RFID Protection is Just Marketing

Identity theft and hacking are always in the news, creating an opportunity for clever marketers to prey on those fears.  One of the biggest myths pushed by such marketers is the need for an RFID blocking wallet.  The story is frightening:  they allege that scammers can swipe your credit card information while it sits safely in your wallet using nothing but a handheld scanner.  But security experts agree that this threat is manufactured and the only people that still believe it are the ones selling the wallets.

What is RFID?

RFID stands for radio-frequency identification as is used for contact-less interactions between cards and readers.  For example, if you've ever used a hotel key or ID badge that can unlock a door by touching--not swiping--then you've used RFID.

Hackers made headlines years ago when credit card companies decided to integrate RFID into their cards to create "contactless" transactions.  In proof-of-concept demonstrations to eager reporters, security researchers showed how an antenna and scanner could "skim" card numbers from inside of a person's pocket.  The threat was purely theoretical and we cannot find any reference to actual skimming in the real world (2).  

Major credit card companies stopped using RFID in their cards in 2014 (1) and it's a safe bet that you do not have an RFID credit card anymore (4).  Some estimates say that the far fewer than 1% of cards even have RFID anymore, so it's essentially dead. (4)

Are the new "chip cards" using RFID?

Source: BarclayCardThe latest trend in credit cards is the introduction of EMV chips.  These are ultra-secure ways to conduct transactions and represent the future of credit cards.  They must be physically inserted into card readers and randomly create a one-time use credit card number for the transaction.  Once that number has been used, it cannot be used again and your account is completely secure.

So if you have a new card with a chip on it, this is not RFID but rather a much more secure option.  You do not need a new wallet to protect yourself.  Any wallet company that claims otherwise is just trying to get you to pay for a feature you don't need.

Non-RFID Wallets May Be Better For Your Needs

The clever RFID marketers will reply to these concerns that "you're better safe than sorry", but it doesn't make sense to pay for a feature you almost certainly don't need.  We referenced above that RFID is still used for some key cards--usually offices and gyms--and RFID-blocking wallets will require you to take the card out every time you need to get through the door.  We think this is a real hassle.  It's extremely convenient to simply place your wallet--or rub your thigh--against the sensor and have the door open.  With a RFID-blocking wallet, this trick isn't possible. 

So No One Needs RFID Blocking?

We believe no one needs an RFID blocking wallet.  Period.  We aren't security experts, but we've researched this a lot (see some sources below).  A very small percent of the population walk around with an RFID card--such as an office keycard--against which they want protection.  In this case, you should not trust any random RFID wallet, as no standard exists to certify which products are secure enough.  Your best bet is to get an RFID sleeve, which is industrial-level security and can be had for under $1.  This is the best option rather than trusting some random wallet seller online.

So you don't need an RFID-blocking wallet.  And if you are concerned about one card, you really should use a sleeve instead.  Don't pick your wallet based on scare tactics and deceptive marketing.


Some sources:

  1. "Chase to Discontinue Its Blink Contactless Card", Digital Transactions, May 8, 2014
  2. "The Skimming Scam", Slate, Aug 25, 2015
  3. "There Are Plenty Of RFID-Blocking Products, But Do You Need Them?", NPR, Jul 4, 2017
  4. "Why you don't need an RFID-blocking wallet", InfoWorld, Jan 19, 2016