Protect Yourself While on Vacation

Whether you travel for business or pleasure, a traveler must be on the alert for opportunities that an identity thief may try to take advantage of in any given situation. Unfortunately you cannot trust anyone you meet (housekeeping staff, bellmen, security guards, front desk clerks, etc) with your personal information.

The following items have been contributed by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) staff, many of whom travel for business or pleasure:

  1. Checks - Leave checkbooks and checks at home, in a locked safe. Checking account takeover is one of the hardest types of financial fraud to clear up. Too many people leave checkbooks in suitcases or use checks for purchases in stores where they don't know the clerks. ITRC recommends that you use cash, traveler's checks or credit cards for purchases.
  2. Payment Cards - When traveling, tourists are generally in unfamiliar places and tend to have their guard down - after all they are on vacation - and may not realize they are victims when a crime takes place or know what to do once it happens. Criminals are aware of this and will target victims in locations that have a lot of transient people moving through.
  3. Keep a close eye on your cards - Pay attention to anyone you give your payment card to when making a transaction. Make sure the card always stays in your sight if possible. In some cases someone might try to 'skim' the magnetic stripe card data or possibly switch the card with another card that looks similar.
  4. Securing local currency - ATMs are a great way to get cash in the local currency. The exchange rates are generally better than you will find elsewhere. However, criminals will target ATMs by installing devices that capture the magnetic stripe from the back of the card and capture your PIN.
  5. ATM Safety
    Be aware of ATMs that -
    • Look poorly maintained, in disrepair or positioned out of sight in a retail environment - legitimate operators want people to use their ATMs and will highlight the fact that an ATM is available and monitor and maintain it.
    • Do not have sufficient lighting or basic physical security. You want to be able to see everything around the ATM as you approach it and be seen by others at the ATM.
    • Has anything unusual, crooked or pieces falling from the card reader area or PIN pad. It can be very difficult for a professional to spot some of the devices criminals use today, but there have been many cases where consumers have detected these devices on ATMs. So take a look for anything unusual on the machine itself.
    • Has any kind of sign with unusual directions, such as entering your PIN multiple times - this is for a criminal to surf your PIN when you enter it. They can then pick pocket your card.
    • Has anyone hanging around the vicinity of the ATM - again either surfing the PIN or waiting until the cash comes out to distract you and snatch it.
    While using an ATM -
    • If someone gets too close to you or comes over to 'help' you, stop your transaction especially if your card is stuck and they tell you all you have to do is enter your PIN several times and the card will come out. In these cases the criminal has most likely slipped a device in the ATM to catch the card - a.k.a. card trapping. Just say 'no thank you' and walk away
    • Your card gets stuck, immediately leave the area and contact your financial institution to alert them.
    • Your cash does not dispense, but you have a receipt stating that it has, immediately leave the area and contact your financial institution, a criminal may have installed a device over the cash dispenser to capture the cash - a.k.a. cash trapping.
  6. Cover your pin - Whenever you are entering your PIN, cover it with your free hand. This will make it difficult for criminals to capture your PIN visually or with a camera.
  7. Verify the ATM - There are resources on the Internet where you can look up ATMs in your location as well as smart phone apps that can direct you to ATMs.
  8. Carry cash when traveling abroad - In some countries using Chip & PIN, such as the UK, US travelers have experienced issues using their magnetic stripe cards in certain situations, so having a little extra cash is a good thing.
  9. Chip & PIN cards - If your financial institution does not offer Chip & PIN cards, get a prepaid Chip & PIN card for purchases at unattended terminals such as parking garages, gas pumps and public transportation ticket booths.
  10. Leave bills at home - Business travelers often take advantage of quiet evenings in hotels to catch up with bookkeeping and paying bills. Unfortunately many people have access to your room while you are at meetings and victims have reported that account information and check information has been stolen this way.
  11. Hotel safes - ITRC highly recommends that you lock up all valuables in room safes or hotel safes while you are out of your room. That includes laptops, PDAs, jewelry, passports, and other documents that contain personal identifying information or that would be of interest to a thief. A suitcase is not a secure way to lock up information. You might return to your room to find the suitcase has been picked open or stolen.
  12. Pickpockets, fanny packs and travel pouches - Pickpockets can be found in most major cities and tend to focus on high traffic areas that attract business or vacation travelers. Some studies indicate that wallets stolen in tourist spots frequently lead to identity theft. These professionals aren't interested in cash. They want your SSN, checks and driver's license.

    Thieves depend on the fact that you are not paying attention to anything but what you are doing. In fact, they may cause distractions (as a team) - using animals, flower vendors, children, or even asking for directions. Vacation travelers should use fanny packs (preferably ones that open with a Velcro fastener and not a zipper) or travel pouches that are worn inside your shirt to carry important documents.

