The noble wallet – an essential carry-on throughout the daily hustle and bustle of today’s frenetic modern society. Coming in many shapes, sizes, colors, and materials, the wallet has evolved into an item arguably as personal as it is practical. 1 Furthermore, many wallet-makers claim their products can help protect your identity from thieves using RFID to read personal information stored on your debit and credit cards. That sounds great!
But, do these RFID-blocking wallets really work? In a nutshell, yes, RFID-blocking wallets really do work. The structure of these wallets contains a special metallic material designed and proven to channel incoming RFID signals around the items within – RFID tags, in this case. To explain exactly how this technology is proven to be effective, we will take a deep dive into the following topics: RFID in a nutshell, how thieves use RFID to steal a victim’s identity and existing technology towards preventing such theft.
What is RFID?
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a tracking system utilizing electromagnetic waves to identify and track special tags. These tags can be active, battery-assisted passive, and passive. An active tag contains an on-board battery and transmits its ID signal to a passive RFID reader (PRAT) in a given interval. An example of an active RFID tag would be the type placed on endangered wild animals to track for conservation purposes. A battery-assisted passive tag (BAP) contains an on-board battery, but only transmits its ID signal when in the presence of an active RFID reader (ARAT). A passive tag does not contain a battery nor transmit an ID signal. Instead, radio energy from an active RFID reader (ARPT) activates the tag therefore allowing the encoded information to be read.
Because passive RFID tags do not need batteries, they are cheaper to produce than active and BAP tags, and they are more compact than their active and BAP counterparts. Plus, passive tags can be embedded within the objects or animals (including humans) provided for identification because they require low-frequency radio waves, and therefore do not need to be within the line of sight of the reader. Furthermore, RFID tags could either be read-only or read/write. Read-only tags are assigned a serial number by the factory which is linked to a database. Read/write tags allow for object-specific data to be written onto the tag by the system user.
RFID systems operate utilize a wide range of radio frequency bands, depending on the speed required to read the specific encoded data. Where the tag/reader system falls within the spectrum of radio frequency is dependent on the classification of tag and what is being tracked. Passive and BAP systems tend to fall within the low to moderate frequencies, with some passive systems in the transportation sector falling within the moderate to high frequencies. Active and semi-active tags are primarily within the high frequencies. Further, the range required to read the tag or receive the tag’s signal can also vary from tens of centimeters to hundreds of meters.
RFID Skimming, Identity Theft, and You
Technological advancement has allowed passive RFID tag/reader systems to become versatile to the point of integration across a rapidly-growing number of sectors; from RFID-enabled asset tags tracking manufactured goods from the stages of assembly to receipt by the customer, to RFID-tagged passports for international travel, and many realms in-between. RFID systems have become one of the most efficient methods of tracking and data storage.
Unfortunately, one of the sectors utilizing RFID technology is that of identity thieves. Basically, anybody with an RFID reader (or RFID skimmer) can steal information from credit and debit cards, drivers licenses, passports, and other RFID-tagged devices. How do they do it? Typically, the thief will set up shop at a distance where they are concealed from the victim’s line of sight.
Using a concealed wireless skimmer, for example, a thief can read RFID-tagged cards within a victim’s wallet or purse while on the move. The thief will then copy the encoded personal information from the targeted card onto a blank card. This new card is now a duplicate of the victim’s card with all the essential information necessary for function, regardless of any encryption placed on the original. My personal wallet can be found here, not sacrificing function over style and still being of very high quality, check it out here!
RFID Blocking Technology
With potential opportunities for identity theft on the rise due to a general increase the electronic flow of personal data, concern towards personal security has, obviously, also been on the rise. Fortunately, there is technology out there effective at preventing unwanted and unnecessary readings of your RFID-tagged cards and other devices. In the 1800s, an English physicist by the name of Michael Faraday discovered that an object can be protected from static electric charges and electromagnetic radiation by completely surrounding it with a conductive material (such as metal).
Basically, the conductive material surrounding the object becomes charged in the presence of electricity. The electrical current flows all throughout this outer material, but never reaches the object inside due to the redistribution of charges – also known as electrostatic induction.
