RFID Blocking: Definition, How It Works & Why You Need It
Nearly every credit/debit card or mobile phone offers radio frequency identification (RFID), which allows for “contactless payment.” This means that you can simply wave your bank card, ID, or phone over a device, which then registers your information and submits it to the appropriate system.
This technology has made a wide range of transactions simpler for both businesses and customers. RFID chips have also improved speed across toll roads, keeping track of cattle on larger farms, and the processing of visa information for international travel.
However, RFID technology is also prone to a new type of hacking called contactless crime since the process relies on the continuous transmission of sensitive information. This is worrisome for consumers who want this easy access, but who do not want to broadcast their bank details, personal identifying information, or other sensitive information.
RFID blocking devices like wallets have since been invented and marketed as a solution to this problem, but are these technologies worth the investment to block potential hackers?
Does RFID blocking work?
It is possible for someone to attempt to steal your identifying information with their own RFID scanners. These are called skimming attacks, and credit and debit cards are particularly vulnerable to this type of activity.
A criminal with the right scanning technology can simply walk past a group of people in a line and pick up information from the cards or IDs of anyone who has unshielded RFID cards on their person. While you can turn your phone on and off, or use some software to protect your computer, you cannot install software onto your bank card or turn it off to prevent criminals from accessing your RFID chip.
The simplest form of RFID blocking for consumers is to make a wallet, purse, or bag out of aluminum foil and tape to hold it together. This blocks the radio signals between any cards or identifying documents you are carrying and potential hackers who might walk by, attempting to scrape this information from you. However, these solutions are not visually appealing or convenient.
RFID blocking materials (like the aforementioned aluminum foil) can prevent scanning in skimming attacks or similar hacks. The encoding process in RFID relies on magnetization in specific patterns that can be picked up when they are unshielded, but many new products use a combination of carbon fiber and aluminum, contained in an appealing case, to protect your documents and bank cards from hacking theft.
RFID uses magnetization to “print” necessary information onto a card, piece of paper, security door opener, or another device you might use. The earliest forms of RFID used coils of copper wire to trigger security doors to open. Modern RFID is much more sophisticated, but works on the same principle.
While it is possible to copy this magnetized pattern, that process has always been complicated and time-consuming. Modern RFID chips do not broadcast a radio frequency like a radio station broadcasts, so your information is not being sent out in waves to the entire world. While it is being broadcast at a low level, the waves stop close to your card, booklet, passport, or other device so that the information cannot be picked up with an antenna and a decoding program.
Do you need RFID blocking technology?
While contactless crime or skimming attacks are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated, current RFID technology does not broadcast your information widely, so this type of crime is much harder unless your bank cards or ID have already been stolen.
As of 2018, theft using RFID skimming attacks was minimal since the criminal has to be very physically close to the individual to steal their information. A report from the United Kingdom found that, in 2018, there was no evidence that a criminal could steal information off a card using contactless theft without physically stealing the card too. So, someone with a scanner cannot walk past you and immediately pick up your information because RFID magnetized information does not broadcast very far from the chip that contains this information.
If a criminal does steal your bank card or other document, they might be able to use a scanner to get some personal information from the RFID chip. YouTube videos show that sophisticated scanners can take a document like a bank card and glean some important information from it, which is one way that your identity can be stolen. However, an RFID wallet will not stop this process since the criminal has to take the entire wallet, purse, or bag with them in order to use their scanner.
How to manage RFID information & prevent identity theft
RFID blocking can help you have some peace of mind, but it may not actually prevent theft of your money or personal information if a criminal gets hold of your documents. Many documents like bank cards or passports that contain RFID information have other modes of protection to deter theft and prevent the type of skimming theft that might happen. For example:
- Credit and many debit cards use a one-time transaction code, which is heavily encrypted, to complete a financial process.
- Scannable information on your bank cards does not include any other personal information, like the security code on the back of the card, which would make this more appealing to criminals.
- Government documents like passports have unique encryption that is much harder to unscramble without approved scanners.
- Passports specifically contain several layers of RFID blocking material except for the small location that can be scanned by approved technology, making it much harder for criminals to skim this information.
To steal your information, a criminal will need to stand physically close to you long enough to gain your bank or passport details, and this will be noticeable. Then, they will need to take the small amount of information they gain and decode it, which is a time-consuming process. Then, they will need to find a way to use this partial information, which is not enough to immediately access anything about you, including your social security number, bank account, health benefits, or anything else.
Although skimming crimes might increase in the next few years as more people adopt contactless payment, identity scanning, or similar processes, this is a difficult crime to commit, and the payoff is not immediate. In fact, security experts note that it is much easier to pay for identity information from the dark web and gain access to credit, bank accounts, or other personal matters that way.
Rather than purchasing a novelty wallet or purse, as a consumer, you should examine the available encryption in your documents or bank cards, so you understand how companies are using the latest technology to best protect you. For businesses that might be concerned that a skimming attack can steal customer information from a scanning device, there are industry-specific approaches to encryption and security that can be implemented so you and your users or customers can rest easy.
There are Plenty of RFID Blocking Products, but Do You Need Them? (July 2017). NPR.
RFID-Blocking Wallet. PC Magazine.
The Skimming Scam. (August 2015). Slate.
Reality Check: You Don’t Need RFID Protection in Your Wallet. (April 2016). Global News.