Card shields protect against low risk of RFID theft


Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I'm traveling to Europe this summer. Should I purchase some sort of shielded wallet or sleeves for my cards before I go? Currently, all of my cards are magnetic stripe type. -- Bubba

Answer Dear Bubba,
It's hard to put a price on peace of mind. If you constantly worry about thieves intercepting your card data as they walk by you using some sort of receiver, then by all means, go online and buy some kind of wallet or sleeve for your cards. They're not very expensive, and they do what they promise.

However, if you were to assess the risk of someone stealing your card data in this way, it would be somewhere between highly, highly unlikely and impossible. In your case, since you say you have only magnetic stripe cards, it's more like impossible.

Cards that have only magnetic stripes do not emit any kind of data for thieves to steal. It is possible that cards you think have only magnetic stripes in fact also have what's called an RFID chip. Those chips are not as visible as the newer EMV chips. RFID cards were envisioned as a way to have contactless payments at the register, though the idea never really caught on.

A few years ago, those RFID chip cards were the subject of many TV news "investigations" and laboratory tests, which showed that it is possible for thieves armed with only an inexpensive piece of electronic equipment to receive the radio waves coming from RFID chip cards. They just need to pass within a few feet of the card. Think of people crowded against you on a subway or in an elevator, or somebody walking by you in the supermarket aisle -- all are potential electronic pickpockets.

Businesses started making and marketing sleeves and even wallets that blocked the signals.

Most card fraud experts, though, say the risks are tiny, compared with more prevalent card fraud techniques such as hacking into databases to steal information or installing devices onto card readers to "skim" card data. From the point of view of a criminal, those methods might be a more efficient way to gather card data en masse, as opposed to surreptitiously approaching people one-by-one on public transportation.

Justin McDonald, senior risk management consultant with The Fraud Practice, an anti-fraud consulting company, told me, "The threat of someone obtaining your payment card information via RFID while the card is in your pocket is overblown, but it does happen."

Nowadays, banks are replacing older cards with cards that have EMV chips. They've started rolling out EMV cards mostly with reward cards, but within the next few years, all cards are expected to have these chips. When used in conjunction with a terminal that reads EMV cards, these cards are secure to use. Although banks can configure them to be contactless cards, most EMV cards are not contactless -- they emit no radio waves. That means that the average person might not even have a card that is potentially vulnerable.

So in theory, under the right circumstances, if you had the right card, a fraudster could intercept your card information. Personally, I think it is so unlikely that it is not worth worrying about, whether you are traveling abroad or are close to home. Just practice the same smart financial habits that you always should, such as reviewing your monthly statement for unauthorized charges.

Safe travels!

See related: Crooks' new target: your rewards points, Survey: More cards bid farewell to foreign transaction fees

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Published: April 7, 2015

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