Preventing ID Theft While Traveling

Your plane has landed, you’ve checked into your hotel and you’re ready to begin your vacation or business trip. But, that doesn’t mean you’re safe – from identity theft, that is. It’s easy to become a victim of ID theft while traveling, whether for work or pleasure.  Here are some tips from on protecting your identity once you have arrived at your destination to help protect yourself and your financial identity.

ID theft while traveling has seen some unique scams which have cropped up recently.  Here are a few to show how slick these thieves are and why you should be on your toes:

  • The hotel credit card scam, which has popped up in East Texas and likely other places. “The caller typically calls a slumbering guest and indicates he’s a hotel employee and the hotel computer system has crashed,” Truman Lewis reported at ConsumerAffairs.com. “In order to complete the nightly hotel audit, the caller says, he must have your credit card number.”
  • Crooks who monitor who’s not home, via social networking sites. Almost half of those between the ages of 18 and 34 who responded to recent survey asked of travelers said that they announced their travel plans on their social media sites.  Posting photos just taken by your iPhone of some exotic location is another tip off.

The following are a few ID theft prevention tips that you might want to consider prior to your next trip.

1. Let your credit-card company know if you’ll be traveling (especially if you’re leaving the country). Financial institutions’ fraud departments are becoming more vigilant about any unusual activity on your card, which can be a great way to detect a problem. But if you’re away from home when the bank calls to verify the charges, you could end up with a frozen account while you’re out of town. Avoid the hassles and notify your bank before you leave home.

2. Don’t automatically call back the phone number that claims to be from the bank. If you get a phone call or e-mail about suspicious activity on your card, don’t automatically call back the number on the message — that’s a common ploy by ID thieves to capture personal information. Call the customer service number on the back of your credit card instead. If the call was legitimate, they’ll be able to connect you to the appropriate department.

3. Secure your mail while you’re gone. Don’t leave your mailbox unattended, if you’re on the road. Have a trusted neighbor or friend pick up your mail every day, or stop your mail at the post office if you’ll be gone for a while. Your mail can be a treasure trove for criminals — containing your credit-card numbers as well as personal information that could lead to identity theft. There’s no greater magnet for burglars than a mailbox that is overflowing with mail.  Don’t announce the dates of your travel on your Facebook page. That’s like issuing an open-invitation to thieves. If you are one of those who can’t break the habit of putting outgoing mail in your mail box, at least you should know not to put mail containing checks, credit card numbers or other personal information in your outgoing mail box.  Your mail can be a treasure trove for thieves. Drop your mail at the post office instead.

4. Weed out your wallet. Tourist destinations are often a haven for pickpockets, so go through your wallet and take out unneeded credit cards and personal information before you leave. Don’t carry your Social Security number in your wallet, and only take the credit cards that you need. Make copies of all of your important documents, such as your passport, driver’s license, health insurance card and tickets, so you’ll have access to the information if your wallet is stolen. Leave the copies with a trusted family member or scan them into an encrypted file on your computer. Also keep a list of contact numbers for your credit-card company and bank with you, so it will be easy to call if your wallet is stolen or you have any trouble with your account.

5. Be smart about that smart phone. The public as well as many travelers have converted their cell phones to smart phones.  While these phones provide so much more information than ever before, they can become a prize for a identity thief – especially when a smart phone contain passwords to many of your personal accounts.   Travelers should always use the pin or password feature of their smart phone to keep personal information safe, in case it’s lost or stolen.  You can find several smart phone software programs that can help provide additional safeguards of your valuable information – especially if you access your bank account via your smart phone.  Additionally, be careful of free apps you download on your smart phone.  Google recently removed 21 free popular apps from the Android market place because they secretly stole available data on users’ smart phones and allowed malware to be downloaded onto your phone which can cause your information to be compromised.

6. Once you depart for your destination, never leave anything unattended. It seems simple, but even the most seasoned traveler can have their bags or wallets stolen or left behind in seconds.

7. Choose ATMs wisely and be wary of generic ATMs. Always be wary of standalone ATM machines. If they are not in a bank, or attached to a bank, it’s harder to tell if an ATM is being watched through hidden cameras, or if someone is shoulder surfing you for your information. Many banks have been reporting an increase in ATM-skimming incidents. This is when thieves install a card reader in an ATM to capture your account information and PIN number, so they can steal from your account.  Stick with bank ATMs at a branch to be safe to provide yourself a greater level of security.  Additionally, jiggle the front of an ATM machine.  You may feel its loose right where you insert the card. If it’s loose, don’t use the ATM as this may show the tell tale sign that the ATM has been rigged to steal your information.

8. Check your accounts regularly for suspicious activity. Spend a few minutes online every day looking at your bank and credit-card accounts, and make sure every transaction is yours. This is a good idea all the time, but it’s particularly important when you’re out of town and might miss a call from your bank about suspicious activity.  Some banks offer a service that will notify you by text message or e-mail whenever a transaction above a certain size is made on your card.

9. Be careful with hotel computers and find a secure Internet connection. When you are away from home, always make sure the Internet connection you’re using is secure. Don’t access your accounts or personal information on public hotel computers, which could have software that logs keystrokes and records your passwords and account numbers.  Also, clear your history when you’re done and make sure your passwords are strong.  You don’t want your history to be sitting there, because someone might be really good at figuring out passwords.  Make sure you use words with symbols, numbers, upper and lowercase and punctuation for passwords. Don’t share passwords between your e-mail, social networking and bank accounts either.Lastly, be very careful when using an un-secure wireless network.

10. Don’t leave personal information lying around in your hotel room. Keep your credit cards and other important information with you or lock them up in the hotel safe – leave your checkbook in a safe place at home, if possible. Safeguard your laptop computer, too, especially if it has account information that is not encrypted.  Never leave any personal information or your computer out in your hotel room.  Too many people work in hotels that float in and out.  You can never be too sure, and the best way to eliminate that possibility is to put everything in the hotel safe.

11. During long absences, freeze your credit. If you’ll be traveling for a long time and won’t be able to check your accounts regularly for suspicious activity, consider putting a freeze on your credit report. A freeze prevents potential lenders from accessing your credit report without your authorization, which can prevent identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name. You can still make charges to your current cards without unfreezing your account. It generally costs $10 at each credit bureau to freeze the account and $10 to unfreeze it. For this precaution to be effective, you must freeze your credit report at all three credit bureaus. Contact Equifax.com, TransUnion.com and Experian.com individually.

12.  Be careful with public computers. Don’t access your accounts or personal information on public computers, such as those at a hotel, which could have software that logs keystrokes and records your passwords and account numbers. Be very careful when using an unsecured wireless network.

13. Be vigilant after you return home – check your accounts, and then check them again. When you are away find a secure connection to check your credit card statement and bank statement every day to make sure they are free from suspicious activity. Then when you get home, check everything again, including your credit reports.  Even if you don’t see any odd transactions, that still doesn’t mean you’re safe. Identity thieves are known for their patience, and it can take them a long time to pounce. Check your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com for any suspicious activity — you can get one free copy of your report from each of the three credit bureaus every 12 months, and you can stagger your requests so you can see one copy every four months. This is a good move for everyone to do, even if they haven’t left home in a while.