There are plenty of things to worry about while on the road: remembering your passport, confirming your reservations, packing enough socks for a week. Add “protecting your identity’’ to that list. Each year, victims of identity theft lose some $20 billion in cash and valuables, and all of the unknowns of travel can make you especially vulnerable to identity thieves. So arm yourself well in advance. Here are 11 ways to protect your identity while traveling.
Beware of Public Computers
The days of the Internet cafe are waning, as Wi-Fi-enabled tablets and ultra-light laptops have become the norm for many tourists. But if you’re not packing a lot of technology on your travels, or your computer dies on the road, or you just need to print a boarding pass in the hotel lobby, remember that public computers are hotbeds for identity theft. Never autosave information on forms, especially if you’re typing in your passport or credit card number. Select “no’’ if you are asked to save any passwords. Delete your search history afterward. If possible, use the Google Chrome browser and open your windows in “incognito mode’’ (Ctrl + Shift + N, or click on the menu bar in the upper right-hand corner). Your search history, passwords, and cookies will automatically not be saved. Finally, avoid checking bank-account balances on public computers, if you can. Use your bank’s smartphone app (most major banks have one), or simply limit your balance check-ins to secure ATMs.
Use Secure Wireless Networks
Wireless Internet makes life on the road convenient, but it can also make your private info vulnerable. The free Wi-Fi networks at cafes, in hotel lobbies, and in other public places are notoriously not secure because they often lack data-encryption protections that closed networks have. All it takes for someone to do damage is an elementary knowledge of computer systems and a simple plug-in like Firesheep, which allows a user to spy on others’ browser activities.
Whenever possible, stick to more secure WEP, WPA, and WPA2 networks, which require a password to log on. If you must use an open (non-password-protected) network, immediately log out of banking, social media, and email accounts when finished with each session. To prevent your data packets from being plucked from midair, use only encrypted websites (such as those with “https’’ in the address) when on free Wi-Fi networks. If you see a warning that a site you are entering is not secured, is risky, or contains malware, don’t proceed.
Also, don’t forget about your phone. When traveling, turn off your smartphone’s settings that allow the device to automatically connect to nearby Wi-Fi hot spots
Lock Your Smartphone
Most of us store an alarming amount of data on our smartphones: emails and text messages with personal information; photos of our family, homes, and cars; and important travel information, such as boarding passes or itineraries. While it’s nice to have a digital backup of everything important, leaving this information unprotected is like rolling out a welcome mat for hackers and identity thieves. Be smart and protect your phone with a home-screen-locking password. Depending on your phone model, this may be a numerical code, a unique swiping pattern, or a fingerprint scan. Avoid obvious numerical codes such as “1111’’ or your birth year, and remember to change your PIN frequently; it’s not that difficult for someone looking over your shoulder to guess what you’re typing.
Don’t Give Out Your Phone Number
You will likely need to provide a home or mobile phone number for your airline and hotel reservations, but beyond that, avoid giving out your phone number while on the road. Having your digits gives an identity thief instant access to you via spammy calls; often they’ll be able to look up your home address and personal information as well. A popular scam involves the caller claiming to be a representative from your bank and requesting your credit card number, so if you ever receive a phone call from someone asking to verify your credit card or bank-account number, hang up immediately. Then call your bank. Another scam that often hits hotel guests is a call reportedly from the front desk, requesting a new credit card number to secure the reservation. Never give that information out over the phone; instead, hang up and visit the front desk in person.
Use Cash Whenever Possible
In terms of secure payment, cash is still king. If stolen, it can’t be replaced (unlike a credit card), but it won’t put you at risk of identity theft. When traveling, always keep a combination of cash and cards on hand. Use credit cards at airports, major chains, and shops that clearly use secure payment systems. Use cash whenever there is the slightest doubt about the security of a seller’s methods (for instance, if they want to take the card to a mysterious “back room’’ for payment). Avoid using your debit card whenever possible; while U.S. law requires protection against unauthorized debit card purchases, those protections may not be as instantaneous or as broad as those offered by your credit card company. You may also be hit with immediate overdraft fees that could drain your savings account before you even know you are a victim.
