Do Credit Card Protectors Work?

Hand of bad guy coming through laptop to discreetly grab the credit cards of of an unsuspecting man's back pocket

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Have you seen radio frequency identification (RFID)-blocking sleeves, wallets, and other devices that claim to protect against data skimming? These products do what they claim to do, but RFID skimming rarely happens, so it’s likely to be a waste of money to buy these products.

What Exactly Is RFID?

RFID is a way of transmitting small pieces of data through electromagnetic means. It was created for inventory tracking but has since evolved into other uses including, passports, credit cards, ID cards, and more. When it comes to credit cards, the RFID-blocking industry has grown to be worth more than a billion dollars.

There are many millions of RFID-enabled credit cards in circulation, but it’s estimated that less than 5% of the credit cards in the U.S. are enabled with RFID. Cards with this technology are much more popular overseas. If your card has a “chip” displayed on it, that is not RFID. What confuses consumers are the ads that companies produce discussing card protectors that specifically magnify the chip. However, the chip has nothing to do with what the devices may protect.

Credit cards enabled with RFID can transmit personal information to an RFID reader that is only a couple of inches away. RFID is a target for hackers since, in some cases, the information is not encrypted, making it possible to intercept and read. (There are, however, other ways to pay wirelessly, such as Apple Pay, which uses another type of technology.)

Security and RFID

Soon after RFID came out, hackers realized they could get information from these products. Known as RFID skimming, it involves taking an RFID reader and simply reading other devices that are transmitting RFID information. Generally, the reading needs to be done in close proximity. For instance, the hacker might place the RFID reader in a backpack, and then brush up against you.

When RFID-enabled credit cards became more popular, people learned how to skim by watching online videos demonstrating how to do it. These videos, however, shared worst-case scenarios and scared a lot of people.

For instance, a video might show one of the bad guys sitting on a busy street corner with a handheld device just pulling credit card information out of thin air. Things got so scary thanks to these videos that some countries even started protecting passports with RFID-blocking technology.

RFID Blocking

Those who sell RFID-blocking devices will try to scare you with stories, and they will probably also use a lot of technical information and specs to push their products. This information isn’t to say that RFID-products don’t work—most work just fine, but so does aluminum foil. All it takes to protect an RFID device is to wrap it in some aluminum foil.

Now, here’s the real kicker: Even if you want to invest in these products, you should ask yourself why you are doing it. In more than a decade, there has been no reported crime committed using an RFID-enabled device. Zero.

Experts have made the same claim—that RFID-blocking wallets and other accessories are unnecessary—for just as long as these items have been on the market. You can find hundreds of articles about RFID skimming, but not a single one of them has concrete evidence that this crime has ever happened!

If you're still worried that it could happen, the aluminum foil solution can put your mind at ease.

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