Special Assignment: Electronic pickpockets stealing credit card information through radio frequency signals

By: Trishna Begam Email
By: Trishna Begam Email
Electronic pickpockets

Pickpockets are finding new ways to steal your information -- and even possibly, your money. (WRDW-TV / Nov. 10, 2011)

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Your passports have it, EZ passes in your car come with it, even some clothing articles you buy have the tags on them so stores can track their products.

Now, most credits cards will be equipped with the technology. It's all so you can check out faster, but we met up with Walt Augustinowicz who built a company that created pockets to protect your wallet from electronic pickpockets. He showed us how easy it is for thieves to steal from you.

Our plastic world, where everyone swipes, slides and buys is about to become contact free. Soon most stores will take your payment with a wave of a card.

"In two to three years, the magnetic stripe is going completely away and every single card will have this radio chip," Augustinowicz said.

New credit and debit cards that are issued through major banks are embedded with a radio frequency identification chip.

Most shoppers don't know they have it.

"What is that? What is that," asked one consumer. "It's radio frequency what?"

Augustinowicz says it's a speedier transaction when you know how to use it.

"Anybody going by with a scanner can energize that chip and it turns on and transmits its information," he said.

The convenient transactions can be costly. The tiny transmitter inside the card makes high-tech hijacking of your credit card numbers and that valuable expiration date a reality. Augustinowicz built a skimmer, a machine that collects credit card information, using a reader he bought online.

"With this new technology you don't have to get their wallet anymore. Say someone bumps into you. You reach down and feel for your wallet, it's still there, but they just got your information. They don't even have to bump you, just pass within a couple of inches of you," Augustinowicz explained.

We tested the scanner on people unaware of whether they had a card with a chip.

"You have a Suntrust platinum card," Augustinowicz said to another card holder, who replied, "Yeah."

With a quick scan. "Simple as that," Augustinowicz said. "You have an Amex card in there. Ends in 01008? Expires 9/15?"

It skims enough information to make a purchase.

"We've been able to make a phone call to 1-800 Fortune 500 companies and place an order." Augustinowicz aid.

The radio antenna embedded in the cards are also in new passports and workplace ID badges which are harder to scan but not impossible.

"There are cards for all kinds of things and depending on what data is on them, you could scan a whole spectrum of information on a person remotely and build a false identity," Augustinowicz said.

"I knew about it, I didn't realize it was that compact where you
could walk around with a iPad case and let people think you are waiting in line. That's pretty amazing," said another consumer

Speechless person after another looked on with disbelief at the information popping up on this screen.

The good news is consumers can protect themselves using protective sleeves like the type Augustinowicz designed.

You can also use regular aluminum foil from your kitchen pantry as well to block unwanted readers from skimming your information.

Shoppers we showed the technology to wondered why there aren't more safe guards to protect their information.

Peter Ho with Wells Fargo explained, "We are about five years out here and I have yet to see a fraudulent, never gonna say never, but we have yet to see a contact-less fraud."

They also say a business is supposed to ask for your three-digit code on the back of your card, which the scanner doesn't pick up. If the store doesn't and your information is stolen, you are not liable for the purchase.

Augustinowicz, however, says skimmers are hard to track.

"When someone is surfing a crowd and there is no common purchase points, it's next to impossible," he said.

Ho added, "We have compromises all the time whether it's through skimming at a specific merchant location or ATM, we are good about telling where the point of compromise is."

Major banks say RFID chips are the wave of the future.

"Basically, VISA said come October 2015, stores must be able to process chip-based transactions," Ho. said "We are seeing more and more of this come out in the market with VISA's recent announcement. We will see an acceleration."

Augustinowicz says this is a big problem.

"Probably every bit as big as the magnetic stripes theft. It will only get worse as more cards roll out," Augustinowicz said.

The technology is here to stay and major credit card companies like Visa admit it's a major threat. Visa's product development warns in a patent application "it is entirely possible that a contact-less reader may be used for surreptitious interrogation (e.g., data skimming)" and in another patent application they say it "is a major concern for consumers and businesses."

For now, opponents like Augustinowicz say your best bet against this type of data skimming is in your hands.

If you want to see examples of Augustinowicz's products, you can click here to go to his website.

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