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What Is Electronic Pickpocketing?

By Elizabeth West
Updated: May 16, 2024

Radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are found in bank cards, passports, and credit cards, enabling them to be read with a wave over a scanner or reader. Electronic pickpocketing occurs when a thief uses a concealed reader to scan the cards through a purse, wallet, or garment and obtain the information on the chip. Personal and financial data stolen in this manner is used for identity theft and credit card fraud. Foil blockers and specially made cases can thwart hidden readers and protect people from these pickpocketing tricks.

Commonly used in gates and door locks with key cards, RFID chips began to appear in credit cards and passports to allow information to be read more quickly. Electronic pickpocketing is possible from a hidden RFID reader concealed on a thief’s person. Readers are available online to anyone, and they can scan the chip in a card from a few inches away, even through a purse or wallet. The information is often sent to an accomplice with a laptop who then begins a de-encryption program to crack the data.

Traditional pickpockets lift a wallet from a purse or pocket, physically taking cards, money, and identification. Most people carry little or no cash anymore, so the take usually isn’t very high. Electronic pickpocketing allows thieves to create copies of cards, which can then be used to open fraudulent accounts or charge items to the victim. Since the card is not missing, the victim may not realize it has been compromised until the damage is done. If medical insurance cards are equipped with RFID chips, thieves can also use copies to commit insurance fraud and run up thousands in medical expenses.

As of October 2006, the US began issuing contactless chips in all newly obtained passports and asked 27 countries with visa waivers to adopt them. The chip contains all the information on the passport’s data page. Although e-passports are encrypted, skilled identity thieves and hackers can write programs that unscramble the encryption. The same is true of credit and bank cards. Point-of-entry IDs contain sensitive material that allows electronic pickpocketing to copy them and give hackers access to supposedly protected buildings.

Special sleeves and wallets for passports and cards are available that block electronic pickpocketing by RFID readers. Security experts say tinfoil, shiny side out, will also help shield cards and passports. It can’t block the readers completely but will inhibit their use except when very close to the card. Thieves will likely move on to the next unwary victim rather than come too near if their device is thwarted.

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