As an extra layer of security, credit cards and U.S. passports are required to have chips to prevent counterfeiting and identity theft. However, what is intended as a security measure actually opens consumers up to a new form of identity theft. With a special kind of scanner, thieves can skim the information while your cards and passport are still in your wallet.
Known as radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, they transmit an encrypted version of your credit card or passport information to a merchant's or customs agent's chip reader. Though many security experts say this technology is safe, one recent identify theft victim would disagree.
Tymikia Jackson was pumping gas at a Georgia filling station, when a woman walked up and asked her for money. Jackson gave her $20, and then a man who was with the woman insisted on hugging Jackson to thank her. Later, Jackson found that nearly $3,000 had been charged using her card information, according to KENS-5.
Authorities say that the man scanned the information from the RFID-enabled card in Jackson's front pocket during the hug.
Because of the equipment and skill needed to steal and use the stolen information, this type of theft isn't as common as traditional skimming schemes based on the magnetic stripe.
But while it is true that the technology has improved since it was first introduced nearly a decade ago and cases like Jackson's are rare, researchers and "white hat" hackers looking to improve security are continuously testing for vulnerabilities—and finding them. And as Jackson's case shows, it isn't always the good guys who find ways past the security measures and encryption.
U.S. credit card companies and merchants face an October 2015 deadline to switch to RFID cards and card readers, if they haven't already. U.S. passports have used this technology since 2007. However, a simpler passport card with a chip that only contains an identification number without the rest of the personal information is available for use when crossing borders by land and sea—for example, to head to Mexico or Bermuda.
Special RFID-blocking wallets are available to thwart would-be thieves. For those who want to keep their wallet or put cards in their pockets, there's Card Guard, a protective covering for chipped cards. Some experts say you can improvise protection by wrapping a chipped card in aluminum foil.