Because this particular action resembles a cage within which an object is protected, any encapsulating device capable of performing electrostatic induction is known as a Faraday Cage. Granted, the phrase “Faraday Cage” sounds like something strictly used within a lab, or something used by a high-school kid trying to become the next Nicola Tesla in his mom’s basement.
However, Faraday Cages can be found in many places outside of the lab. One example would be the special suit worn by a power lineman working with high-voltage. Another example would be an airplane, as the metal body protects those within the craft from lightning strikes whilst flying around storm clouds. Even the metallic body of your automobile is basically a Faraday Cage.
Now we come full-circle to the world of wallets. You may ask yourself, “what does a Faraday Cage have to do with wallets?” Well, it’s pretty simple, if you stop and think about it. As you may know, most debit and credit cards today are equipped with passive RFID tags. Even most driver’s licenses and other government-issued forms of identification are equipped with embedded passive RFID tags.
Where are these cards most often kept? Within a wallet, of course! As mentioned in the “RFID Skimming, Identity Theft, and You” section, identity thieves have ways of skimming RFID-tagged devices without the victims’ tagged items needing direct exposure. Furthermore, since electromagnetism is the primary element of RFID, a Faraday Cage can be a proven defense against intrusive RFID reading.
Fortunately, the engineering and construction of a Faraday Cage are relatively simple. A carefully designed mesh of aluminum – or another pliable and malleable metal – can create a compact and effective Faraday Cage small enough to be integrated within the structure of a wallet, therefore creating an RFID-blocking wallet. However, before you run out and buy the first RFID-blocking wallet you see, you may find it in your best interest to do a little homework first. As with many things, you get what you pay for.
The quality of the internal Faraday Cage determines how effective the wallet is towards protecting your cards from RFID skimming. The more conductive material used does not necessarily correlate to the cage’s effectiveness.
For example, if you create two cages – each with the same amount of material – but one is 3″ x 3″ and the other is 6″ x 6,” the smaller one will be more effective because the gaps between the material will most likely be tighter, creating closer channels of conductivity, and therefore a lesser chance of current breaking through the cage. However, if you have two wallets of the same size with different amounts of internal conductive material, the wallet with more conductive material will generally have a stronger cage and therefore greater protection from RFID skimming. Of course, that means more money to shell out, but wouldn’t you would rather be safe than sorry?
So, do RFID-blocking wallets really work? The answer: Yes, RFID-blocking wallets are proven to work against unwanted RFID skimming, thanks to their internal Faraday Cage technology. 7 Just be sure to do a little homework so you end up with one which will provide consistent, effective protection from skimmers for a longer period of time.
Obviously, further caution should be exercised regardless of how expensive your RFID-blocking wallet may be. First of all, the metallic material of the internal Faraday Cage will wear over time, rendering the protective capabilities eventually useless. Also, careless actions such as leaving your card unattended, keeping account passwords out in the open, sharing your Social Security Number, and many other blunders can leave you as easy-pickings for circling identity thieves.
Furthermore, RFID skimming is out-shined by a much more effective (and profitable) form of identity theft – ATM & point-of-sale skimming.
Basically, a small skimmer is installed (incognito) within the card-reading apparatus of an ATM or public point-of-sale machine. This skimmer directly reads the magnetic strip whilst inserted in the card reader, therefore revealing all of the victim’s sensitive personal and financial data linked to the account. Like the operation of an RFID skimmer, this information can be obtained quickly and remotely by the thief without the victim batting an eye, and can be copied onto blank cards for immediate use. Unlike the RFID skimmer, however,
ATM/point-of-sale skimming is reported in the news far more common and is, therefore, a far more legitimate threat to personal identity.
Nevertheless, RFID skimming is a threat to personal identity which should not be taken for granted. Sure, it may not happen very often as identity thieves are constantly developing their methods towards getting what they want, but being the victim of RFID skimming can leave you in just as sticky of a situation.
All I can say from here is just make it a habit to keep yourself informed of the latest trends in identity theft, and exercise caution with all of your sensitive information. If anything, spend a few extra bucks on a true RFID-blocking wallet!