Traveling Safety: Identity Theft Takes a Trip
Identity Theft Speaker John Sileo on Traveling Safety.
Traveling Safety has become a study of its own ever since the advent of identity theft. Your biggest concern may no longer be physical in nature (pickpockets, hotel theft, muggings); the value of the personal identity you carry as you travel is worth far more than the cash in your wallet.
We all love to plan the vacation of our dreams. I can almost taste the pasta Bolognese as I read about that out-of-the way trattoria half way down the ancient narrow vicolo (blind alley) in Tuscany. But there’s one area we often overlook that can turn that long-anticipated dinner into a nightmare – the theft of our most-valuable asset, our identity. Let’s fast forward – we’ve savored the last bite of pasta and drained our pitcher of the vino rosso locale before presenting our credit card. Our friendly waiter looks concerned as he walks back to our table to tell us that our credit card has been declined. It doesn’t take us long to discover a thief has maxed out our credit and there is nothing left to pay for our dream. If we’re lucky, we’ll have a backup plan and pay by cash or another credit card. If we are less lucky, the thief has cashed out our bank account as well, has stolen our passport numbers to set up new accounts, or has gained access to a laptop computer full of sensitive personal and workplace data. What were we thinking (or not thinking) by neglecting traveling safety?
Traveling safely and preventing identity theft go hand in hand. Because we carry so much identity with us when we travel, because we are much less organized when on the road, and because thieves target travelers, the likelihood of identity theft while on vacation or business travel increases.
Traveling Safety 101
Traveling Safety – Before You Leave Home
- Travel light! Simplify and minimize what to bring with you. Take as little identity with you as necessary. If possible, leave the following items at home when you travel:
Checks and Checkbooks. Resist the temptation to carry checks or take only one or two for an emergency, carrying them with your cash in your money belt. Checking account takeover is one of the simplest crimes to commit and one of the most devastating types of financial fraud from which to recover. The easy alternative? Use a credit card or cash.
Debit Cards. You can reduce your vulnerability to having your checking account emptied while on vacation by leaving all debit cards (check cards) at home. Don’t be lulled into thinking that Debit/ATM cards are safe just because they have a PIN or password. In fact, the only time a PIN is needed to use the card is when it is being used at an ATM. No PIN is required when it is used at a store as a debit or credit card. Be aware, too, that debit cards don’t have the same financial fraud protections as most credit cards. The Solution? Ask your bank for an ATM-Only debit card (it won’t work in stores, only at an ATM) and make sure your password isn’t overseen when you are at the ATM. Better yet, use a credit card or cash. The exception to this is when you are traveling in a foreign country and your debit card is the most economical method of obtaining cash from an ATM.
Extra Credit Cards. Every piece of identity you take with you creates more sources of potential fraud to which you are exposed. I recommend that if you are traveling with another adult, you each take one credit card (and if possible, take cards from two separate credit card companies. That way, you each carry only one card that can be lost or stolen, but you have a backup card if the other person’s card is lost, stolen or shut down because of fraud). Make sure that your credit card company knows the dates and places you are traveling so that they don’t shut it down when charges are made out of town. Also, make sure you have a large enough credit line to cover your purchases while traveling.
Social Security Cards. You do not need your Social Security Card while traveling (or at any time other than your first day of work with a new employer), so leave it locked up at home.
Bills. Don’t try to take bills to pay while traveling.
Identity Documents. Leave birth certificates, passports (unless travelling internationally), library cards, receipts, etc. at home while you travel. Anything you don’t absolutely need should be left at home locked in a fire safe. If you can travel with only a credit card, driver’s license and health insurance card (as long as it doesn’t have your SSN on it), you will be much safer.
- Photocopy the contents of your wallet/documents.Or make a list of all the contents and all your travel documents to carry with you in a secure place as you travel. It’s also a good idea to leave a copy at home with a trusted person whom you can contact. It will save you hours of frustration if anything is lost or stolen.
