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Verdict is muddled on credit card sleeves

Q: The other day on the Home Shopping Network, they were advertising special sleeves you can buy for your passport, credit cards, etc. They supposedly contain a metal layer that can keep thieves with skimming devices from reading the signals that some of your personal items may be emitting, thus stopping your identity from being stolen. My husband and I recently took an Alaskan cruise, during which we used a key embedded with our personal information for everything. That made me think: How good are these shields and where can you buy them?

J.K., of Belleville

A: Once upon a time, thieves had to work to physically grab your billfold, purse or other documents in order to steal your personal information. So as long as you were careful with your valuables, you could be reasonably confident that you weren’t going to let the bad guys gain access to your bank accounts, etc.

No longer.

Seemingly every day now, there are countless stories of computers being hacked and personal information stolen. But some say there may be an even easier and more insidious method of pilfering your identity. Almost a decade ago, security experts began warning that certain credit cards and other documents could allow the no-goodniks to simply walk by you on the street — and walk away with all the data they need to steal your ID.

Ironically, it was all to make life more convenient. Instead of the common magnetic strip you find on the back of most credit cards, they began embedding computer chips into cards, passports, driver’s licenses, subway-fare cards, etc. Using what is known as radio frequency identification (or RFID), this combination of microchips and tiny radio antennas can both track your location and send a unique identifying number to an electronic reader as you travel or make a purchase. In turn, that number links you to a database with all of your personal records and account information. These “contactless” cards and documents don’t need to be swiped through a reader.

As early as 2006, experts warned that they might be ripe for identity theft. Using machines easily available for less than $100, thieves could capture the signals these cards emit and steal your identity in a heartbeat without you even knowing it.

Here’s how a potential heist would work, they say: A thief would hook up one of these signal readers to a netbook computer and put them in a briefcase. Then, looking like anyone else on the street, the crook simply would walk close to any person who might have a chipped device in a wallet or purse to grab the credit-card signal. Once captured, the information is then transferred to another device that can embed the data on a credit card with a blank magnetic strip. Within seconds, the thief has a usable card — with your information.

It’s no fairy tale. In 2011, Consumer Reports had Recursion Ventures, a New York City security company, see how easy it might be. So Chris Paget, Recursion’s official “chief hacker,” used a reader to scan his new debit card . The card’s account number, expiration date and security data popped up immediately on a computer screen. Then, transferring the data to a blank card, he quickly made a counterfeit card that he was able to use successfully. Another expert estimated that if he simply stood next to a turnstile at a busy train or subway station, he could snare enough data in one evening to make 5,000 cards.

Naturally, whenever a new problem arises, someone usually develops a solution to make a buck — and that’s been the case with these RFID cards. For years, countless companies have been selling not only the plastic, metal-lined sleeves you saw on HSN, but also wallets, purses and other personal items that promise to keep readers from picking up signals. But before you buy one and go off feeling you’re protected, here are two things you might want to consider: Some say they may not work as well as advertised, while others say they may not be needed at all.

In 2011, for example, Recursion tested 10 types of shields and wallets advertised to block signals and found that none blocked transmission completely and that there was considerable variability even among samples from the same company. A Consumer Reports reporter found that her own shield fashioned from duct tape and aluminum foil provided better protection than 80 percent of the commercial products, including a $60 stainless-steel wallet. (Admittedly, this may not be terribly convenient.)

Moreover, they may not be needed. Even though Paget was able to duplicate his new debit card, the Smart Card Alliance maintains that the technology deployed by American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa is secure and that there have been no reports of consumers being victimized. In addition, the security codes on chipped cards generally change with every transaction, so even if a thief does make a new card, it will be good for only one purchase. Companies also remind you that credit cards have policies that protect you from any financial loss. Remember, too, the RFID shields generally don’t guarantee your information can’t be stolen.

Others point out that RFID shields are built into the cover of your passport, providing protection all by itself. And if you don’t trust the industry, Michael Benardo, the manager of Cyber Fraud and Financial Crimes Section of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., says the new RFID card is not vulnerable to theft.

“Today, an RFID card is nearly impossible to breach because the chip in it creates an encrypted signal that is extremely difficult to hack or compromise,” he said in an FDIC consumer news release.

Still, if you feel uneasy, you can find these shields online almost everywhere from Amazon.com to Walmart and Sears. They can run anywhere from a few bucks to more than $100 depending on what you are looking for. Just search for RFID sleeves or shields. A call to Bed, Bath and Beyond in Fairview Heights found the store carries an aluminum-lined wallet for $10.99. Or go to www.ehow.com and learn how to make one yourself.

Today’s trivia

Do you remember who played slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison’s secretary on TV’s original “The Odd Couple” series in the early 1970s?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In the spring of 1639, Swedish immigrant Jonas Bronck arrived in New Netherland near present-day New York City. He eventually bought 500 acres between the Harlem River and the Aquahung, which became known as Bronck’s River — or the Bronx. Later the borough in New York near the river became known as the Bronx. “The” is customarily used before Bronx apparently because that’s how both the river and the family (the Broncks) were referred to as. William Bronk (minus the “c”), who won a National Book Award for his poetry in 1981, was a descendant of Jonas Bronck’s family, and, of course, the New York Yankees would earn their familiar knickname, the Bronx Bombers, after moving to their new stadium in the borough in 1923.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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