Credit card numbers are sacred these days. We’d never give them out to a stranger because credit card fraud and stolen identities are never more than one mistake away. But what if I told you that somebody could steal your credit card information simply by standing next to you?
Sounds farfetched, I know, but it’s certainly possible if you carry around credit cards with RFID chips embedded within them. RFID credit cards let you make payments just by touching the card to a scanner rather than swiping across or inserting into a terminal. As with most kinds of contactless payment methods, they’re designed for convenience.
Now imagine if a malicious person walked up to you and “scanned” the wallet in your back pocket without you realizing it. Theoretically, they could grab sensitive details that enable them to use your card without your consent. But is this really a threat worth worrying about? And if so, how do you guard against it?
How Do RFID-Blocking Wallets Work?
People have been concerned about RFID chips for many years now, and not just in the context of credit cards. All U.S. passports issued starting in 2006 have these chips that track your photo and information. Metro cards have RFID chips for quick swiping and dogs are implanted with RFID chips for safety tracking. They’re everywhere.
RFID chips work by using radio waves to communicate. The object, such as a credit card, contains an RFID tag with information, and an RFID reader uses radio waves to read the information from a tag. The key is that RFID chips have tiny electromagnetic fields, which is what makes them possible to read without having to “initiate” communications. All you need is proximity.
That’s why, in theory, somebody could scan you through your pocket. And yes, people in the real world have been scanned like this. Check out this anecdote on Reddit to see what kind of headache can result from RFID hackers.
Fortunately, radio waves are relatively easy to interrupt and block, and that’s how an RFID-blocking wallet works: they encase your credit cards in a material that interferes with radio waves. If the wallet is properly constructed to be a Faraday cage, it will block all electromagnetic fields and prevent communication between your cards and RFID scanners.
But do you actually need an RFID-blocking wallet? Maybe, maybe not. If your credit cards don’t have RFID chips, then obviously you don’t need one. And even if you do have RFID-chipped cards, the chance of being maliciously scanned is exceedingly low—less than 1 percent according to some. On the other hand, the possibility is there and the chance is non-zero.
You May Not Need a Brand New Wallet
It all comes down to how risk-tolerant you are. If you’re willing to pay for peace of mind, then go ahead and buy one. Peace of mind can be priceless, after all. But if you’re a penny-pincher or if you think there are more important concerns to worry about, feel free to pass these wallets over.
Then again, even if you are a penny-pincher or skeptic, you can still protect your cards without spending too much money and without having to replace your current wallet.
These RFID-blocking wallet sleeves by Alpine Rivers are extremely affordable and well worth the value. You get 12 card sleeves and 3 passport protectors for the price of two Starbucks coffees. Just slip your card into a sleeve, then slip the sleeve into your wallet. And they come with a 365-day money back guarantee.
The 5 Best RFID-Blocking Wallets
The downside to using the above-mentioned sleeves is that they can quickly add bulk to your wallet, which can be annoying if you prefer minimal clutter and thickness. Plus, sleeves can be ugly if they don’t match well with your wallet design, and some believe that sleeves aren’t enough for true RFID protection, in which case you should opt for a dedicated wallet instead.
The Radix One Black Steel wallet is the cheapest RFID-blocking wallet that we feel comfortable recommending. Not only is it more affordable than most regular wallets, and not only is it effective as an RFID blocker, but it looks great and takes up very little space.
It’s a slim wallet, so you should only consider it if you have fewer than five cards to carry around. (Yes, it’s fitted for 4–10 cards, but there’s no point in getting a slim wallet if you’re going to fatten it up with that many cards!) It’s solidly built with quality materials and worth every penny.
The Sharkk Rugged Wallet is like the Radix One in that it’s designed to be compact, but it’s not as slim or light—yet what it loses in compactness, it gains in ruggedness. This wallet is a card case with a complete enclosement, providing maximum protection against scanners and physical damage.
The card case design means that the Sharkk is high-grade waterproof. Just be careful when carrying cash because the cash band is on the exterior of the case! The case has enough interior space to carry up to seven cards, which should be more than enough for most folks.
The Flipside 3X Wallet is basically a more advanced version of the Sharkk Rugged Wallet: a card case that’s crafted from an alloy of high-strength polycarbonate and aircraft-grade aluminum. This means better physical protection, but one big downside is that this wallet isn’t waterproof.
The interior has enough space for eight cards and 10 cash bills, and the case itself automatically locks itself when closed with a satisfying snap. And for those who care, Flipside designs and manufactures all of their products in the U.S., which explains the above-average pricing.
The Big Skinny Slimline Wallet is the most notable bifold RFID-blocking wallet currently available, mostly because bifold RFID-blocking wallets are surprisingly rare. Made from durable nylon microfiber, this wallet is extremely light and will last you many years before falling apart, even under heavy physical day-to-day abuse.
And it’s spacious, too. It has a full-sized pocket for bills, four main card pockets, two more hidden pockets, and a plastic pocket for an ID card. The product can hold up to 25 separate cards, but that just seems excessive and uncomfortable—we don’t recommend more than 10.
I can think of no better company for affordable-yet-luxury leather goods than Saddleback Leather. In addition to wallets, they make the highest quality bags, belts, book covers, phone cases, purses, totes, and more.
Despite being so expensive, there’s a reason why so many are so satisfied with their products—not to mention that all Saddleback Leather products are backed by a 100-year warranty.
The Saddleback Passport Wallet comes with an internal RFID shield and is big enough to house your passport and two credit cards, plus it has a full-sized cash compartment. If you travel often, this is the perfect way to go. After all, who wants to be scanned while overseas? Nobody, that’s who.
Other Ways to Stay Safe and Protected
Because RFID technology is insecure, we recommend that you avoid using it as a contactless payment method if at all possible, especially because better alternatives exist. For example, Android Pay and Apple Pay, which both use NFC technology instead, are both safer and more convenient.
And whether you use RFID-chipped credit cards or not, it’s important that you know what credit card fraud looks like so you can spot it right away and preemptively avoid damage. Stay on top of these digital identity theft warning signs so you’re never caught off guard.