What Is an RFID Wallet and Why They Don't Work

September 10, 2020 96 view(s)
What Is an RFID Wallet and Why They Don't Work

You’ve heard the horror stories. You’ve read about them on online forums. People whose credit cards were maxed-out by someone other than them, without their actual card being stolen. That’s the essence of RFID fraud.

RFID is short for Radio Frequency Identification. It has given rise to one of the several forms of digital fraud that uses wireless technology and skimmers to read the sensitive information contained on credit cards. This credit card info is then used to write a new duplicate card. Fraudsters create new cards that function in the same way as the original ones.

It’s not just credit cards that are at risk. Passports too can be read wirelessly and remotely, without the owner’s knowledge. The last thing you want is to have to fight fraud charges levelled against you because someone used your identity to commit crimes.

With this new wave of digital crime, people are now looking for foolproof ways to protect their information. One way they’re doing it is by buying RFID wallets. These are marketed as having the ability to block any attempts at the theft of their credit card information, while their cards are tucked away in their wallets.

What is an RFID wallet, and does it work? This article looks at everything you need to know about it.

What Is an RFID Wallet?

If you have a card that has an RFID chip embedded in it, then you know how convenient it is to walk to a scanner and simply touch your card on it to make a payment. This is as opposed to having to swipe it across a terminal.

Now, imagine if someone walked up behind or beside you, and “scanned” the wallet in your handbag, backpack, or back pocket without you even realizing it. In theory, they could just copy all that data on it and make a whole new card.

An RFID wallet is supposed to be designed to prevent this from happening by blocking the radio waves used to scan your card wirelessly. Card scanners use radio waves to read information off a card or tag that has an RFID chip on it, without the card owner having to “initiate” it. It just needs to be close enough to access the electromagnetic field around it.

An RFID cardholder or wallet is supposed to encase the card in a material that interferes with the transmission of radio waves. The idea is to construct them as a Faraday Cage that blocks all wireless communication between RFID scanners and your cards.

How RFID Systems Work – the Concept of Radio Wave Frequency

While it is quite clear how the cards receive the power to initialize them, the question becomes how the data gets transmitted wirelessly through the air. The key to understanding how this happens lies in the frequency of the electromagnetic waves.

RFID systems rely on two common frequencies to work: 13.56 MHz and 125 kHz. Frequency refers to the rate at which radio waves are transmitted through the air in wave cycles per second. This figure is given in Hertz and is abbreviated as Hz.

RF systems are made up of a transmitter and receiver. For both of them to communicate, they have to send and receive signals at the same frequency. Think of it this way. When you blow a normal whistle, it transmits a sound that you can hear. The whistle, in this case, is the transmitter while your ear is the receiver. Your ear perceives the sound because the whistle transmits the waves in a frequency that resonates with your ear.

If, on the other hand, you were to blow a dog whistle, all you would hear is silence. However, you know that sound waves were transmitted since the dogs responded to it. In this case, the sound waves are sent at a frequency that’s higher than what your ear (the receiver) can perceive. That’s how RFID systems work.

At any given time, the air is jammed with loads of radio waves, all sending data embedded in signals, between different transmitters and receivers. However, they do this at different frequencies. For the RFID card and scanner to communicate with each other, they need to be transmitting and receiving signals at the same frequency.

Reasons Why RFID Wallets Don’t Work

With that brief background, if you’ve been toying with the idea of buying an RFID wallet with an RFID cardholder, you might want to reconsider. Not only is it a waste of your money, but the threat posed by RFID-related crimes is too low to consider investing in blocking technology. Below are a couple of reasons why you may not need an RFID wallet after all.

1. First-Generation RFID-Enabled Cards Are Obsolete

There was a time that credit card companies produced cards that had these chips in them, but not anymore. Once they discovered the potential threat they posed, they stopped making them. So, unless for some reason, you have a very old credit card that you still use, hasn’t expired, and it reads “RFID-enabled”, there’s no cause for alarm.

On the other hand, second-generation RFID cards encrypt the data before transmitting it. This makes it impossible for fraudsters to skim these cards.

First, figure out what kind of contactless technology your cards run on before trying to protect yourself from a non-existent threat. It is very unlikely that you have a card, in this day and age, that runs on first-generation RFID technology. If, in the off chance you do, you can simply get your card provider to replace it with the updated versions.

Plus, not all cards have a contactless/RFID logo. That's not what the small metallic square on your credit or debit card indicates. It is a Europay, Mastercard, and Visa (EMV) chip and PIN security feature, that generates an encrypted code for each transaction. Unless it expressly has the contactless payment logo, you don’t have anything to worry about.

