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*Disclaimer: This article is accurate as of the publish date June 13, 2013
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With Father’s Day upon us, lots of people are wondering what would make a memorable last-minute gift for their father or grandfather. Neckties immediately come to mind, but the truth is, most dads never wear those gifted neckties and some fathers find it excruciatingly awkward to feign surprise and profess gratitude for such a mundane gift. A first-rate wallet, on the other hand, can be a big hit. When a man receives a fine wallet and fills it with precious items like credit cards, cash, and photos (of you!), it rises way above the level of an ordinary accessory. Your dad doesn’t just relate to it as a handy and handsome way to carry stuff around on his person. Suddenly it achieves the rarified status of indispensible constant companion.
He starts to interact with his treasured wallet as an extension of himself, and feels reassured by its mere presence. Come to think of it, that may be how Dad thinks of you. So a wallet could be the perfect gift, but wallets are pretty old-fashioned. Today’s fathers want to feel that they are “with it” and keeping up with the times. Why not combine the two ideas by giving a wallet that thwarts tech-savvy credit card thieves? What man doesn’t want to feel like James Bond or Jason Bourne, quietly but efficiently fending off notorious gangs of international cyber bad guys with a Father’s Day wallet that blocks high-frequency radio signal transmissions?
Yeah, it sounds totally heroic – just like Dad. But before you rush out to the mall to buy one, first take a look at the pros and cons of these “anti-ID theft” wallets and familiarize yourself with other reliable credit card protection options.
What Is RFID and Why Is It Perceived as a Security Risk?
RFID – which stands for “Radio Frequency Identification” refers to a technology that has been around for a decade or more (See our first post on this subject here). The way it works is that a tiny radio signal transmitter is attached to whatever you would like to track. You know how they cut those small plastic tags off of clothes you buy before you leave the store? Those tags have RFID embedded in them. If someone leaves the store without paying, the radio signal sets off an alarm. Companies also use them to track packages and shipments, for example, and nowadays credit card companies use them to facilitate wireless credit card transactions. The credit cards with RFID technology send a signal to the merchant’s terminal, which is usually there at the cash register. That wireless transmission includes all the data needed to complete the charge to your credit card account.
What’s cool about this is that it eliminates the need to physically swipe your card. The reason financial institutions like RFID is that it is the next step toward fully mobile credit card transactions. The easier it is for you to use your plastic, they figure, the more you’ll use it. Meanwhile bad guys like it too, because with a wireless card reader they have the technology to potentially steal your credit card information right out of your wallet, without ever touching your plastic. Walk down the street beside somebody with a high-tech RFID device in their briefcase, for example, and they may be able to snatch data from the credit card hidden away inside your wallet, purse or pocket. That’s totally sketchy and sounds like something from a spy thriller, but don’t panic-measures are being taken.
The credit card industry has taken steps to thwart this kind of theft. They use complex encryption protocols, for instance, that reformats your identifiable data and makes it useless to crooks. Rather than sending your actual name and credit card account number, for example, the encryption scrambles it and hides it.
Maybe that part does sounds like secret agents plying their craft, but computer engineers inside laboratories at places like the University of Massachusetts have succeeded at cracking some of those codes. Does that make your credit card unsafe? Most experts agree that it is still highly unlikely that your card can be hacked on the street – unless you are surrounded by an entire classroom of geeks who have lots of cumbersome and sophisticated tools at their disposal.
Wallets that Block RFID Signals
Granted, you want those RFID signals to be strong and clear when you’re using your credit card in a wireless manner to pay for something, but the rest of the time you don’t want them inadvertently transmitting your confidential financial data. Just like at the doctor’s office where they block harmful radioactive X-rays by using shields made of lead, it is possible to shroud your plastic in metal to block RFID transmissions.
The do-it-yourself method is to wrap your credit card in aluminum foil. That may be inconvenient or appear kind of weird, though, since you’ll have to unwrap your plastic each time you want to use it. That’s why many companies now sell sleek-looking wallets made of aluminum - they are slim, water resistant, and come in a variety of colors. Most of them also have extra space and additional compartments to hold items like cash, coins, or a driver’s license.
Another much simpler solution that seems to work just as well as an RFID shield is to enclose the credit card in Tyvek, a material that looks like fibrous paper. Tyvek is primarily used in the construction business, and when a house is being built you may see the word Tyvek on some of the exterior building materials. Many banks also use Tyvek. They provide little credit card-sized sleeves for their customers that are made of the material to protect their ATM cards from abrasion and scuffing. The sleeves look like a paper envelope with the end left open, and you just slide your card in and out as needed. Ask your bank if they have something they can give you. If not, you can buy them really cheap online and get creative ones at Etsy.com. Just search for “Tyvek credit card sleeves.”
The Bottom Line
If your dad is the kind of guy who will be totally stoked by the idea of carrying an aluminum wallet that makes him an instant crime fighter, then definitely consider giving him a RFID-blocking wallet. Be sure to explain why it’s unique and cool, too, otherwise he may miss the whole high-tech point. Once he realizes how tech-savvy it makes him he’ll likely glow with pride, be overwhelmed with gratitude, and feel impatient to go brag about it to all of his friends.
For those fathers who find the idea of a metal wallet a little uncomfortable, nerdy, or gimmicky, however, invest in a classic wallet – like one made of fine, supple leather or handsomely crafted designer fabric. Enclose a few inexpensive Tyvek credit card sleeves for him to use to protect his plastic and explain how they work.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.
*The content in this article is accurate at the publishing date, and may be subject to changes per the card issuer.