KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's easy to get paranoid that someone will steal your credit card information. On TV and online, there are ads warning that hackers can get your credit card data wirelessly. They're something called radio frequency identification or RFID. A whole industry has popped up around RFID-blocking. Lauren Silverman of member station KERA in Dallas says it survives partly on confusion.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Pickpockets don't actually have to pick your pocket any more.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All I have to do is just get near you with my reader. You may not even know it's happening. And I've got your credit card numbers.
SILVERMAN: In this YouTube demo, a man holds a black scanner 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. It makes automatic payment on toll roads and faster scanning of passports possible. And starting around 2004, the first U.S. credit cards with this technology were unveiled.
WALT AUGUSTINOWICZ: The problem is is there there's no off button on these cards. And anyone with a reader can try and surreptitiously gather data from them.
SILVERMAN: Walt Augustinowicz is the godfather of RFID-blocking accessories. He recognized, early on, people would want to block their credit cards from being skimmed and started a company called ID Stronghold.
AUGUSTINOWICZ: Early on, we had kind of a foil that was inside the wallets. But we actually have special shielding cloth made now that's actually lined inside every wallet.
SILVERMAN: The industry has blown up since. Companies like REI say the number of customers looking for RFID-shielding 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 radiowaves on your credit card, it's likely RFID-enabled. There aren't exact numbers. But according to ABI research, about 26 million were issued last year. That's only about 5 percent of the credit cards shipped.
ROGER GRIMES: In other countries, it's closer to 100 percent, but it's still a very low percentage worldwide.
SILVERMAN: That's Roger Grimes. He's a longtime hacker and computer security writer. He says you probably don't need to buy an RFID-blocking wallet.
GRIMES: There's probably hundreds of millions of financial crimes being done every year and so far, zero real-life RFID crime.
SILVERMAN: Grimes says tracking RFID crime is just about impossible. It's hard to know how someone's information was stolen. Still, he says the reason it's unlikely is simple. Thieves don't want to waste their time.
GRIMES: The RFID hacker has to make sure that there is a lot of people walking by with RFID-enabled credit cards. There's a good chance they're going to be caught on closed-circuit cameras nearby versus I can for a lot less risk go online on the Internet and buy thousands of credit card - all their informations and security code and everything for literally a couple of bucks apiece.
SILVERMAN: And yet, people are still buying RFID-blocking jackets, even fanny packs. Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, says from a consumer perspective, it's all about evaluating risk. In the next few years, there will undoubtedly be more of these cards on the market. But for now, Velasquez is more concerned about other ways thieves steal personal information.
EVA VELASQUEZ: Things like telephone scams - simply asking people for that information, pretending to be your bank or the IRS, sending infected links that will infect your computer and pull all of your banking information if you have it on there.
SILVERMAN: So Velasquez says if you're in the market to buy a new wallet and decide to get one with RFID protection, it won't hurt. But she encourages people to pay attention to basics, like good password management. Finally, if you're worried about electronic pickpocketing but don't want to spend much, you can wrap your cards in a thick piece of aluminum foil. According to Consumer Reports, that works as well as most RFID protectors on the market. Lauren Silverman, NPR News.
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