Protect tappable cards and personal ID from wireless RFID pickpocketing

When I first got my Nexus card for fast entry to the U.S., I really didn’t understand the importance of keeping it in its protective sleeve. It turns out the card uses RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip technology, which over the past five years has also become embedded in passports, health cards, drivers licenses, grocery store dongles, gas station dongles, debit cards and credit cards in many countries to help us get serviced faster by tapping/waving them when we are buying a coffee, gas or crossing a border.

It wasn’t until I came across the Inside Edition episode on RFID electronic pickpocketing that I learned all of the information stored in the RFID chips of these devices can easily be sniffed and stolen wirelessly unless we keep them in a signal-blocking protective sleeve, wallet, purse or bag.

Your RFID enabled cards and IDs can get scanned from 4.5 metres away

The electronic pickpocketing video shows “close-proximity scanning” that occurs within a metre. However you can get scanned from 4.5 metres (14.8 feet) away as noted in the evaluation study of the CBSA’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) Activities. The study calls this “vicinity scanning”. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency talks further about the benefits of “vicinity scanning” in their press release:

“RFID technology enables CBP to wirelessly read the identification number embedded in travel documents such as passport cards and enhanced driver’s licenses as travelers approach border crossings. This identification number is used to retrieve biographic information in advance of inspection, eliminating manual data entry by CBP officers and expediting passenger processing by more efficiently verifying identity and citizenship.

This technology also allows CBP to read multiple cards in a single vehicle simultaneously, further expediting processing while increasing the ability of inspecting officers to focus on travelers seeking to enter the United States. No personally identifiable information is stored on a card’s RFID tag – only a unique number that connects to a CBP-secured database with the traveler’s information.”

It’s great to know my Nexus card only contains my unique database identification number but what about the information on my credit cards and other personal ID cards getting “vicinity scanned”? Walking around with my cards unprotected seems like too much of a risk.

Protect your RFID enabled cards and personal IDs

In doing a quick Internet search I found that RFID signal blocking protective sleeves, wallets, purses and bags are available from more than a few manufacturers. There is no standard for their blocking effectiveness so you will need to figure out which RFID cards and IDs you have by tapping/waving them and then trying them out again when they are in the RFID signal blocking product you buy. If you find a product that works as advertised please do share it by commenting on this blog for others to try. In understanding and sharing the nuances of RFID technology use we can safely benefit from it.

Here are the manufacturers that list products with RFID signal blocking capabilities:

Boconi –
DIFRwear –
Identity Stronghold –
Kena Kai –
Mancini –
Rogue Industries –
Royce Leather Collection –
Stewart Stand –
Travelon –
Tumi –
Walter Drake –
Würkin Stiffs –

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Chris Henry
Chris Henry
Chris is a global digital, operations and IT security expert (and Former CIO) who provides leaders, teams and organizations with innovative strategies, services and solutions. In the first 22 years of his professional career he gained experience in hospitality & tourism, complex omni-channel retail, mixed-use real estate, not-for-profit and professional services organizations including Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Grant Thornton and The Terry Fox Foundation. In 2013 he leveraged his global technology, operations and IT security experience to become a consultant and speaker.

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