Pocket RFID blockers, or even separate sleeves, might do their job, at least to some extent. But does that mean you even need one?
Companies selling clothes with built-in RFID protection make their products harder to wash. Luckily, we kept this in mind when designing our travel jacket. If the Faraday cage is ever compromised by washing or breaking the metallic fibers; then its effectiveness is reduced considerably.
RFID blocking pockets, sleeves, and wallets are designed to help protect you from a very particular brand of electronic pick-pocketing, it is called RFID skimming.
The concern is that your passports, credit cards, and driver’s licenses now come with embedded radio frequency identification chips (RFID). When these chips are activated by an RFID reader, they wirelessly transmit certain types of information. This helps you verify your identity or even make a purchase without actually swiping your card.
The possible downside is that anyone with an RFID reader could activate that built in chip and pick up whatever information they are designed to transmit out. If the thief is sneaky about it, they can do it completely without you knowing.
A few hackers have made headlines over the past few years by demonstrating how a handheld RFID reader can get this information from your chips at a distance of up from three feet.
They can get your name and country of origin from your passport. More alarmingly, in some demonstrations, RFID skimmers have collected whole credit card numbers from the pockets of people as they pass by.
This scare, however, was with the older style chips, newer chips require a reader to be within a few inches.
RFID blocking pockets, sleeves, and wallets are designed to block your cards RFID signals, thus making them harder to read remotely. Tests conducted by several reputable names have found that some RFID blocking products do work better than others.
The bottom line is: if you’re going for maximum protection, nothing works as well as completely wrapping your cards in aluminum foil, effectively making your own Faraday cage. A sleeve or wallet with any open end does not make a full cage.
The bigger question is whether RFID skimming is even a threat worth worrying about in the first place. For all the hype about the danger, there have been few, if any, reports of actual crimes involving RFID skimming.
There are much easier and more effective ways to steal your money and data. While earlier versions of RFID payment chips may have transmitted sensitive data like an unencrypted card number, major credit card companies report this is no longer the case. Their chips now send a one-time code per transaction, so a very determined thief might be able to make a single purchase by recording and replicating the signal he picks up.
So, even if that were to happen, the cardholder would not be liable for the fraudulent purchase under most credit card companies’ theft policies. From the thief’s perspective, it’s a lot of work for almost no gain.
Unlike RFID skimming, ATM skimming is a real and widespread problem worldwide. But no RFID pocket or sleeve will protect you from that. Skimmers now install hardware on ATM or point-of-sale machines which allow them to scan more usable information from a far greater number of cards. See our free travel security pdf for an example of how they do that.
RFID-based contactless payment systems have recently fallen out of favor among U.S. credit card companies. They’re focusing instead on implementing a European style chip and PIN system, system, named after its developers Europay, MasterCard, and Visa, known as EMV, which uses different technology and is less vulnerable to remote skimming. (EMV cards may come with their own security risks, but again, an RFID blocking product won’t help you with those.)
So, skip the extra sleeves, wallets, and built in RFID pockets they are an extra cost and hassle for an extremely small risk.