2. The Effort vs the Risk and Payback Is Not Lucrative Enough for Fraudsters

This type of card fraud relies on proximity. Thieves would have to get physically close enough to their target and hover around them while trying to guess where their credit or ID tags may be located on them.

In a world where everyone has a smartphone with photo and video capture capability, and with CCTV cameras mounted on every shop and street corner, it would be very easy to catch the perpetrators. Why would a criminal risk this? For a couple of hundred dollars? The potential payout isn’t high enough for it to become a real threat.

3. The RFID Chips in Passports Don’t Contain Any Useful Information to Criminals

Getting an RFID blocking passport wallet isn’t necessary either since the information contained in the chip isn't your personal data. It’s just a number that links to a government database. Even if it had information like your name and date of birth, it would still be useless to a fraudster since they wouldn’t have any way of decrypting this information.

4. It Is All a Marketing Gimmick

RFID wallets tend to have a higher price point than conventional wallets. The manufacturers of an RFID protective wallet market it as something necessary for your card safety. The truth is it’s all a gimmick for them to sell more wallets. These products have no special “blocking” ability that makes them any better than conventional wallets.

Not because they’re not designed as a Faraday’s Cage, but because of the first three reasons described above. So, buy a high-quality wallet from a reputable company that doesn't have to result in scare tactics to boost their sales. Your ID tags, as well as credit and debit cards, are safe either way. What you should be worried about is someone stealing your actual credit card. That’s where the real danger lies.

5. The Criminal Would Have to Masquerade as a Merchant

As mentioned previously, first-generation RFID cards are obsolete. Second-generation cards encrypt the information transmitted in the radio waves, which renders them virtually useless since no third-party can decrypt it.

The payback also isn’t lucrative enough for them to hang around unsuspecting victims all day in a particular spot, hoping to get close enough to them to steal their information. It would be very easy for them to get caught.

Even with an RFID scanner, the thief would still need access to your PIN or the three-digit number at the back of your card, to decrypt the information transmitted. More often than not, that’s usually a dead-end.

The only plausible way for them to read your card details would be to process it as though they were a merchant and receive a payment from the card company. That’s not something easy to set up since it would also mean running a “legit” business.

So, once again, there isn't any point in getting an RFID cardholder or wallet to keep your cards safe since there isn’t any real threat.

How to Protect Your Wallet from Identity Thieves

Now that you know there’s no real risk from thieves using an RFID scanner to skim your debit or credit card, it also doesn’t mean that it can’t be stolen. Your purse or wallet is still vulnerable to theft, so you need to keep it safe and out of reach from pickpockets.

Best-case scenario: They’re only interested in making a quick buck, so they pull out all the cash and discard the wallet, and whatever remains. Worst case scenario: They realize all the valuable information they have in the form of your credit card info and personal identity cards like your driver's license and use them for fraudulent activities.

It’s a lose-lose situation - either way you look at it. Below are a couple of things you can do to keep your wallet safe at all times.

1. Keep It Close to You

If you’re carrying a purse, make sure that you don’t leave it lying around unattended especially if you’re at a public place. Keep it close to you at all times. It’s always advisable to carry a purse that has a short strap so that it sits right under your arm.

If it has a long strap, sling it across your body and have the bag part of it in front of you. This makes it much harder for anyone with sinister motives to steal it, unlike if it’s hanging on your side or back.

2. Wallets Should Always Be in Your Front Pocket

Unless you’re completely oblivious to how pickpockets operate, you should never carry your wallet in your back or side pockets. It’s the easiest way for thieves to lift it from you without you feeling a thing.

If you don’t have a jacket on, carry it in your front pockets. If you’re wearing a jacket, carry it in the inside a zippered pocket and keep it buttoned or zipped. When you take it off, don’t leave it unattended. Transfer the wallet from your jacket pocket to your trouser pocket when you eventually take off your jacket.

3. Your Wallet Should Only Have the Essentials

Wallets and purses are designed to carry cash and cards. But that doesn’t mean you should also carry your social security card, your chequebook, your passport, your bank debit card, and every single credit card you own. Limit yourself to carrying only one credit card and the cash you need.

Having too much identifying-information on you at all times means you'll have a larger mess to clean up when you lose your wallet and everything in it. It’s also a good idea to take inventory of what’s in there. Make front and back copies of your identification documents and cards, and keep them locked away safely at home. This will come in handy if you ever lose your wallet. That way you’ll know exactly what’s missing.

