Guarding Your Credit Cards: Do You Need RFID Protection?

Credit card in a pocket
credit: Twenty20

Have you seen ads for wallets that are insulated with RFID protection? We've even run across laptop bags that tout a built-in lining that protect RFID chips. The question is: Do you really need it? What is the likelihood your RFID-enabled credit cards will be skimmed by a thief who brushes past you? The answer, happily, is low.

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What is RFID?

It's easy to be confused about RFID given all of the new credit card technologies that have come out in recent years. RFID, or radio frequency identification, eliminates the need to swipe your card. You just wave your card at the reader and go. The RFID chip in your credit card is what makes that possible.

Do I actually have RFID?

You'll know if you have one by looking at your card. If you see "PayPass" (MasterCard), "PayWave" (Visa), "ExpressPay" (American Express) or "Zip" (Discover), then you have an RFID-enabled credit card.

An RFID credit card
credit: Visa

Sometimes four curved lines--a radio transmission symbol--is all you'll see to to indicate that your credit card has RFID.

Should I be worried?

Here's the worry: If your credit card can be read from a distance, is it at risk in your pocket?

As much as sellers of RFID-blocking sleeves and wallets would like you to believe that you're in imminent danger, the fact of the matter is that the chance of credit card theft is pretty slim. What makes the threat seem greater than it is has to do with the way it can happen sort-of-remotely. It's one thing to have a thief physically take your wallet. But there's something especially sinister about that same thief magically stealing your card number without even touching you.

The truth, though, is that this is an inefficient way for thieves to go after people's credit cards. When they steal, they typically do it in bulk, snatching millions of credit cards at a time from the websites of major retailers. Think Target (40 million credit cards stolen) or Home Depot (53 million). And even if a thief manages to steal your credit card info using RFID, it's only good for a single purchase; RFID cards generate a unique code each time you use them. Hardly seems worth stealing it to begin with.

RFID competitors

Another factor making RFID credit cards a less-than-optimal target for thieves is their low adoption rate. Most credit cards rely on newer payment technologies. Android Pay, Samsung Pay, and Apple Pay already far outnumber RFID credit cards. A thief would have to be inches away to steal information from an Android Pay device, which uses NFC (near-field communication) technology--and get the victim's permission to boot.

An EMV credit card in a chip reader
credit: Visa

Then there are chip cards, sometimes called EMV (Europay-MasterCard-Visa). These aren't completely contactless, but they've become the norm in just the last year. Like RFID, EMV-equipped credit cards also rely on a unique code each time you use them.

Still worried?

If you're still concerned and prefer to be safe than sorry, there are RFID-blocking products you can buy. Usually, they contain a wire mesh that blocks the RFID signal.

Alpine Rivers RFID-blocking sleeves

They're not that expensive; you can buy a pack of 15 RFID-blocking sleeves for $10 on Amazon. An RFID protective leather wallet for women goes for $15. Men's RFID-blocking wallets range from $10 to $24. If you're a DIY-er, you can skip these items and just line your wallet with aluminum foil. No joke. It works.

Just keep in mind, there are many ways that thieves skim credit cards, and RFID signal stealing is far from their first choice. If you want to protect yourself anyway, don't let us stop you. But with all the things to worry about in this world, it's nice to be able to put at least one of them on the back burner.

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