Could you become a victim of digital pickpockets?

Sarah Coles
'Pickpocket trying to steal a wallet from a man, isolated on white'
'Pickpocket trying to steal a wallet from a man, isolated on white'

Digital pickpockets can steal your money, without your debit or credit card ever leaving your side. Technological developments that were designed to make your life more convenient have been hijacked by unscrupulous criminals. All they need now is a small piece of technology and a crowded place, and they can steal hundreds of pounds without touching a single wallet.

This horrible development is the result of the fact that many cards are now smart, and contain an RFID chip that can communicate through radio waves when you wave your wallet next to the reader. Being able to pay-by-touch, is coming with an unexpected cost.

How it works

All the criminals need is a reader or an app on their smartphone and they can pick up the details being transmitted by the card. These are transmitting all the time, so you don't have to be paying for something - your card can just be sitting in your pocket.

The thieves can then use those details to clone the card. The fake cards wouldn't feature the three digit security code on the back, but would get past the vast majority of sales staff - most of whom simply ask for shoppers to put their card into the reader rather than checking the card themselves.

They have to stand pretty close - within 15 cm. However, ABC 7 in Chicago recently ran a test with security expert David Bryan from Trustwave, and in crowded shopping centres he was able to get close enough without arousing suspicion. Similarly crowded trains and stations provide an easy opportunity for thieves to walk around with a scanner - digitally picking pockets.
Protect yourself

The banks are looking into further lines of defence to protect people from this risk. In the meantime you need to protect yourself. Check your card to see if it has this type of chip, and if possible, request one without.

Alternatively, you can buy wallets or purses designed to block the radio waves, wrap your cards in aluminium foil when you carry them - although it might leave you with some explaining to do - or consider investing in some of the hack-proof trousers launched at the end of last year by Betabrand and Norton (which have a pocket lined with an RFID- blocking fabric).

They are apparently shipping the first of the trousers to shops this month, so you could be one of the first people in the UK with a completely protected back pocket.

Of course, it also helps to take the kinds of precautions you would against any kind of pickpocket, and be aware of what is going on around you in a public place - particularly when someone is within 15 cm of you.

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Are You at Risk of Electronic Pickpocketing?
Are You at Risk of Electronic Pickpocketing?