Wisconsin Startup Introduces Wallet Designed to Foil E-Pickpockets
Give pickpockets their due. It takes undeniable skill and dexterity to weave through a crowd and steal a wallet with the victim none the wiser—or to use a radio scanner to steal signals transmitted by the radio frequency identification (RFID) chips implanted on passports and an increasing number of “contactless” smart credit cards.
But don’t tell that to anyone who has been the victim of a pickpocket. People like the co-founders of Wellspring Ideas, a Menomonee Falls, WI-based startup that has created a money belt designed to foil old-school artful dodgers and new-school thieves equipped with the latest technology.
Wellspring Ideas has created the Travel Pocket, which it says keeps cash, passports, credit cards, and other valuables easily accessible for you but safe from thieves, especially useful when you’re in notorious pickpocket havens like Barcelona, Las Vegas casinos, or the local mall.
The company’s pitch is pretty simple, marketing director Scott Lindberg said: “Why should pickpockets be able to ruin my vacation or business trip?”
It’s likely that people have been trying to hide money on their persons as long as there have been pickpockets, and money belts and hidden pockets are frequent answers to this problem. Unlike money belts that are hidden inside pants or shirts, the Travel Pocket loops over the shoulder and around the back, with the pocket above the rib cage. It looks a bit like the shoulder gun holsters detectives often wear in cop movies. A jacket or shirt hides the Travel Pocket.
The pocket is kept shut with Velcro, which not only keeps the money and items in place, but also makes the characteristic ripping sound whenever it’s opened, Lindberg said. The combination of the sound and location near the chest makes stealing from the pocket a challenge for thieves, even if they know where to look.
But the product’s most advanced feature fights against identity thieves looking to steal credit card numbers. Copper threads are woven into the inner lining of the pocket, which blocks radio waves, Lindberg said.
If it’s been a while since you’ve received a new credit card, you might ask why that’s a problem. The reason is that American Express, MasterCard, and Visa all offer contactless credit cards, which are embedded with RFID chips that allow users to wave their cards over point-of-sale terminals equipped with an RFID reader. The card transmits the account and security information, and the transaction is complete. It’s supposed to be faster and easier than swiping a card or handing it to a merchant at the register. Some say it’s also more secure because the card never leaves the customer’s hand.
Industry analysts say more than 250 million such cards have been issued around the world, although in the U.S. the technology isn’t that common. That might change soon, though, as the credit card industry shifts to “smart cards,” which include contactless cards, chip-and-PIN cards, and chip-and-signature cards. All three are supposed to be more secure than magnetic strip cards, and the industry is pushing to have retailers accept the new technology starting next year.
But contactless cards could be vulnerable to sophisticated thieves who have RFID scanners of their own. In theory, they could walk through a public area with a small scanner connected to a laptop hidden in a backpack. They could pick up the signal from nearby RFID-equipped cards and steal account numbers.
There’s growing concern that e-pickpockets could be a threat. Law enforcement agencies in Texas have put out public service announcements warning of the danger, while Consumer Reports and several local news stations have done their own investigations showing the theft is technologically possible. Wellspring Ideas certainly isn’t the only company to respond to those concerns by creating products that hold valuables while blocking RFID signals. Competing products include wallets, purses, and travel vests.
There are skeptics who wonder if this is a problem that’s being overstated. They point out that almost all cards have safety features that keep some sensitive information separate from the RFID signal, such as the security codes printed on the cards. They say the signals are encrypted, and the scanners are confused if intended victims have multiple cards with chips in their pockets. Finally, they point out that attacks can be foiled by cheap solutions like putting aluminum foil in your wallet, which blocks the radio waves.
Lindberg and the founders of Wellspring Ideas aren’t among the skeptics. While he pointed to news reports warning of the thieves, he also said the company knows e-pickpocketing victims, including the wife of one of the company’s co-founders. She says the perpetrators stole the numbers of several of her credit cards through her purse while she was on a trip to Las Vegas.
The Travel Pocket has been on the market for a few months, selling for $49.95 online and at a few specialty stores in Wisconsin, Lindberg said. While he wouldn’t give sales figures, he did say the company is seeing its first wave of re-orders from merchants, which suggests the product is selling.
The pocket is Wellspring Ideas’s first product, and if it’s successful, there are plans to move on to other items, Lindberg said.
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