Millions of customers at risk of electronic pickpocketing with RFID tech

6:37 AM, May 13, 2011   |    comments
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Detective Jim Hudson offers safety tips if you have an RFID-enabled credit card:

1) Beware of your surroundings. If you are carrying a RFID-enabled credit card in your wallet and you are in a crowded environment, beware of who's around you. When using your credit card, watch for any device near the reader that stand out or don’t look right.

2) Don't use your credit card in environments that are not familiar to you. Sometimes smaller businesses may not have the security features that will protect you from theft.

SACRAMENTO, CA - An estimated 140 million credit card customers are at risk of electronic pick-pocketing. 

Cutting edge RFID technology is supposed to make it easier for you to pay.  Law enforcement officials said it's also making it easier for thieves to rip you off.

"I don't have to touch this card to get the information," Placer County Sheriff's Department Detective Jim Hudson said. "I don't have to do anything other than walk by you."

RFID is short for Radio Frequency Identification technology. A RFID chip or tag is embedded in devices like your credit card.

Instead of handing your credit card over to a waitress or clerk to swipe, you can just wave your card near a reader. The RFID reader picks up the information the chip in your credit card and you've paid.

RFID is meant to make things efficient and is becoming more and more popular.

RFID chips can be found in newer passports, FasTrack for toll bridges and pet chips. The medical industry uses RFID chips to keep track of patients and their medications. Walmart and other stores uses RFID for shipping and tracking purposes.

"When it's at its best, it makes things relatively seamless," Sac ramento State sociology Professor Kevin Wehr said.

However, thieves can use the technology to steal credit card information without ever walking away with your wallet.

American Express Blue Card and Chase Blink card are "RFID-enabled" credit cards.

"With a few dollars investment, I can buy a reader that can read the back of these credit cards," Hudson said.

video from BoingBoingTV shows how to hack a RFID-enabled credit card for $8.

RFID readers can be bought online. When the hacker gets close enough to your wallet with his reader, up pops your credit card account number and expiration date.

However, RFID experts said it's a lot tougher to hack your RFID-enabled credit card than it looks.

"The distance in the read is 1 to 4 inches. That's it," RFID analyst Juanice Siler-Campbell said. "It means that if you have a credit card in your pocket, they're going to have to get pretty close to your body to be able to read it."

Credit card companies claim they've taken safety measures to encrypt your sensitive information.

Even so, UC Davis computer security expert Hao Chen warned if RFID chips are not well protected, the information can be stolen easily.

"Even though there's a threat to RFID security, security researchers are working hard to improve it," said Hao.

RFID theft is reortedly a big problem in Europe right now; not so much in the U.S. yet. It's estimated that only 10-20 percent of the credit cards in the U.S. actually have RFID; but 100 percent of them might have the technology in the future.

"If RFID is ever fully implemented in the U.S., we will see an increase in our identity theft cases and our credit card theft cases." said Hudson.

"There are obviously fantastic things RFID can be used for --opening my door, reading information. But if you tell me RFID is tied to my credit card and I'm going to feel safer, you are wrong," said Hudson. "They are implementing a technology that's already compromised. The current security feature is already compromised."

The Identity Theft Resource Center  doesn't have any records of thieves stealing account information using RFID readers. But because the technology is so new, many cases have most likely gone unreported.

There are informercials for aluminum wallets that claim to be ID- theft resistant and protect your RFID cards from readers. Some websites claim you can protect your wallet by wrapping it in aluminum foil.

Law enforcement said the best measure of protection is to use your credit card wisely and be aware of your surroundings.

WEB EXCLUSIVE VIDEOS: Detective Jim Hudson talks more about RFID technology, its dangers and how to be protected.

RFID: A new technology:

RFID technology used for crime:

Future of RFID technology:

By Suzanne Phan,

Twitter: @suzannephan


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