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Fact or Fiction: Can my credit card be charged in my pocket?

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Posted: Friday, April 29, 2011 4:20 pm

Can my credit card be scanned in my purse or pocket? Will an aluminum alloy wallet protect my money and identity?

Radio Frequency Identification, RFID, is a remote able to send, and in some cases, receive radio waves. The first RFID tag was demonstrated in the 1970’s by Steven Depp, Alfred Koelle, and Robert Freyman. The tags were designed for the collection of tolls.

RFID has been used in a variety of ways:

ID badges – Students, corporate, government

Animal Identification

Tracking – Libraries, warehouses, businesses, etc.

Data collection, storage, and retrieval

Border security - Passports

Recently, credit card companies have implemented RFID into their credit cards. Companies like Discover, MasterCard, and American Express have issued contactless cards; credit cards impregnated with an RFID transmitter. This new credit card replaces those with the old magnetic strip.  A credit card with an RFID transmitter can pass, untouched, next to an RFID scanner. The scanner then reads the information and charges the account.

An RFID credit card is a wonderful idea, in theory. The card is convenient, fast and eliminates any need for others to have contact with the card. Theft from overcharging and skimming could decrease.

Credit card companies claim that the RFID chips are protected. The chips are said to be strongly encrypted to protect the information.  The credit cards use unique processing codes, separate from the cards’ numbers. The codes are never the same, nor are they transmitted. The credits cards are often protected with authentication codes. Transaction information used more than once will be rejected. Generally, the cardholder’s name is omitted from the chip’s stored information.

“According to Visa: To authorize a payment, you must wave your Visa Micro Tag directly within 1-2 inches of a secure reader at an authorized merchant, and it must be properly oriented. Each time you use the Visa Micro Tag, a unique transaction code is generated, which must be verified through the reader before the transaction can be completed.

According to MasterCard: A PayPass card only sends the account number and the expiration date of the card to a reader, along with a dynamic, one-time-only number that uniquely and securely identifies each specific transaction. PayPass cards do not send the CVC2 code (the three-digit code on the back of the card) or any billing address or zip code information. Importantly, the PayPass chip doesn’t even have your name on it.

According to American Express: “expresspay” will NOT reveal your personally identifiable information such as name, address, or other types of information typically required for identity theft, or card account number. “expresspay” uses encrypted and unique codes for each transaction.   As with all American Express products, Card members are not responsible for any fraudulent/ unauthorized charges on their Cards.” (

However, there are special risks to RFID credit cards. RFID chips are always on. The RFID chip is always wirelessly broadcasting your information.

Interestingly enough, it has been found that not all RFID credit cards are encrypted. At the University of Massachusetts a research team was able to build a cheap RFID scanner.  With the use of the scanner, the team was able to obtain the cardholder’s name, number, even expiration date. The data was transmitted in clear text, not encrypted at all. The research team then used the personal information and purchased items online. (Some online retailers do not ask for the CVC2 code.)

Similar scanners are available to the general public and can be purchased for under $100.00. The scanners are small enough to be placed in an iPad briefcase. Once the briefcase neared an RFID chip, the information would be gathered and recorded. Virtual pickpocketing could lead to an increase in identity theft.

Experts are concerned that consumers may fall victim to a variety of thieves. The average crook could be replaced with a retail bandit. Retailers could gather private information, adding it to their databases.

The risks are real. How can we protect ourselves?

Credit cards with RFID technology can be declined. Request the credit company to send a card with the traditional magnetic strip.

Another solution is tin foil. A small, tin foil envelope placed around a credit card can prevent the scanners from picking up the RFID’s radio waves.

Identity is a website that sells RFID blocking products. They sell anything from protective sleeves and holders to signal-blocking wallets. The products are lined with nickel, blocking all RFID transmissions.

Keep in mind most credit card companies cover fraudulent charges. Check your terms and agreements.

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