Preventing portable scanners from pickpocketing data from RFID microchip tags on smart credit cards

RFID credit card protection - shielding "smart cards" from identity theft

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The widespread use of "smart cards", credit cards with embedded microchips that have greatly increased security and functionality, has nevertheless opened up new avenues for identity thieves who can use inexpensive scanners to copy confidential data from these cards remotely.


Many passports and credit cards ("smart cards"), among numerous other products and even pets, now have RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags or microchips embedded in them. These microchips contain personal and financial information which is often highly confidential, especially if linked to bank accounts, credit card facilities, email accounts and IDs.

Some tags are powered by and read at short ranges (a few meters) via magnetic fields and then act as a passive transponder to emit microwaves or UHF radio waves. Others use a local power source such as a battery and may operate at hundreds of meters. Unlike a bar code, the tag does not necessarily need to be within line of sight of the reader and may be embedded in the tracked object. This means that RFID data can accessed quite easily and undetected by anyone with the appropriate scanner, and these scanners can be portable so that identity thieves can wander among crowds picking up confidential data. Identity thieves can buy portable RFID readers and a battery pack for less than $100 on the internet and then connect them to a laptop. The scanner can pick up information such as account numbers and expiration dates being broadcast from a credit card from a considerable distance away.

Some data are encrypted and can be read only by authorised decryption scanners. However, exactly how secure these systems are is rather variable. For example, in an effort to make passports more secure, several countries have implemented RFID in passports. However, the encryption on UK passport chips was broken in under 48 hours.

Use of RFID blocking wallets containing a protective shield prevent the contents of these RFID micochips being accessed unless the wallet is opened and the card taken out for legitimate purposes. In essence the shield is a Faraday cage that blocks electromagnetic signals. There are numerous shielded wallets and purses on the market. You can click the image below to view RFID blocking wallets and other travel security products.

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