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Many wallet and bag manufacturers create RFID versions of their products and generally charge a premium for it. Even one of my favorite companies, Bellroy, now has RFID options for many of their wallets and passport cases. Though a lot of people have wondered, “is RFID protection necessary? How real is the threat of RFID?”

What is RFID?

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and is a chip that is embedded in some badges, IDs, passes, and payment cards. The chips contain data and passively responds to special radio waves, typically at a short range. Think of your metro card or your badge at work. There are common uses of RFID chips.

Several years ago, the credit card companies in the US started using RFID chips in their cards and many news agencies reported on the threat of ID theft through RFID skimmers. Security experts showed how someone with an RFID skimmer in a jacket or bag might be able to activate the RFID chips on your card and collect the data. It was very convincing and generated demand for RFID protection in wallets and bags.

Is RFID really a threat?

The answer to the question, “Is RFID protection necessary?”, generally depends on where you live. In the US, it’s not really an issue. Though RFID skimming is a real thing, there aren’t any recorded cases of it. It’s likely due to the fact that there are much easier ways to steal money or data from people. This includes tampering with ATMs or fuel pumps in order to steal information from swiped cards.

More importantly, since 2012, most credit card companies in the US quietly moved away from RFID and adopted the EMV security standard. EMV stands for Europay Mastercard Visa, and it uses the chip that is now standard on most credit and debit cards in the US. Most of the world has been using Chip & PIN for years, and the US has only in the past few years adopted it. Even in 2017, the majority of chip-enabled credit cards in the US are Chip & Signature and not Chip & PIN.

You might be asking, “isn’t the EMV chip vulnerable to radio skimming?” The answer is no. The EMV chip requires direct contact, so it can’t be skimmed by a reader. It does not respond to radio signals, so you can’t skim the chip like you can with RFID.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other cards that still use an RFID chip. In the US, you can still find them in many metro passes, IDs, and work passes and badges. Also, they are still used in passports and some drivers licenses.

Is RFID protection necessary

For most US residents, RFID protection is unnecessary. It’s possible that a thief could steal the information off your passport or ID, but the value of that information is questionable. It’s much more likely that they would focus on easier targets and methods, like the ATM or gas pump.

For European residents, RFID protection is worth considering, especially since contactless payment cards are still being used and promoted. Most are restricted to small purchase amounts (like under £25), and do not require a PIN to complete the transaction.

Tips and considerations

Below are some things to consider when determining whether it’s worth paying extra for RFID protection.

1. Check your current credit and debit cards:

Look for one of the following symbols indicating that it enabled for contactless payment. It’s not common for cards to have them anymore in the US, but they are popular in Europe and other parts of the world.

2. Consider using individual sleeves:

If you feel like you need protection for one or two cards, considering using an RFID blocking sleeve rather than buying a brand new wallet. It’s a much cheaper option and doesn’t add too much more bulk to your wallet or purse.

3. Consider asking your issuer to provide a non-contactless card:

For those of you with a contactless card, you may want to consider asking the bank or issuer whether you can opt out and get a traditional card with stripe and EMV chip.

Do you have a contactless payment card in your wallet or purse, or are you using RFID protection? If so, please share your experience below in the comment section.


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