- Hold the Mail. Your mailbox is an identity bonanza. Before you leave, place a “postal hold” on your mail so that your mailbox isn’t vulnerable while you are gone. Arrange with your post office that you (or your spouse) are the only people allowed to pick up your mail. Don’t have it “mass-delivered” the day after you return, as this puts everything at risk all at once. Instead, pick it up at the post office once you return.
- Social Networking Sites.Don’t put an “Away on Vacation” note on your social networking sites just as you wouldn’t tack one to your front door. Broadcasting this information opens the door to criminals using that information while you are away.Think twice about any information you share on social networking sites.
Traveling Safety – During Travel
- Lock it Up. I can’t stress enough the importance of using the in-room safes that are now a part of almost every hotel room. They are simple to use and drastically increase traveling safety (decreasing theft by cleaning staff and other travelers). Lock up the following items:
Laptop Computers. Only carry your laptop with you when absolutely necessary. The rest of the time, place your laptop (or just the hard drive if your laptop is too big) in the safe while you aren’t using it. While using your laptop to access online banking or other password-protected services from Wi-Fi networks, be sure the Wi-Fi hotspots are secure.
Public Access Internet Facilities. If you’re using a public computer in hotel business centers or cyber-cafes, never access any sensitive information. Keyloggers (software that can track your keystrokes) may be tracking you.
Cell Phones/PDAs. While you go down to the pool or off shopping and don’t need your cell phone or other electronic device, store it in the safe along with jewelry, extra cash, your iPod, thumb drive or other valuables.
Passports. Unless you are traveling in a country where you are required to keep your passport with you at all times, lock it up in the safe the entire time you are staying at the hotel.
Other Identity Documents. Store your plane tickets, receipts, and any other identity documents (birth certificates, extra credit cards, visa, etc.) in the safe when not in use.
- Carry it Safely. I recommend carrying all of your identity documents (passport, credit card, driver’s license, tickets, etc.) in a travel pouch that fits around your neck or your waste (and inside of your clothing). It is a minor inconvenience, but it lowers instances of pick pocketing and unintentional misplacement. Thieves have unbelievably nimble fingers that can slip into your pocket or purse undetected so here’s an essential habit to cultivate: just before you leave your hotel room (especially in cities), verify that your money pouch is securely fastened around your waist or neck, under your clothes.
Use a Backpack. When possible, carry laptops and other large identity-storing items in a backpack that stays zipped and on your back at all times. It is easy to set down a purse, book bag or piece of luggage while at a ticket counter or retail store. Backpacks, on the other hand, are easy to keep on our person at all times, and are harder to break into without alerting the wearer.
Watch Your Cards. When paying with a credit card in a restaurant, try to keep your eye on the card. If the server removes it from sight, they may be able to create a “clone” by using a portable card skimmer that will copy the information from the card’s magnetic strip. Many restaurants are now able to process the card at your table or you can take it to the register and observe the transaction.
- ATM Machines. Use your “ATM Only” card (one that requires a PIN and does not contain a Visa or MasterCard logo) at ATM machines found at banks or credit unions that are in well-lit areas. Be sure to examine the ATM machine carefully for signs of tampering. Be on the lookout for anything that looks suspicious. Save all transaction receipts in a specific envelope to make it easy to reconcile your bank statement when you arrive home.
Traveling Safety – Upon Your Return Home
- Monitor Your Accounts. Shortly after you return from your travels, pay special attention to your account statements to make sure that nothing out of the ordinary appears. If a credit card number or bank account number was stolen during your trip, this is how you will catch it early and keep it from becoming a major nightmare. Contact your provider and alert them to the breach immediately.
- Rotate Your Account Numbers . If you feel like your identity might have been compromised (e.g., your credit card number stolen), call your financial institution and have them issue a new card. This makes the old number obsolete, should anyone try to use it in the future.
- Pick Up the Mail! Don’t leave it in anyone else’s hands any longer than necessary. Make sure you shred any mail that you no longer need.
Think about Traveling Safety before you leave so that you can fully enjoy your trip instead of being preoccupied with identity theft. Safe travels!
Identity Theft Speaker John Sileo is America’s top identity theft expert. His clients include the Department of Defense, FDIC, Federal Reserve Bank, Pfizer and organizations around the world.