Have you noticed more credit cards now have a little wireless symbol on them? Those cards contain a tiny RFID chip that lets you tap to pay. It‘s super convenient to breeze through checkout with just a quick tap. But is that same convenience putting your personal data at risk?
If you‘ve seen ominous headlines about RFID skimming, you may be worried thieves can steal your card information right out of your pocket! The solution? Get yourself an RFID-blocking wallet, of course!
…Or is it?
Before you rush out to buy an RFID wallet, let‘s dive deeper into how this technology really works. Are the risks as bad as some claim? Do specialty wallets offer any meaningful protection?
In this article, I‘ll break down everything you need to know about RFID technology and the truth about risks like contactless card skimming. You‘ll get the real scoop on RFID wallets, other safety tips, and whether you need to be worried. Time to debunk RFID myths and decide if an RFID wallet should be your next purchase!
RFID and Contactless Cards: Convenient Tech with Risks?
RFID stands for "radio frequency identification" – it‘s a method of wirelessly transmitting data using radio waves. RFID technology has exploded in recent decades, with uses ranging from inventory tracking to keycards to pet microchips.
One of the most common RFID applications is in contactless credit and debit cards. Major card issuers like Visa, Mastercard, and Amex now offer RFID payment cards as a convenient alternative to swiping or dipping.
These "tap to pay" cards contain a tiny antenna that transmits your payment data via radio frequencies. When you tap the card at checkout, the payment terminal scans it without having to insert or swipe. Fast and simple!
Contactless cards are a hit with many consumers and retailers – Mastercard alone saw a 45% increase in contactless transactions in 2020.
But with any wireless technology comes potential for abuse. The fact that RFID cards transmit your data through the air has raised concerns that hackers could intercept it. And unlike inserting your card into a reader, there‘s no need for the thief to even possess your card!
This has led to fears about a practice called RFID skimming…
Understanding RFID Skimming and How it Works
RFID skimming refers to illegally using a scanner device to obtain private data from someone‘s contactless card or RFID-enabled ID.
The idea is that because RFID cards broadcast wireless signals, a thief could use their own scanner to intercept those signals and steal your information. No need to physically take your card or wallet!
Here‘s a quick rundown of what RFID skimming entails:
Criminals use an illegal RFID "skimming" device that can read nearby wireless transmissions.
When you walk within range with your contactless card, the skimmer picks up its wireless signals.
Your credit card data, including number, expiration date, etc. is captured from the intercepted signals.
Thieves can now either use the stolen data to make purchases online or create cloned counterfeit cards.
So how do the bad guys actually get their hands on skimming devices? And is RFID skimming something you genuinely need to worry about? Let‘s unpack the realities.
Where Do Criminals Get RFID Skimming Devices?
RFID skimming devices are known as "ghost readers" or "tunnel readers" in hacker circles. They act as unauthorized card readers that steal data in transit.
The tech itself is not illegal – RFID readers have tons of legitimate uses. In fact, you can easily and legally purchase RFID skimmers online from mainstream electronics stores and Amazon. Or with a little DIY knowledge, some parts ordered online, and a soldering iron, you could even build your own.
Obviously, then using said equipment to illegally intercept and steal private financial data is very much against the law. But the ready availability of RFID scanners makes the means to skim cards not very difficult to obtain.
Is RFID Skimming Something You Realistically Need to Worry About?
So skimming devices exist, and aren‘t hard for motivated criminals to get. But experts agree that most of us will never face a serious threat of RFID theft.
Why is something theoretically possible not a major real-world problem?
Several key factors make RFID skimming extremely rare:
Short read ranges – Most contactless cards use very short read ranges of just 1-2 inches. Criminals would have to get extremely close, making it hard to skim surreptitiously.
Chip cards are hard to clone – Modern EMV chip cards are difficult to counterfeit. So stolen RFID data can‘t easily be turned into working fake cards.
Low profit potential – Each stolen RFID card yields only a small potential payout, far less than crimes like identity theft. Not worth the risk for criminals.
