Hackers can scan info from a distance

At some point between the time she disembarked from a recent cruise in Miami and returned to Carmel, Ind., someone decided to go shopping with Jody Tzucker’s credit card.

She suspects that the criminals may have skimmed her Visa account information while she was filling up her gas tank in South Florida. Or maybe not.

Hackers don’t even have to see your credit card to access the information on it. They can scan it from a safe distance.

One of the latest threats are wireless attacks that siphon your credit card number, personal information and passwords. Anything with a radio-frequency identification chip, including your passport or a credit card, can be read from afar.

Thieves can also mine valuable data from your smartphone when it automatically logs on to a Wi-Fi network.

There are a few simple ways to thwart these wireless assaults, including new luggage products and some common-sense steps.

Tzucker’s card didn’t have an RFID chip. And she was lucky. Before the thieves could finish their shopping excursion, her bank’s fraud detection algorithm tagged her purchases as suspicious, disabled her account and refunded the fraudulent transactions.

And that may be one of the most effective solutions: having a bank that can stop fraud quickly and cover any losses. After, Tzucker also switched to using a prepaid debit card when she traveled, which contains no personal information.

The luggage industry offers one possible solution: new backpacks and suitcases with protective linings to shield your IDs and wireless devices.

Luggage manufacturer Briggs-and-Riley is adding RFID-blocking pockets to its new at-work briefcase and bag collection. The models offer two pockets with electromagnetic shielding, one for IDs and passports, the other for a smartphone or a tablet computer.

Travel security company Escape the Wolf is introducing the Zero Trace Two-Day Backpack with a large interior compartment to store any electronics. The $199 backpack is minimalist on the outside but sophisticated on the inside for a reason, said CEO Clinton Emerson: “Fancy gets stolen.”

Only credit cards with RFID chips are vulnerable to scans. Most credit cards in the United States don’t use this technology at present, although it’s gaining some traction, particularly among corporate travelers.

Wireless devices left in the pouches would run down the battery searching for a signal. Security experts say that an equally effective way to prevent someone from accessing them is to power down the device and remove the battery.

However, that’s not an option with the most popular wireless devices, such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad, which don’t have an easily removable battery.

Experts say to make sure the WiFi settings are set so that they don’t automatically connect to any wireless network and don’t store passwords or credit card numbers on your phone.

But luggage with electromagnetic shielding can’t hurt, either. It makes your information a less desirable mark.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “Scammed.” Read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2013 Christopher Elliott/ Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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