What Is RFID-Blocking & Does It Still Matter?

Identity theft is no joke. In fact, in 2014, 17.6 million Americans experienced in in some form or another. And it can be extremely hard to determine how your information was stolen if it happens to you and how to deal with it going forward. Your best bet to avoid such a violation is to take steps beforehand to protect yourself from thieves. But with so many risks, how does one manage that?

Well, it can actually start with your everyday carry and travel gear – if you believe all the brands toting RFID-blocking technology in their products. From wallets, to backpacks, to luggage, to apparel, and more – brands around the world have incorporated some kind of RFID protection into the things they sell. But, what exactly is RFID, how does it work, and does it even matter nowadays? These are the questions we’ve taken to task in the following article.

RFID Explained

Tech Behind The Term

Short for Radio-Frequency Identification, RFID is maybe a more widespread technology than you first realize. In fact, It’s used in everything from credit cards, to anti-theft retail tags, to passports, to toll collection, and has even been used as a passive tracking device (specifically for skiers and snowboarders at Vail Resorts). And while it might seem far-reaching and a bit ethereal, the technology is actually pretty straightforward and easy to understand.

Though they operate largely the same, there are two types of RFID – active and passive. Both use computer chips with electronically stored data onboard (like baking information) and can pass that information through the air via radiowaves without any direct contact or even line of sight – which is the primary benefit over bar codes that need to be seen in order to be read. It’s used in everything from credit cards, to anti-theft retail tags, to passports, to toll collection, and has even been used as a passive tracking device.In fact, the chips can even be embedded into things (including living tissue) and can still transmit the data stored onboard.

The chief differences between the two types of RFID are as follows: active RFID utilizes an onboard power source (like a portable battery) to actively send data from the storage device to a receiver. This type of RFID works not just within a few feet, but can actually function at a range of hundreds of meters from a receiver. It’s chief drawback is fairly obvious: it needs power in order to work. The other type, passive RFID, draws power through radio frequencies from a receiver in order to transmit data. This type of Radio-Frequency Identification is most common in things like credit cards, ID cards, and a number of different pay-based systems (from metro cards to bridge and highway toll dongles).

RFID information, however, is not just a random free-for all. For instance, an RFID reader that is responsible for tracking motor vehicles on a toll bridge can only pick up information from designated RFID tags – meaning if there’s a specific company that makes the RFID technology for one bridge, another company’s tag cannot be read. Similarly, credit cards are designed to create single-use codes each time they interface with an RFID credit card reader, thus keeping your banking information encrypted and safe.

RFID Blocking

High-Tech Protection

So, if RFID is relatively safe and not just an apocalyptic free-for-all, why does RFID-blocking technology exist? The answer is simple: just because companies don’t build devices that interact with other types of RFID tags, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With enough technological knowhow, it is possible for a hacker to develop radio wave reader technology that can pick up information off of a wide variety of RFID tagsGear brands around the world began to incorporate something called RFID-blocking technology into their products – including credit card, banking, and identity information. This crime is known colloquially as skimming or RFID skimming.

In the early days of RFID technology, skimming happened quite often – leading to all sorts of identity theft and fraud. Even governments began to take notice and started issuing their ID cards with radio frequency-blocking sleeves. To counter this in the commercial industry, gear brands around the world began to incorporate something called RFID-blocking technology into their products. Generally, this consisted of creating their gear out of materials that do not allow radio waves to pass through them. Often this was achieved by crafting things out of metals or incorporating a radio-wave blocking weave into fabrics. This stopped potential skimmers from being able to steal information so long as your RFID-equipped cards and/or dongles were safely stored away within said gear.

Here’s where things get tricky. Skimming hit its peak toward the early stages of RFID technology’s popularity – around the year 2008. Credit card companies caught on extremely quick and developed countermeasures, including absurdly secure encryption that made skimming all but impossible. By 2010, the Identity Theft Resource Center (a non-profit geared toward helping the victims of identity theft) had reported that there were no more reported instances of RFID skimming and hackers had largely moved onto online forms of identity theft.

Is It Really Necessary?

Risk vs. Reward

Knowing now that skimming has largely been abandoned as a form of identity theft, thanks to the diligent work of banking institutions and gear brands around the world, you have to begin to wonder why so many companies still offer RFID-blocking technology as a feature of their gear – especially in the case of wallet brands. Again, the answer for this is a simple and straightforward one: putting RFID-blocking technology into a piece of gear is a relatively inexpensive What RFID-blocking offers, essentially, is peace of mind.(and sometimes happenstance) safety addition that doesn’t take away any value from the end product.

Whether you’re hauling carry-on luggage around a foreign city or slipping a minimalist wallet back into your pocket after using your credit card to buy yourself some coffee, your gear’s RFID-blocking tech will likely never even enter your train of thought, as it doesn’t add any bulk or affect the functionality of the gear in which it is a feature. So, while you may never be at risk for skimming in the course of your travels, what RFID-blocking offers, essentially, is peace of mind – the knowledge that, in the case that someone tried to steal your information via radio waves, they can’t. No, in most cases RFID-blocking technology may not be necessary, but is it worth the risk considering how out-of-sight-out-of-mind it is?

10 Best RFID-Blocking Wallets

If you, like us, believe that being protected is better than not, you’ll want to take a gander at our list of the 10 best RFID-blocking wallets.