Microchips in our passports and credit cards: Are they safe?

By Claudia Buck

The Sacramento Bee (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, May 28 2014 6:24 a.m. MDT

If your chip is disabled, intentionally or not, your passport is still valid, even if it’s singed or a little beat up.

But it’s not a good idea, security officials say. “I don’t recommend microwaving a passport. Leave the chip there,” said Hardy, who recently started a new company, CardKill.com, that helps credit card companies identify stolen credit cards and deactivate them instantly.

When traveling, Hardy uses an RFID-shielded wallet that he bought at a hacker convention. “It means that anybody who tries to pull the signal won’t make it through. It’s like insulation.”

U.S. passport officials say it’s illegal to tamper with a passport’s chip, even if the intent is not fraudulent. It’s a criminal offense to “alter” a passport and could lead to penalties. According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, “Any degradation of the passport book may lead to invalidation of that book.”

Some consumers figure it’s just easier to stick a credit card or passport in a fraud-proof case, just in case. Travel companies, for instance, offer “RFID-shielded” wallets or tiny cases like those used to carry business cards, often containing aluminum. Companies like REI sell thin, waterproof RFID-blocking sleeves – $6.50 for three – that are intended to protect credit and debit cards.

Several years ago, a Consumer Reports writer described making her own RFID-proof case using duct tape and aluminum foil.

For veteran traveler Levitsky, once her credit card and passport are chipped, she plans to keep them encased in a protective cover.

“Why would I want to be sitting on a (travel) bus and give it all away?” she said. “Bad guys are out there.”

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WHAT’S IN A CHIP?

Many credit cards and U.S. passports have embedded chips, but they operate differently. Here are some details:

CREDIT CARDS

Until recently, most U.S. credit cards were issued with a magnetic stripe on the back, which contained your individual account information. Now, major credit card providers American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover are requiring financial institutions and retailers to switch to microchipped credit cards, which use encryption technology to protect the card’s data. The technology is known as EMV, for Europay, MasterCard and Visa, who created the global microchipped payment system.

Why? Widely used in more than 80 countries, credit cards with microchips are harder to counterfeit than magnetic stripe cards. Because the account information is encrypted, the cards are considered safer when used for point-of-sale payment transactions. The chip appears as a small square on the front of the credit card.

When: U.S. card issuers and retailers face an October 2015 deadline to have microchipped credit cards and readers in place. If not, stores and banks could be on the financial hook for fraudulent losses due to use of magnetic stripe cards. Ahead of the deadline, a number of major banks, like CitiBank, already offer microchipped cards to customers.

PASSPORT BOOKS

As of summer 2007, all new U.S. passports carry a tiny RFID chip embedded in the front cover. Each chip contains the identical personal information found on the passport’s picture page, including a digital image of your photograph.

Why? The RFID chip is designed to help detect counterfeiting, deter terrorism and speed up customs, according to the federal Bureau of Consular Affairs.

How used: The passport’s RFID chip can be scanned by immigration officials using a close-range reader. Your RFID number and passport number will match up with data in Department of Homeland Security databases. Security features built into the card are intended to prevent random access to the RFID information. The passport’s cover also acts as a shield; when the booklet is closed, the chip typically can’t be read.

PASSPORT CARDS

What they are: A simpler, less expensive version of a regular passport, these wallet-size cards are designed for crossing borders – by land or sea – into Mexico, Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean. They cannot be used when flying into one of those countries or for any other international travel.

When: Introduced in 2008, more than 7 million passport cards have been issued to U.S. citizens. They typically cost $30, compared with $110 for a regular U.S. passport.

How used: Like a regular passport, passport cards contain an embedded RFID chip. However, unlike a traditional passport, the card’s RFID contains only an identification number linked to a “secure database,” maintained by the Department of Homeland Security. To prevent skimming, the cards are issued with a protective sleeve.

Source: Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State

©2014 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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