Electronic Pickpocketing is the 21st century version of a crime from the dawn of time.  In the past, a classic pickpocket might exercise sleight of hand or create a diversion to slip into the night with his victim’s credit card information.  Today, they can take the unsuspecting traveler on a ride by simply passing them in a bus station, airport, or stadium parking lot with a concealed credit card RFID reader in tow.

rfid tag

At first blush, the concept of “wirelessly” stealing credit card info evokes images from science fiction films of the 1990s, but the reality is far less nostalgic.  A thief can hang out in a crowded subway station in Manhattan and acquire thousands of credit card numbers in a single afternoon. The same RFID technology that facilitates convenient purchases (up to $25 in the U.S.) also enables a thief to steal credit card info and make purchase like a regular debit or credit card.

But credit cards aren’t the only thing at risk. If you carry around a work badge equipped with RFID, any personal information can be snagged in seconds. This is is known as wireless identity theft.

What is RFID Technology and what is it used for?

wireless payments

Radio Frequency Identification or “RFID” is the latest craze in cashless convenience.  Many banks and credit card companies include the technology in their latest products, imbuing users with “contactless payment” power at equipped registers.  The main idea is to save customers time by forgoing the usual processing waits, receipts, signatures and ID requirements associated with an old school swipe.

Non-powered RFID tags (such as those found in credit cards and even debit cards) can be scanned by powered RFID readers at distances of up to 100 meters away without a direct line-of-sight.  On a global scale, RFID tags are a popular choice to keep tabs on everything from airport baggage to livestock roaming the countryside.

Where is RFID technology used? 

IRFID microchipn the past few years, many companies have entered the RFID “contactless payment” arena with their own name-branded offerings, each with varying degrees of success.  Notable services include MasterCard PayPass and Visa payWave, in addition to other global brands such as Octopus Card and Oyster Card.

RFID tagging has many agricultural, security, and scientific applications, but “contactless payment” is a magnet for con artists because it deals directly with people’s money.

RFID technology can also be found in:

  • Pet Microchipping
  • Toll Tags
  • Access Cards (building entry, parking garages, apartment gates, etc)
  • Inventory control and loss prevention for retail establishments
  • DVD Rental Kiosks
  • Rental Cars
  • Runner’s Bibs for Races
  • Event Passes (such as concerts or conferences)
  • Medical Bracelets (e.g. Alzheimer’s patients)

How do you know if your credit card is equipped with RFID

Approximately 25% of all credit card payments being made today are being performed with RFID technology.  Many people have the capability of making these micro transactions but simply didn’t realize the option was available to them. Sadly, this also means they have unknowingly placed themselves at risk for electronic pickpocketing.

contactless cardFortunately, determining whether or not your credit cards are RFID tagged is very easy.  Simply inspect the card for the presence of the Universal Contactless Card Symbol.  It looks a little bit like a Wifi signal widget knocked on its side, or more accurately, like a classic radio broadcast frequency wave.

What About Apple Pay or Android Pay?

Apple Pay and Google Wallet also utilize contactless payments but use NFC technology rather than RFID. NFC (Near Field Communication) is another popular wireless interface protocol that is different than RFID. NFC has a sharply decreased range of just an inch or two, but it’s capable of performing more complex tasks such as file sharing or video games like the Nintendo “Amiibo” line of collectible figurines.

Aside from the limited range of communication and, Apple Pay and Android Pay feature additional security measures to keep your credit card information safe. In fact, neither of the two actually exchange your credit card numbers with the merchant. Instead, your credit card information is saved to an encrypted virtual account and a transaction-specific dynamic security code is used to process your payment. Additionally, accessing mobile payments on Apple or Android require a passcode or Touch Id.

How to avoid being electronically pickpocketed

It’s not all doom and gloom!  Many companies on the internet sell wallets, sleeves and other accessories for credit cards that actively block RFID scanner waves.  They are affordable, reliable, and used by everybody from security-minded consumers to the US Government. An even simpler solution is to wrap your RFID-equipped card with aluminum foil, which blocks electromagnetic signals.

Assume you are the victim of electronic pickpocketing and the thief responsible racked up thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges while you slept.  It’s a bummer, but don’t lose your cool.  

Check in with your credit card company and alert them to the suspicious activity (if they haven’t contacted you first).  Credit card companies spend millions of dollars a year to track fraudulent spending and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law and will be happy to step in on your behalf.

For more tips on safe and efficient travel, head on over to our Travel Tips section. To learn more about the free TripCase App, click here.