Use ATMs Carefully
If the only theft you associate with ATMs is the astronomical “convenience’’ fees some charge, think again. As this video from The Today Show and security expert Jim Stickley demonstrates, ATMs can be fake. Disturbingly, ATM kiosks are available for purchase online. All it takes is a bit of capital and some clever hacking, and voila, that seemingly safe street-corner ATM has now stored your credit card information. (This exact situation happened in Brazil last year, in fact.)
So be very wary of ATMs on the road. Carry as much cash as you feel comfortable having and store it in different locations on your person and in your luggage. If you do need to use an ATM, stick to bank branches during normal banking hours, or, better yet, use cash-back options at convenience stores, pharmacies, and shops. Take your travel partner to the ATM with you and have him or her stand behind you to block other people’s views of your screen or hidden cameras pointed toward you. Tear up ATM receipts immediately.
If you want to be absolutely secure on the road, you can purchase a prepaid Visa card that allows you to withdraw money from ATMs with a temporary PIN. Simply destroy the card when your travels are over.
Check Your Credit Card Statements
Jewelry, passport, luggage, cash—you know you need to protect these items while traveling. Add your credit history to that list. All it takes to ruin your credit is someone running up your credit card balance or opening unauthorized accounts in your name. The easiest way to nip any credit-score disasters in the bud is by monitoring your credit card statements and credit score like a hawk before, during, and after your travels.
Federal law requires the three major credit-reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to provide you with a free credit report every 12 months. Retrieve yours through AnnualCreditReport.com. Other providers, such as FreeCreditReport.com or CreditKarma.com, offer a monthly credit statement for a small fee; if you’re traveling internationally or if you’ve been a victim of identity theft before, signing up for monthly notifications may be a small price to pay for peace of mind (and squeaky-clean credit). Otherwise, the free yearly report should serve you just fine.
Clean Out Your Wallet, Pockets, and Purse
You may be the master of web security, but identity theft can still happen the old-fashioned way: by sticky fingers. Imagine the following scenario: You leave your wallet on your beach towel to go for a quick swim, smug with the knowledge that there’s no cash for would-be thieves to take. Yet you’ve left a doctor’s prescription, your business card, and your expired driver’s license behind. Any of these documents could do surprising damage to your credit (and your livelihood) if exploited. The thief or impersonator would know which medications you’re on (and perhaps your health insurance information), your work address, your phone number, and your job title. It’s a good idea to always clean out your wallet or purse before travel. Discard old memos, appointment reminders, expired IDs, and even to-do lists. Shred any confidential documents such as bank statements or pieces of mail that contain your address. Not only will you travel lighter, but you’ll minimize the risk of someone scavenging for sensitive information.
Lock Up Valuable Documents
Hotel safes aren’t perfect (yes, even they can be hacked), but they’re much more secure than simply tossing every ID card and travel document into your purse or wallet. When you arrive at your hotel, lock up any unnecessary valuables such as passports, jewelry, and gadgets. This includes boarding documents and travel confirmation emails (or go paper-free by using a service like TripIt that stores reservations, confirmation numbers, and itineraries).
Stop Your Mail
Thieves don’t steal mail because they like to browse your Victoria’s Secret catalogs. They do it because of all the juicy personal information it contains: bank-account and Social Security numbers, even health information. Before you depart, place a hold on your postal delivery or, better yet, ask a close neighbor to collect the piles of bills, cards, and letters each day. Shred all personal mail, even credit card offers in which you’re not interested. Go paperless with as many accounts as you can; not only does it cut down on waste, it makes your personal data more secure. And if you’ll be away for an exceptionally long period—say, several months or more—consider renting a P.O. box at your local post office and placing a forward on your mail.
Use Smart Identification
While abroad, don’t use your passport as your primary identification. If it is stolen, you could find yourself in a world of trouble. Not only will you be ID-less and unable to board a flight, you’ll also be at risk of identity theft. Stolen passports are often sold on the black market to criminals who use them to open new bank accounts, get jobs, or participate in human trafficking. Although the local embassy can help you secure a new passport fairly quickly, you’ll want to avoid putting yourself at risk in the first place. Lock up your passport and use a driver’s license or an international ID for nightclubs, bars, and other places of admission.