These cards use radio waves to transmit your information simply by swiping it through the air in the proximity of the reader. Unfortunately, a recent demonstration by an industry expert showed that this RFID skimmer technology might make you vulnerable to tech-savvy thieves who could steal your credit card information without ever even seeing the card.
The expert, Walt Augustinowicz of Identity Stronghold, recently took a portable scanner costing less than $100 and a laptop computer out onto Beale Street in Memphis with local television station WREG. Over the course of an hour, he managed to skim the credit card info from five people passing by merely by brushing the reader, hidden in a zippered valise, near the pocket of the person holding the card.
Is this tactic being used by criminals to steal social security numbers? Not yet, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, an not-for-profit organization that is unaware of any cases of RFID skimming to date. Nonetheless, in its December 2010 forecast of identity-theft threats, it warned that criminals could "use individuals with hidden card skimmers (either physically swiped while in their possession or by reading RFID chips.)" to harvest card numbers.
Simply knowing the credit card number and expiration date may not be enough for criminals to make a purchase, though. The card validation code, that three-digit code on the back of the card, is not included in the digital information on the chip, so any transaction requiring this number would be impossible. Your personal identification number (PIN) is also not encoded. Also, some newer cards do not encode the name of the card holder, another vital piece of information for "card not present" transactions.
Card issuers are also aware of the potential problem and are finding technological solutions to it. CBS News spoke to American Express, which claimed that it uses an unbreakable encryption process. Discover told CBS that its verification code changes each time it is used, so the information gleaned by skimming could not be used. MasterCard also claimed that its cards were secure. Visa did not respond to the query.
Are you still concerned? Augustinowicz's company, among others, sells sleeves for RFID credit cards that block the radio signal and thereby are immune to skimmers. However, according to the ITRC, wrapping your credit card in aluminum foil will do the same thing.