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Alexander: How safe are chip-based credit cards?

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER
  • Star Tribune
  • February 18, 2014 - 6:01 PM

Q: Can you clarify for me whether the new chip-based credit cards that will become available in 2015 are the same as RFID (radio frequency identification) cards? It’s my understanding that RFID cards are vulnerable to being illegally scanned unless they’re protected by some type of blocking products.

Ed Krautsdorfer,

Denham Springs, La.

A: Credit cards have become a major consumer concern since the 2013 Target Corp. security breach, which compromised 40 million credit and debit cards and the personal information of 70 million people. Chip-based cards, which would be difficult for thieves to reproduce, are being offered as a safer alternative to today’s magnetic stripe credit cards, which are easy to copy.

There are two types of chip-based cards, and only one of them uses RFID. But each has some drawbacks.

One type requires that the card physically touch a card reader in order to transfer data. This is called a “chip and PIN card” because you must both swipe the card and enter a PIN, or personal identification number.

Banks favor these cards, which are also called EMV cards because they were a joint development effort of Europay, MasterCard and Visa. A few banks offer these cards now (see tinyurl.com/pz4kf4u) but the deadline for retailers to accept them isn’t until October 2015.

The bad news is that the phase-in period for converting to EMV card readers is likely to extend well beyond October 2015 and, in the interim, magnetic stripe card readers will continue to be used (see tinyurl.com/o8bjafl). As a result, the early EMV cards are likely to have both a chip and a magnetic stripe that contain the same information. This will make the cards just as vulnerable to being copied as stripe-only cards are today.

The other type of chip-based card doesn’t require physical contact between the card and the card reader; it uses RFID radio technology to send data short distances through the air. These cards are available today, and have names such as Visa PayWave, MasterCard PayPass, American Express ExpressPay and Discover Zip.

The problem with RFID cards is that, unless the card is inside a protective covering, they can be read from a few inches away by someone who has a portable RFID reader. Metal foil is said to be the best protective coating to prevent data theft. Some wallets are now sold with protective pockets for RFID credit cards, although the degree of protection provided is not uniform.

RFID proponents say that if the cards use security codes that automatically change after every use, information stolen from a card could only be used for one fraudulent transaction. But there continue to be security questions about RFID cards.

For more details, see tinyurl.com/mnctpc5, tinyurl.com/nyppmln and tinyurl.com/n47wh4l.

E-mail tech questions to steve.j.alexander@gmail.com or write to Tech Q&A, 425 ­Portland Av. S., ­Minneapolis, MN 55488. Include name, city and telephone number.

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