Electronic pick pocketing

12:10 AM, Feb 10, 2011   |    comments
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By Kay Quinn

St. Louis, MO (KSDK) - There's a new spin on identity theft. This one's aimed at some of your credit or debit cards and even some passports and driver's licenses, and it means scammers can get into your purse or wallet without even touching it.

If you have a credit or debit card with a radio wave symbol on it, or a passport that has a gold circle within a gold rectangle on the front, that means they are imbedded with radio frequency identification technology, or RFID enabled.

It's supposed to make paying for things faster. You just wave the card and it's done.

But it's also possible for someone to get a hold of your info without you even knowing it.

"It's frightening. It really is frightening," says Pam Carroll, who has an RFID enabled credit card in her wallet.

Carroll, a native of Godfrey, Illinois, first heard about RFID enabled cards at dinner with friends in November. In December, a new credit card arrived, and she immediately checked for the symbol.

"This one can be scanned," says Carroll.

This is convenient if you're paying for gas or coffee. The tiny RFID chip, a sort of electronic ID tag imbedded in the card, can be read remotely by a credit card reader without needing to swipe the card. The chips are in recently issued passports, some clothing tags, and there's even a version in your pet's ear, if your dog is micro-chipped. But that information can also be stolen.

Using a lap top, skimmers can get your credit card number, name and expiration date when they walk by you with a wireless card reader, available for just a few dollars online.

"It's very scary," says Chenyang Lu, a professor in the department of computer science and engineering at Washington University, and an expert in internet and computer security.

Professor Lu calls RFID amazing technology, but says because the information can be obtained through radio waves; it poses both security and privacy issues.

"When it's radio waves," says Professor Lu, "that means I don't physically need to steal your card."

Right now it's estimated at least 25 percent of credit cards are RFID enabled.

But because the chips are cheap, about $1.50 a piece, Dr. Lu says look for the technology to become even more common-place.

"I think we cannot feel too comfortable about this," says Professor Lu, "because even though it might not be happening every day, I think people are pretty creative especially on the cyber-security side."

Carroll feels a little more secure. She recently bought an aluminum wallet, which was advertised as being able to block anyone from remotely skimming her credit card.

"As much as this has been discussed, and as much as identity fraud is discussed, a lot of people are not aware of this scanning of the credit card," says Carroll.

Here are some other ways you can protect yourself.

The Better Business Bureau says know exactly what's in your wallet and which cards are RFID enabled.

Check your credit card statement every month for unauthorized purchases and report them to your credit card company immediately.

Professor Lu says RFID security and encryption is a very active area of research, so scientists are working on making this technology harder to skim.



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