Electronic pick pockets may be stealing your identity

CLEVELAND, OH (WIS) - New technology could be allowing criminals to steal your identity without your wallet ever leaving your pocket.

If you think your credit cards are stuffed away safely in your wallet and purse this holiday shopping season, think again. You just might be giving your credit card information and bank account numbers away without even knowing it.

Some experts believe new technology called radio frequency identification (RFID) is to blame. RFID allows a card to be waved near a card reader or scanner instead of the traditional method of swiping. Here's how it works: when the card reaches a certain distance from an electronic scanner or card reader, it sends a signal which is received by an antenna embedded into the card, which is connected to the card's RFID chip, thus activating it.

Criminals are able to do the same by walking close to your wallet or purse. A hand held chip reading device can easily steal your credit card information if someone walks by you or inches close enough to you. 

Security expert Walt Augustinowicz of Identity Stronghold makes his living warning about the high tech thievery. He says it's as easy as finding a portable card reader or scanner on the Internet. "This is an off the shelf reader," said Augustinowicz. "It's something anyone can pick up online."

Experts say anyone can be an electronic pick pocket with the right tools. "A crowded stadium or something, I'd just be walking past people and they'd never know I scanned their data," said Augustinowicz. "I could go home and have hundreds of credit card swipe information on my laptop."

Shoppers were shocked to see these card readers in action. "The thought of that is terrifying," said shopper Anna Marie Carlozzi. "It makes me want to put my hands in front of my purse and hide it."

There are products out there to protect your information.  A credit card sleeve can help to shield RFID. "It has a radio frequency blocking part to it," said Augustinowicz. There are also shielded wallets on the market.

According to Identity Stronghold, About 100 million credit cards now have this contactless RFID technology embedded into them. Over the next 2-3 years, it is expected that credit card issuers will replace every single magnetic stripe credit and debit card with a new contactless smartcard. 

Copyright 2010 WIS. All rights reserved. WOIO contributed to this report.