Education – Consumers use RFID blocking sleeves and wallets, further lowering the odds of successful skimming.
Bogdan Botezatu of BitDefender said it best: "RFID skimming is fantastically inefficient compared to online threats."
The Information Security Forum also concluded RFID skimming remains rare in practice and is unlikely to grow.
Bottom line – RFID theft is no cause for panic or losing sleep. You‘re far more likely to have your payment card data stolen through an online breach.
Nevertheless, if it brings you peace of mind…
Introducing RFID-Blocking Wallets: The "Anti-Skimming" Accessory
…Then using an RFID-blocking wallet may ease any nagging worries about contactless card skimming.
RFID-blocking (aka RFID-shielding) wallets contain material that blocks radio signals from reaching your cards. This stops them transmitting data, preventing skimmers from reading your details.
Let‘s look at what these specialty wallets are made of and how they keep your RFID cards safe.
Metal Mesh – The Classic RFID Wallet
The earliest RFID wallets relied on metallic materials to create what‘s called a Faraday Cage effect. This blocks electromagnetic fields from penetrating the wallet.
A typical metal RFID wallet has an aluminum or copper mesh layer sewn into the lining. Some may also have metallic tape around the edges for maximum signal blocking.
When your contactless card is inside one of these wallets, radio waves can‘t reach it. Any nearby skimmer device simply won‘t pick up a signal. Pretty clever!
Downsides of metal mesh wallets include potential discomfort, heavier weight, and possible wear and tear to your cards. But they remain a budget-friendly option.
Advanced Fabrics – New Generation of RFID Blocking
More recently, advanced "RFID-blocking fabrics" have emerged as another wallet solution. These incorporate materials like nickel, silver, copper woven into nylon or polyester textiles.
Top fabric options include:
- V3 – Contains nickel and copper woven into polyester
- WaveWall – Made from silver nylon with copper strands
- Silvadur – Silver infused nylon with copper and ferrite magnets
Key benefits these fabrics offer over metal mesh:
- Softer and more flexible
- Prevent wear and tear on cards
- Often block NFC/Bluetooth signals too
- More stylish wallets
Leading brands using advanced RFID fabrics include Danalock, Volterman, Crabby Wallet, and many more.
Between metal and fabric, fabric RFID wallets provide the most complete protection and card safety.
To Block or Not to Block: Do You Need an RFID Wallet?
Now that you know how RFID wallets supposedly keep contactless cards safe, should you get one? Or is this just hype and fear mongering?
Here are some things to consider when deciding if an RFID wallet is necessary:
It‘s Unlikely You‘ll Encounter RFID Skimming
As we covered, experts agree RFID skimming remains extremely uncommon. Unless you handle sensitive docs like IDs or travel constantly, it‘s unlikely you‘ll be a target. An RFID wallet solves an issue most of us won‘t face.
Your contactless cards already use short 1-2 inch read ranges too. This makes passive skimming difficult.
Your Normal Protections Still Apply
Remember that dispute rights and $0 fraud liability still apply to contactless transactions, even if skimmed. You‘d simply dispute any unauthorized charges.
Vigilance against account fraud is wise either way. Never a bad idea to routinely monitor your statements.
It Can Provide Extra Peace of Mind
Even so, some may sleep better knowing they have an additional layer of RFID protection. If that added security gives you confidence using contactless cards, it can be worthwhile.
Just be sure you aren‘t relying on it as your sole defense. Don‘t let it lure you into a false sense of security either.
Consider Selective Protection
Rather than a whole RFID wallet, you may want to shield only your most sensitive cards. For example, contactless hotel room keys could be targets.
In this case, some RFID blocking sleeves just for those cards can selectively block skimming attempts when needed.
Weigh the Costs and Benefits
Budget RFID wallets start around $15-20, but premium versions can cost upwards of $100. Consider if it‘s worth that price for marginal added security.
But for convenience and confidence using contactless payments, it ultimately comes down to your individual risk tolerance.
