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There Are Plenty Of RFID-Blocking Card Products, But Do You Need Them?

Pickpockets don't actually have to pick your pockets anymore. That's the message you might see on TV or in ads warning that hackers can access your credit card data wirelessly, through something called radio frequency identification, or RFID. In the last few years, a whole RFID-blocking Card industry has sprung up, and it survives partly on confusion.

There Are Plenty Of RFID-Blocking Card Products

In videos like this YouTube demo, a man holds a black scanner the size of a large remote near a woman's back pocket and, voila, he's got her credit card number and expiration date. That's because her card has a tiny RFID sensor chip.

These chips are supposed to make life easier by emitting radio signals for fast identification. The technology helps keep track of livestock and inventory. It makes automatic payment on toll roads and faster scanning of passports possible, and, starting around 2004, brought us contactless payment with certain credit cards.

The problem, according to Walt Augustinowicz, is there's no "off" button on these cards. "Anyone with a reader can try and surreptitiously gather data from them," he says.

Augustinowicz is the godfather of RFID-blocking accessories. A decade ago, recognizing that people would want to block their credit cards from being "skimmed," he started a company called Identity Stronghold. On his website, you can find shielded badge protectors, leather purses, and every style wallet imaginable — from Western bi-folds to purple faux-crocodile mini clutches. The products cost is anywhere from $10.00 to $50.00.

"We actually have special shielding cloth now that's actually lined inside every wallet," Augustinowicz says.

The industry championed by Augustinowicz has blown up since. REI and other companies sell a range of RFID-blocking products and say the number of customers looking for travel bags and credit card sleeves has been growing. That's despite the fact that the percentage of credit cards with RFID chips in the U.S. is extremely small. If you see a symbol of radio waves on your credit card, it's likely RFID enabled. There aren't exact numbers, but according to Phil Sealy, principal analyst at ABI Research, about 26 million were issued in 2016. That's out of a total of 550 million payment cards in the U.S.

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