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What's In Your Wallet?

[Reading time - 4 minutes 1 second]

During the recent 2019 Amazon Prime Days (Jul 15-16) I purchased a new wallet. (No, it was not because I had so much money, I needed something larger in which to carry it; rather, my old wallet had been through a lot and needed to be replaced). When the wallet arrived at my front door it contained a card that said the wallet had "RFID Blocking Technology." It further explained that


"This product CAN block signals from: ID Card, Driver's License, Credit/Debit Cards, Passports (Working Frequency 13.56 MHz)." It also said that "This product can NOT block signals from: Some Hotel Room Cards, Some Building Access Cards, ID Badges" (Working Frequency 125 KHz)."


Do I need a wallet with RFID blocking technology? Does everyone need a wallet with RFID blocking technology?


The answer depends on what's in your wallet now.


Let's start by looking at some different wireless technologies and then the different types of cards that may use a wireless technology.


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is commonly used to transmit information between employee identification badges, inventory tags, book labels, and other plastic or paper-based tags that can be detected by a proximity reader. Most RFID tags are passive and do not have their own power supply; instead, the electrical current induced in the antenna by the incoming signal from the transceiver provides enough power for the tag to send a response. The amount of data transmitted typically is limited to just an ID number.


RFID should not be confused with Near Field Communication (NFC), which is a set of standards used to establish communication between devices in very close proximity. Once the devices are brought within 4 centimeters of each other or tapped together, two-way communication is established. NFC devices are most often associated with contactless payment systems. Users store payment card numbers in a “virtual wallet” on a smartphone to pay for purchases at an NFC-enabled point-of-sale (PoS) checkout device.


In short, RFID is found in plastic cards while NFC is on your smartphone. (Two other common wireless technologies, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, are not used in cards and thus are not part of this conversation). So, we'll focus our thoughts on RFID in plastic cards.


RFID systems throughout the world operate in one of three different bands: low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), and ultra-high frequency (UHF) bands. The LF band covers a range of frequencies but typically LF RFID systems operate at 125 KHz. For a plastic card with LF RFID a signal has a distance of 4 inches (10 centimeters) and is less sensitive to radio wave interference. The High-Frequency (HF) RFID band also covers a range of different frequencies but most HF RFID systems operate at 13.56 MHz that has a signal distance between 4 inches (10 centimeters) and 3 feet (1 meter).


Which plastic cards that we might carry around use RFID, and thus do we then need a wallet with RFID blocking technology?


Normal credit and debit cards do not use RFID technology, and normal driver's licenses also do not use RFID technology. Even credit/debit cards that are what is called EMV and contain a small microchip on the face of the credit card (see image above) do not use RFID technology. So, if those are the types of cards in your wallet you can stop reading here and forget about purchasing a wallet with RFID blocking technology.


Now, the exceptions.


There are a limited number of credit/debit cards that do use RFID technology. How do you know if you have one of those cards? It will have the words "PayPass" or "PayWave" or a Wi-Fi icon symbol on the card (see image above). Without that, it's a normal card that does not have RFID.


If you have a driver's license from Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont or Washington State you may have elected to have an Enhanced Driver's License (EDL). This is designed to provide travelers not only a license to drive but also a proof of identity and citizenship when exiting and re-entering the United States borders. Citizens who have an EDL can use it as a convenient alternative to a passport for entering the US from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean through a land or seaport of entry (it cannot be used for air travel by itself). EDLs do have RFID that will signal to a secure system to pull up your biographic and biometric data for the Border Patrol officer as you approach the border inspection booth; however, the RFID does not contain biometric data itself.


What about a passport? RFID is embedded in the front cover of a passport and contains data like your full name, address, and photo. The agent can then look at the information and then compare the photo displayed with the person in front of him or her. However, the passport book front cover must be open for the RFID info to be sent; a closed passport book does not give its information. This means it would be hard for someone with an RFID scanner to scan a passport tucked away in your pocket. And, if your information were to get swiped by RFID, they wouldn’t be able to do much with it since it is limited.


What about a hotel key card? They use RFID LF. But the only info on the card is typically the room number, the starting and ending dates of your stay, and sometimes the number of people in the room. They have no personal info on you.


So, do you need a wallet with RFID blocking technology? That is, do you need what's called a Faraday cage around your cards? If you have normal credit/debit cards and a normal driver's license, then you don't need it. But if you would like to keep your hotel key card or EDL ultra-safe then you could go for a wallet with RFID blocking technology. Yet remember the RFID LF range is only about 4 inches (10 centimeters), so someone would have to get really close to you with a reader to snare your RFID wireless info.


And if you forget to buy a wallet with RFID blocking technology and find yourself away from home, you can always wrap your cards in an aluminum foil Chipotle Mexican Grill burrito wrapper. That will work, too.


Ladies purses have that RFID blocking technology now too!


Yes, you are absolutely correct.  Sorry, I should have mentioned that.