    Business travelers should be aware that pickpockets are also looking for laptops and PDAs that are temporarily out of your control at airports, in lobbies and in dining areas. You'd be surprised at how many rushed business travelers leave the security area having forgotten these items. Remember, out of sight means out of control. A good pickpocket can remove a wallet from a tight pair of jeans without you being aware of the theft, especially the back pocket. They may travel in pairs and watch where you put it long before you know you are even a target.
  13. Wallets - Don't take anything in your wallet that is not absolutely necessary. Leave all cards with Social Security numbers on them at home. If necessary, make a photocopy of a health insurance card cut off the last 4 numbers of the Social Security number and carry that with you. Make sure that you have an emergency phone number (contact person) for medical personnel to use. That person would have the last 4 numbers of your Social Security number plus any pertinent medical history including prescriptions that you take. It goes without saying - never leave your wallet unattended even for a second.
  14. Shoulder surfers - Besides pickpockets, identity thieves take advantage of people via shoulder surfing. "Shoulder Surfing" used to only apply to those who looked "over your shoulder" to see information. With the common use of cell phones, we forget that we are in a public venue and may talk about things that a thief can use. In other words - if you wouldn't want to see it on a billboard, don't talk about it on a cell phone in public. That includes personal information as well as company proprietary information.
  15. Public computers and public Wi-Fi - Never use an Internet café computer to check your email, do online banking, or enter any personal information such as your payment card information. Internet café computers have been used by many people and likely have malware on them. Compromising your email and account credentials could let a hacker get into your online banking account by resetting the password. Entering sensitive information when using a public Wi-Fi connection can also place your information at risk. Make sure to use an encrypted Internet connection when completing any of the above tasks.
  16. Bluetooth - Ensure your Bluetooth devices such as your cell phone and computer are configured for safety when traveling. Pair your device in a private location and make the connection permanent. Put your Bluetooth devices in non-discoverable mode - this means that they will not be identified by other Bluetooth devices in the area which could try to connect to it by accident or to purposely access your information or conversations. And of course do not pair to unknown Bluetooth devices.
  17. Back-up material - carry photocopies of all travel documents including plane tickets, hotel reservations and passports. Keep these in a separate location from the originals.
  18. Mail - Put your mail on "postal hold" stating that for a period of time you wish to have your mail held at the post office. We prefer that term rather than "vacation hold" so that postal clerks will not know that you will be gone. Make arrangements so that mail may only be picked up by you, and that your driver's license or ID card (with photo and current address) must be shown to receive the mail.
  19. Newspapers - Nothing says "we're out of town" more than a pile of newspapers. Don't forget to stop delivery until you return. Also stop any other automatic deliveries, such as bottled water.
  20. Contact your local Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol (RSVP), if one is available, to see if they do courtesy house checks. If so, coordinate with them to do a courtesy drive by while you are gone.
  21. Neighbors, relatives and house-sitters - While we would like to trust everyone, unfortunately statistics show that 9 -14% of all identity theft victims who find out who the imposter is, discovers that it is someone they knew. If you have someone that is going to check the house and has a key to your house, then lock up any documents with account numbers or Social Security numbers. You wouldn't leave an expensive diamond ring or lots of cash out; follow those same guidelines when it comes to information an identity thief can use.
  22. Public restrooms - Ladies, do not hang your purse from a hook on the door. It is too easy for someone to reach over the top of the door and take it before you have time to react. The best place to store your purse while in the restroom is beside you or hung around your body.

The bottom line- if you suspect that a scam may be in progress, trust your intuition. It probably is.

Check List

Before you Leave

  • Go through your wallet, purse and/or briefcase and remove any of the following items prior to travel:
    • Social Security card
    • Checkbook & deposit slips
    • Birth certificate
    • Credit card receipts
    • Library card
    • Video rental card
    • Bills
    • Extra Credit Cards
  • Write down all the phone numbers from the back of your payment cards and keep them somewhere other than your wallet or purse - in case they are lost or stolen.
  • Provide your financial institutions with up-to-date contact information, including cell phone number.
  • Advise your financial institution that you will be leaving the country so that they will be able to better assist you if you need help from afar. Minimize the number of credit cards in your wallet. No more than two.
  • Place all the removed items above into a locked safe.
  • Pay bills before you go out of town.
  • Place mail on "postal hold" with the Post Office. Arrange so mail may only be picked up by you and request that identification must be shown to receive held mail.
  • Stop delivery of newspapers or any other items you may normally have delivered (water, automatically scheduled deliveries of products, etc).
  • Make copies of your itinerary, passport data page, visas and driver's license to leave with designated emergency contact.
  • Notify a neighbor to watch your house. Let them know you are not moving.

During Your Travel

  • Lock up all your valuables in room safe or hotel safe while you are out of the room. (This includes jewelry, laptops, passports and any other important documents).
  • Heighten your awareness of people and crowds around you - pickpockets thrive in most major cities.
  • Be on the lookout for ATMs that looked like they have been tampered with.
  • Cover your PIN when using ATMs. This will make it difficult for criminals to capture your PIN visually or with a camera.
  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times - shoulder surfing is a viable method of obtaining personal information when you least suspect it.
  • Don't take anything in your wallet that is not absolutely necessary.
  • Do not place purse, belongings or purchases on the floor in a public restroom. Also, do not hang these items on the hook on the door. It is also recommended that you not leave your purse on the floor or on an empty chair.

information from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at NFCC.ORG