a series of waves – commonly three curved lines that fan out – and it is typically located on the front side of the card. (Note: not all credit cards with RFID technology will bear this icon. If you’d like to verify whether or not your card is in fact equipped with this technology, simply call the number for customer service located on the back of your card.)

Simply speaking, the RFID technology can store personal details, such as account information – or if it’s on a passport, then details about who you are – and can also be used as a system whereby objects or even living things, such as animals, are tracked. RFID technology is also used with important objects such as credit cards and passports because it quickens the speed with which information is transmitted, such as during transactions. 

The object with the technology will feature what’s known as an RFID tag, which can be placed on anything from books to grocery store items and beyond. The data that are thus stored on the RFID tag is then read by the RFID reader. You can think of this as you would a scanner. The information is transmitted through a series of electromagnetic waves, hence the shape of the RFID icon. In this way, objects are both identified and tracked easily through the radio waves. Taken together, the RFID reader and tag make up the collective RFID system. 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. 

RFID and Credit Cards

For almost twenty years, select credit cards have featured the RFID technology that now allows for contactless payment. If you’ve ever been asked to simply tap your credit card against the machine when before you would have to swipe or insert it, then you have paid using RFID technology. It has sped up the rate that stores can get customers in and out, and customers like it because it’s convenient.  

Unfortunately, some of the advantages of RFID technology are also what make people so wary of it. For instance, the RFID tag does not have to be in the direct line of sight of the RFID reader; it can be concealed and the reader will still be able to pick up the electromagnetic waves. With the right technology, such as an RFID reader or even an app on their phone, identity thieves can access your information and download those personal details just by getting close to you and/or to your wallet. 

Not an RFID chip, blocking is not necessary for this card
This is not an RFID chip

Many RFID readers come with an impressive read range on the tags. This, however, is what worries some people who grow wary of criminals wishing to steal their information. If they wanted to, credit card and identity thieves could purchase a reader and would be able to get your data almost instantly. For this reason, many people have pondered whether or not to invest in RFID blocking gadgets. 

What is RFID Blocking?

As the technology and the potential to steal information becomes more advanced, so do the protections that various companies offer. Nowadays, you might see wallets, purses, bags, and even articles of clothing that offer RFID protection that “shields” your information and renders it unable to be picked up by unwanted readers. What they are doing is offering versions of their products that come with RFID blocking technology or materials, thereby interrupting the electromagnetic waves so that your data cannot be read by unwanted RFID readers. 

When manufactured correctly, the wallets, bags, and other objects where you store your credit card will feature material that effectively encases the card and gets between the RFID tag or chip and the reader that is trying to scan it. Think of the encasing as creating a dead zone; you can think of it like when you are in a below-ground room of a building and your cell phone signal is cut off. RFID blocking wallets function in a similar way, only the signal that is cut off is the electromagnetic technology. 

Many of these products which are advertised as RFID blockers, however, are much more expensive than their non-RFID blocking counterparts. As a result, some suggest a simple encasement using aluminum foil around your card or wallet can help to prevent the RFID tag from being scanned and read. 

Do You Need RFID Blocking? 

Taking all of this into account, the question remains: 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 the United States, no legitimate report of identity skimming has been lodged at all, owing in part to the fact that the majority of credit cards in this country do not feature the RFID technology.  

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.

What this Means — For You.

If you are planning on travelling outside of the United States, especially to a country located within Europe, as their major banks are heavily involved in this technology, then for your peace of mind you might want to take the precautions of blocking the RFID waves when you are out and about. The precautions you take for your wallet and credit card should be the same you take with your passport. 

If you are not planning on travelling extensively, yet feel as though you would like to protect your account information, then you can either invest in the RFID blocking products or try the aluminum foil trick. Keep in mind, as stated, that in the United States, this type of fraud is rare, yet you should do what allows you to shop and travel about comfortably. 

Is RFID Blocking REALLY Worth It?

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 minimalist wallets that come with it standard.  That’s perfectly fine.

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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