People often ask us whether the bad guys can really scan information from those little microchips that have turned up in almost all credit cards. The short answer is “you betcha!” The credit card issuers have fallen in love with microchipped cards and most of them have shifted their credit cards from the traditional magnetic strip containing your personal and account information to a little microchip embedded in the card containing that information. Yes, the cards retain the magnetic strip, but that serves primarily a secondary backup function. Most systems now use the microchip. That means that the bad guys, with the right equipment, don’t have to work very hard for your data anymore.
Don’t get us wrong, we have nothing against the microchip per se; in fact, we like microchips for a lot of reasons. The good and the bad news, however, is that the microchips make things easier for everyone, including the bad guys that want to steal your information, and perhaps your identity. They can sit back and let their equipment read it for them from a safe distance.
The purpose of this article is not to scare you (well, maybe to scare you a little), but rather, to give you some help in protecting your identity, not just from this threat, but from this and other threats.
With respect to this threat, the simplest and easiest answer is to throw out your old wallet (or save it in a drawer if you have an emotional attachment to it). That was a hard thing for me (Jeff) to do as I have had an affinity to alligator wallets for many years and have used them pretty much my entire adult life. As alligator wears extremely well, I have not had to buy very many and the one I just retired had about 7 years of use and still looks good. But logic prevailed and I got a new wallet with RFID protection. We recommend that you do the same. Maybe one day someone will make an RFID protected alligator wallet and I will get a new alligator wallet. We have seen RFID wallets made of various materials (a variety of leathers, carbon fiber, metal and combinations of the above). Unfortunately, we have not seen an RFID protecting wallet made of alligator yet (darn!).
When you choose the new wallet, make sure that you choose one that has RFID protection. RFID protection properly done makes it virtually impossible for the bad guys to scan your data from the microchips in your credit cards. Be careful when you select an RFID protected wallet, however. Some of the wallets only protect one or a couple of areas and leave the rest unprotected. That means that you need to cram all your microchip cards in the protected slot(s). Any that you leave out of those slots can still get scanned. The newer and better RFID protection wallets have RFID protection in all the credit card slots, making it easier for you to protect the cards and access them without having to fumble through them. Some of the newer wallets have interesting features, for example, I picked up a Segrid wallet in Europe recently. These wallets (made in the Netherlands) have a lever that will push your cards out in a staggered stack making it easy for you to select the card you want to use. I saw several versions of wallets that held 8-12 cards that represented that each of the credit card slots had RFID protection. One example that I saw in a Piquardo shop in Milan held about 12 cards and represented that each slot had RFID protection. That wallet, one of the nicer that I saw, cost 69 Euros. You can probably find it for a bit less in the US as we do not have to contend with the VAT tax.
You can also get purses, belt packs, back packs, slings, a variety of cross-body bags and even jackets with RFID protected pockets. You can put an unprotected wallet into one of those protected areas and protect everything in the wallet. While we have several such items with RFID protected pockets, we choose not to rely on them for one simple reason: If you ever carry your unprotected wallet or a naked microchipped credit card outside of one of those pockets, it remains, well…unprotected. Rather than try to remember which item has which pocket protected, it makes better sense to us to simply get an RFID protected wallet and keep the microchip cards in it. On those serendipitous occasions when you put that wallet inside an RFID protected pocket, you get double protection. Kind of like wearing a belt and suspenders.
In addition to making sure that your microchip cards live in RFID protected houses, we have a few other helpful tips to assist you in protecting your identity from the bad guys.
- Don’t get your wallet stolen! Back in the day having your wallet stolen served as a primary means of the bad guys getting credit card information. Now that newer and better techniques have developed pocket picking has assumed a role of lesser importance. That does not mean the bad guys have stopped doing it, just that it has grown decreasingly significant in some respects. You can minimize the risk of having your wallet stolen by keeping it in a safe location. Men should not carry wallets in their inside breast pockets of their unzipped jackets or the back pocket of their pants. The safest place for it is in the front pocket of your pants (it also works better in terms of comfort when you sit). Women generally like to keep their wallets in their purse, but the bad guys can easily breach the stylish backpack purses worn on the back or a shoulder back loosely hanging at your side. Best thing to do is wear the backpack on your chest (Query: Does that make it a frontpack?). If you carry a shoulder bag hold it firmly under your arm to protect it. By the way, while this kind of loss can occur anywhere it may most likely occur when you travel as you will not have familiarity with your location and will more probably find yourself distracted.
- Clean out your wallet! While the bad guys cannot scan paper unless they get physical possession of it, if they get your wallet, they get physical possession of what you have in it. The less you have in it the better. Accordingly, don’t carry cards you never or almost never use, don’t carry paper that you do not need, such as social security cards or insurance cards. That may also have some health benefits. We know one attorney whose wallet measures about three inches thick because it contains a bunch of paper, receipts, etc. that the lawyer does not need to carry for any reason. He keeps it in his back pocket and it make him sit lopsided. Then he wonders why his back hurts
- Use electronic credit cards more. Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, etc. give you the opportunity to use your credit cards without carrying them with you. More and more stores have started to accept these electronic payment devices, so you can reduce the size of your wallet and your exposure that way. If you do, remember to protect your iPhone or Galaxy or whatever device you use. More about that below.
- Protect your devices! You should always protect any electronic device that carries your personal information. Protection takes several forms:
- Protect the device from damage by keeping it in a proper case and using common sense when you use the device.
- Protect the device with proper security. You should have a secure password and/or biometric protection for access.
- Don’t use public networks for free WiFi.
- If you choose to use a public network, protect yourself and your device with a good VPN (Virtual Private Network). You can get them commercially for very little money. You have many to choose from. We particularly like the NORD system.
Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, where he has practiced since 1973. He is active in the ABA, the California State Bar Association, and the Alameda County Bar Association. He is a co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors and Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0.
Ashley Hallene is a petroleum landman at Alta Mesa Holdings, LP, and practices Oil and Gas law, Title Examination, Due Diligence, Acquisitions and Oil and Gas Leasing in Houston, Texas. She frequently speaks in technology CLEs and is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Technology and Reviews Department of the GPSolo eReport. She is co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors and Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0.