4. Have a Dummy Wallet With You

Sometimes, it's not the pickpockets that you need to be wary of. You may find yourself in the middle of an armed robbery or criminal encounter when travelling a place that has security challenges. When such situations arise, having a dummy wallet not only protects your real wallet, it could also be the difference between life and death.

So, buy another wallet and put a little cash in it, some expired credit cards, and gift cards that you don't intend to use. You can even add some receipts in there to make it look authentic. That way, if someone robs you, you can hand over your wallet without a fuss, and they can walk away believing that they did.

5. Don’t React to Pickpocket Warning Signs

The ironic thing is that pickpockets usually hang around places that have signs warning the public to beware of pickpockets. This mainly because most people instinctively reach for their valuables like their wallets to check if they still have them, when they see these warning signs.

Doing this shows the thieves where your wallet and other valuables are, essentially making you easy prey for them. Next time you go somewhere and come across a warning sign like that, don’t react. Just read it, make a mental note of where your wallet or purse is, and pay attention to your surroundings to make sure you still have it by the time you’re leaving the venue.

What You Should Be Looking for in a Wallet

Hint: It’s not whether it’s an RFID wallet fitted with an RFID cardholder since we’ve established that they don’t do anything to protect your cards from skimming. Below are five tips you need to keep in mind before you settle on a specific wallet to buy.

1. Keep It Simple

Less is more when it comes to picking a wallet. So choosing one that adopts a minimalist design means that it is versatile enough to go with the majority of clothes in your closet. So whether you’re attending a formal gathering or casual event, you’re good either way.

Keep in mind as well, that your wallet is also an extension of your personality. You can never go wrong with a plain colour. If you pull out a cheesy looking wallet, guess what? People will think you’re cheesy too and that’s probably not what you were going for in the first place.

2. Size Matters for Men

There’s nothing more off-putting than a large bulky wallet that looks like it has a ton of things in there. It makes it harder for it to fit elegantly in your trouser pockets without creating a huge bulge and ruining your overall look.

Get something that folds neatly while carrying everything you need. So before you buy a new wallet, empty your old one and get rid of the stuff you don’t need to transfer to your new wallet. This includes things like expired gift cards, expired credit cards, old receipts, and anything else you haven’t used in a while.

Once you lay out what you need to carry, you'll be able to choose the right size of a wallet that fits your needs. A trifold wallet, for instance, is perfect for someone who carries lots of cards since it comes with several card slots. If you’re more of a cash person, a money clip holder would be perfect for you. If, on the other hand, you’re a mix of the two and you carry a bit of cash and a few cards, then a bifold wallet is just the thing for you.

3. Think of It as a Long Term Investment

A wallet is an investment. It’s not the sort of thing you buy every other month. If you get a high-quality one, you’ll have it for several years to come. So, consider spending a decent amount of resources on it, including your time, money, and effort finding the right one.

Wallets come in all price ranges. You’ll be able to get one that retails for between £5 and £10. Keep in mind though, that it will probably look like it cost £5 to £10. On the other hand, there are high-quality wallets that cost upwards of £100 that will last a lifetime. If you plan to invest in a high-quality wallet, then you should be willing to pay for premium leather.

4. Consider the Compartments It Has

The other thing you need to think about is the functionality of your wallet. It needs to help you keep things like your banknotes and credit cards organized. It should also protect your credit card strips from damage.

If you usually carry SIM or memory cards, some wallets have special slots for these small items. Also, consider getting a wallet that has one or two transparent pockets. That way, you don’t have to take out your ID every time you need to display your credentials.

5. You Can Never Go Wrong With Leather

No other wallet fabric can outlast leather. Full-grain can last forever if you regularly condition it. The same can’t be said for cotton, carbon fibre, or plastic-based wallets.

There’s also something unique about the texture. It’s so smooth and supple and smells great too. It slides in and out of your pockets with ease, and it takes on more character as it continues to age. Then there’s also the classic elegance and appeal it adds to the wallet owner. When in doubt, go for leather.

To Wrap Up

Several factors go into choosing the right leather wallet. Whether it is an RFID blocking wallet or has an RFID cardholder isn’t one of them. So, before you fork over a bunch of cash buying a wallet that has these specific features, you should know that they don’t work.

This type of credit card fraud threat is non-existent, and any manufacturer trying to sell wallets marketed as having this feature is telling a tall tale. So, consider the things that matter the most to you when buying a wallet and steer clear of false advertising. The tips in this article should help.

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