Beware Of Electronic Pickpocketing Warns Security Expert Tyler Harris

There is a growing threat to your personal information and identity. High-tech thieves can use easy to obtain scanners to steal your credit card and passport information without ever touching you or your wallet. It’s called electronic pick-pocketing, crowd hacking or wireless skimming, and it’s coming to a mall near you.

Tyler Harris had a successful corporate advertising and marketing career before setting up Armourcard to help combat this insidious crime, which many people don’t even know exists. As Harris says: “We were concerned about our own privacy and cards being vulnerable. That’s what made us investigate further as we could see people could skim or hack you and we discovered how easy it is to do. You can buy a Radio Frequency Identification reader off Amazon or eBay for under $100, and download software or programs to boost it online. It’s not a hard thing to do so we started looking at how we could tackle this problem differently.”

Here’s how it works: If you have a “chipped” credit card, identity document or passport with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip inside, that chip can be scanned – essentially transmitting your data over open air waves. Banks and credit-card issuers keep coming up with inventive new ways for you to swipe or wave your credit card rather than handing it over to a clerk and the bad guys use this very same technology to steal information from you.

It gets worse. With the latest smartphones being Near Field Communication (NFC) enabled they allow you to transmit data over open airwaves via your phone. Team that with free software and it turns your phone into a credit card or ePassport skimmer. Now not only hardened criminals can start skimming, but any opportunist with a smartphone.

RFID technology has been around since the cold war, originally a spy tool of the KGB. It lies dormant until powered by radio waves. The KGB originally planted these chips in embassies in West Berlin, which explains why when the embassy was searched for bugs, none were ever found. The device would lay dormant until a KGB operative, sitting outside in a van, pointed a reader at the wall in which the bug was hidden, usually when important meetings occurred.

Over the last 10-15 years they have become widely used in inventory tracking, on bags going through airports, and extensively in clothing. It’s like the next step from barcoding. And, this tracking technology has the capability to track people too. According to Harris: “In its true form, it’s essentially an inventory tool. However, it is also being used in credit cards and in the USA it is being adopted in some driver’s licenses which allow people to cross borders to Canada or Mexico without having a passport. The border security can read the driver’s license up to 30 feet away, transmitting the data over open airways. In Europe they have the Citizen Card with around 450 million in circulation that uses this technology – all vulnerable to skimming.”

A Wired Magazine article showed how easy it is to be caught: “In recent years, at a DefCon hacker conference which is held every summer in Las Vegas, Federal Agents got a scare when they were told they might have been caught in the sights of an RFID reader even though all attendees know they should take precautions to protect their data. The reader was connected to a web camera and sniffed data from RFID-enabled ID cards and other documents carried by attendees in pockets and backpacks as they passed a table where the equipment was stationed in full view.”

“It was part of a security-awareness project set up by a group of security researchers and consultants to highlight privacy issues around RFID. When the reader caught an RFID chip in its sights — embedded in a company or government agency access card, for example — it grabbed data from the card, and the camera snapped the card holder’s picture. Federal Agents attending the conference got wind of the project and were concerned they might have been scanned, causing quite a stir.”

Harris smiled knowingly when told about the Defcon situation. “That’s why we developed Armourcard. It is a similar shape to a credit card and fits in your wallet. It doesn’t try to block or shield the RFID reader trying to send a signal or communicate with your cards like other available devices. As soon as an RFID reader tries to interrogate your card or ePassport, Armourcard instantly powers up. It uses its own power source so it doesn’t rely on convection to power and it puts out a jamming force-field – a jamming signal that blocks the frequency these readers communicate over which is 13.56 MH.”

Pickpockets have been around for centuries, but the new high tech pickpocket has some serious skills and has practically turned crime into a supernatural art form. Just as there are ways to deter the physical pick-pocket from stealing your wallet, there are also effective ways to prevent the technology based thieves.

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