RFID Can Be Hacked: Here’s How, & What You Can Do To Stay Safe

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rfid hackingHow much do you know about RFID chips? Do you know how many you’re carrying at any given moment? Do you know what information is stored on them? Do you know how close a hacker needs to get to you in order to steal that information? Have you considered any form of RFID protection? And most importantly, do you know what RFID protection will be effective?

These days, RFID chips are present in all sorts of items, such as credit cards, library books, grocery goods, security tags, implanted pet details, implanted medical records, passports and more. Some schools now require their students wear RFID tags. The amount of information which could be learned about you from your RFID chips is quite a lot! Plus, you never know what those information thieves are planning on doing with your information, either. So, it’s best to understand the risks of RFID hacking and limit your exposure to harm. Here’s the basics of what you need to know.

What Is RFID?

RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification and it’s used for short-distance communication of information. It does not require line of sight to work, meaning that the RFID chip and the reader merely need to be within range of each other to communicate.

There are a few main types of RFID chip:

  • Passive Tags require a radio signal to be emitted from the receiver in order to be read. This also means they operate on a small distance and can’t transmit a lot of data. Examples of these can be found in credit cards and door passes.
  • Active Tags have on-board batteries and can therefore actively transmit their data over a larger distance. Also, they can transmit a larger amount of data than passive tags. Examples of active tags include toll passes mounted in cars.

rfid hacking

RFID frequencies vary according to the device and country, but usually operate in this range:

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  • Low Frequency RFID is <135 KHz
  • High Frequency RFID is 13.56 MHz
  • Ultra High Frequency (UFH) RFID is 868-870 MHz or 902-928 MHz
  • Super High Frequency (SHF) RFID is 2.400-2.483 GHz

How Easy Is It To Scan RFID Chips?

RFID hackers have repeatedly shown how easy it is to get hold of information contained in RFID chips. As some chips are re-writable, it’s even quite easy for hackers to delete or replace RFID information with their own data.

It has been said that on eBay hackers can get hold of all the equipment they would need to build an RFID scanner for less than $20. This means that anyone anywhere could be trying to read your RFID chips – and that’s worrying.

There are also numerous articles online showing exactly how one might go about making your own RFID reader, such as this article using basic parts and some Arduino skills.

Here’s an interesting article about RFID hacking which will give you a lot to think about, where Wired talks to RFID hackers about various exploits, including breaking into an internet security company, changing the prices on grocery items before purchasing, cloning RFID tags and using grocery items to open hotel rooms, deleting information from library books, getting free petrol, breaking into cars, tracking where people drive and reading medical data.

How To Block RFID Signals

In general, metal and water are the best ways to block radio signals to and from your RFID chip. Once that radio signal is blocked, the data cannot be read.

Now, we need to dispel a myth. Some people think that wrapping your credit cards in aluminium foil will be enough to protect them from RFID scanners. This is not true! A foil wrapping will help, but it won’t stop the scanner. It just means the scanner has to be a lot closer to you to get the information.

If you haven’t yet bought some decent RFID protection, foil will help you somewhat, but it’s not a real solution to the problem. A neat idea is to line the money pouch of your wallet with foil, so that all of your cards contained within are somewhat protected from RFID scanning.

It should also be mentioned that many sellers of RFID protection are basically just selling foil sleeves. Be wary of these as they won’t protect you fully.

In some countries, governments have begun to give accreditation to RFID protection that complies to certain standards. Be on the lookout for this accreditation when you purchase RFID protective wallets, passport pouches and sleeves.

The most effective RFID-protecting sleeves, pouches and wallets on the market are those that use a Faraday Cage within a leather exterior. Faraday cages in paper sleeves are also very effective, but will be less durable. Search for protection that contains the words “Electromagnetically Opaque” and you should be on the right track.

It’s also possible to break your RFID tags. To disable an RFID chip, common practices involve a large electromagnetic pulse (such as microwaving the chip) or hitting it with a hammer. Note that most disabling methods could ruin the rest of the item too, which is not ideal.

rfid hacking

Another important thing you can do to protect yourself is to ensure your security plan does not rely on RFID only. For instance, contact your credit card issuer and see if they will disable RFID-only purchases on your card. Then if someone were to clone the RFID tag in your card you would still be safe from theft. Another example would be to not rely on RFID door passes alone for your office and to ensure there is another robust security system in place.

If you are paranoid about your RFID presence, you could make your own RFID reader and regularly check your household to see what is readable and check how well your RFID protection is working. For the extremely paranoid, you could also check the data on each item to see if anything has been changed.

Have you got any other great tips to protect yourself against RFID exploits? Or do you have a horror story to share?

Image Credit: Shutterstock, Shutterstock, Shutterstock

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Comments (31)
  • Christopher Webb

    So, what is stopping criminal from using devices similar to skimming on ATMs to steal info?

    • Angela Alcorn

      ATM skimming relies on you actually putting the card into a slot and having the magnetic strip or chip read. But similar devices could easily be built for the RFID chips in credit cards, for sure. That’s precisely why you need to protect all your RFID chips.

  • Priya

    Thanks for the informative article.

  • Douglas Mutay

    These pretty cool things are not yet among us in Africa…but they sound awesome!

  • Joy2b

    Accessory shops sell small metal wallets quite cheaply. The small ones are about the size of a stack of six cards, and could fit in a large wallet. I was surprised when I started getting compliments on mine, as I thought of it as just functional.

    • joy2b

      By the way, think twice before destroying your rfid chips, or preventing them from being used for transactions.
      You may wish to disable your debit card’s rfid, but keep a rfid credit card, so you can do small transactions while you travel. In Europe and Japan, you may be assumed to have one of these.

    • Angela Alcorn

      Good point! Thanks for sharing.

  • Gabriel Barron

    they want to put this into peoples arms???

    • zolar1

      yes, in your right hand or forehead.

      Those without can’t buy or sell anything nor do banking or hold a job.

      As soon as the next global disaster hits, nearly everyone will have to have one for food rationing…

    • Angela Alcorn

      I know. Nuts, isn’t it?

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.