Beyond RFID Wallets: 12 Tips to Keep Contactless Cards Safe
While RFID wallets address the (small) risk of wireless interception, don‘t assume it‘s your only option. Here are 12 additional ways to keep contactless cards safe from various threats:
Avoid oversharing card photos – Cropping out key details still leaves enough for criminals to abuse. Never post full card pics publicly.
Use contactless selectively – Only tap when you have visibility of the terminal. Feel more secure inserting or swiping sometimes.
Keep cards close to your body – Put wallets/purses in front pockets rather than bags for better physical control over your cards in public.
Monitor loyalty/transit accounts – Balance-based accounts linked to contactless cards could let thieves ride free if compromised. Check statements.
Ask about retail security practices – Many retailers have policies to disable contactless readers when not actively used to pay. This prevents rogue skimming attempts within stores. Ask merchants about their practices.
Double check terminals – Make a quick visual inspection that payment terminals don‘t look tampered with or have any suspicious attachments. Most skimmers need to be physically planted on the real terminal.
Consider non-RFID driver‘s licenses – Some states like California now issue IDs without radio technology at the holder‘s request for privacy reasons. Removes the wireless hacking risk altogether.
Use RFID blocking sleeves – Slip-on sleeves to shield individual cards let you selectively protect your most sensitive ones. Quick and affordable.
Try a DIY Faraday wallet – Foil lining works in a pinch. You can easily make a homemade RFID wallet with household materials when needed.
Limit what‘s in your wallet – Only carry contactless cards you regularly use. Leave others at home to minimize what could be skimmed during the day.
Routinely check statements – No anti-skimming wallet removes the need to monitor statements and accounts for fraudulent transactions.
Turn off Bluetooth when idle – Some advanced RFID wallets claim to block Bluetooth too. But you can also just toggle Bluetooth off in settings when not actively using connected devices.
Along with common sense habits, these tips help limit RFID risks beyond whether you use a specialty wallet. Defense in layers is always wisest.
RFID Wallet Showdown: Danalock vs Ekster vs Ridge Wallet
While most RFID wallets serve the same basic purpose, build quality, materials, and price can vary. Let‘s compare some top contenders:
Danalock V3 Wallet
- Price – $$ (Around $35 on average)
- Material – V3 RFID blocking fabric
- Style – Traditional bi-fold wallet
- Protection – RFID, NFC, Bluetooth blocking
Danalock uses patented V3 fabric with copper woven into polyester to achieve broad wireless blocking. Simple, traditional design.
Ekster Parliament Wallet
- Price – $$$ (Around $90)
- Material – Aluminum + leather
- Style – Futuristic, modular tracker wallet
- Protection – RFID blocking
Premium metal + leather bi-fold with integrated solar-powered Bluetooth tracker card. Sophisticated yet modern.
Ridge Slim Wallet
- Price – $$ (Around $65)
- Material – Aluminum, carbon fiber, titanium
- Style – Slim "front pocket" wallet
- Protection – RFID blocking
Iconic slim, metal wallet for those who value minimalist design. Multiple material options like carbon fiber and titanium.
While pricier doesn‘t always mean better, materials and quality differ. Shop around to find the right blend of blocking security, style, and budget for you.
And no matter which you choose, remember…
RFID Wallets Don‘t Replace Good Financial Habits
While RFID wallets can offer an extra layer of wireless security, they don‘t make you invincible to payment card fraud or identity theft.
You still need to practice basic financial precautions like:
- Monitoring your accounts routinely for unauthorized charges
- Securing your devices used for banking and shopping
- Using strong unique passwords and multi-factor authentication
- Only shopping on secured sites and always verifying URLs
An RFID wallet should complement broader security practices, not replace them. Never let it give you a false sense of safety.
The best protection will always be remaining vigilant against the wider spectrum of digital threats targeting your finances and identity.
So don‘t worry too much about relatively obscure risks like RFID skimming. But if an anti-skimming wallet brings confidence and peace of mind as part of a layered protection strategy, it can be a reasonable investment.
Just shop smart and get only the protection you really need. Happy and savvy spending!