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US security researchers have demonstrated how easy it might be for crooks to read sensitive personal information from RFID-based credit and debit cards.

Tom Heydt-Benjamin and Kevin Fu, a University of Massachusetts professor from the RFID Consortium for Security and Privacy (RFID-CUSP), have shown how crooks might be able to skim sensitive information from cards - including card number, expiration and issue dates, and a cardholder's name - without actually physically stealing the latest generation of credit cards.

The attack uses off-the-shelf radio and card reader equipment that could cost as little as $150. Although the attack fails to yield verification codes normally needed to make online purchases, it would still be potentially possible for crooks to use the data to order goods and services from online stores that don't request this information.

Despite assurances by the issuing companies that data contained on RFID-based credit cards would be encrypted, the researchers found that the majority of cards they tested did not use encryption or other data protection technology.

RFID-based credit cards are designed to save merchants from the trouble of physically swiping cards through readers, but the tests reveal huge security and privacy shortcomings in a small sample of 20 cards from Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, the New York Times reports.

The cards might be read through a wallet, handbag, or item of clothing via the so-called "Johnny Carson attack", named after a comic routine where a psychic divines the contents of an envelope.

RFID technology is designed to work only when cards are placed in close proximity to readers, but the researchers reckon the technique would work at a distance of a few feet, creating the possibility that would-be card skimmers could pass through a crowd to harvest sensitive credit card information. The research effort also involved two scientists from RSA Labs, the research arm of RSA Security, which was recently purchased by EMC.

A Visa exec played down the risk of the attack, arguing that additional anti-fraud measures would protect consumers. "This is an interesting technical exercise," said Brian Triplett, senior vice president for emerging-product development for Visa. "But as a real threat to a consumer — that threat really doesn't exist."

Nonetheless, card issuers are making modifications to the technology that means the names of card holders will no longer be transmitted to card readers. "As a best practice, issuers are not including the cardholder name," Triplett told the New York Times.

Consumer watchdog CASPIAN is demanding a recall of millions of RFID-equipped contactless credit cards.

There's more info on the attack from the RFID Consortium for Security and Privacy (RFID-CUSP) website here. ®

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