Identity theft is defined as a crime of obtaining and using the personal and/or financial information of another person for the sole purpose of assuming that person’s identity in order to make transactions or purchases.
Once an identity is stolen, the thief can ruin that person’s credit rating and the good standing of other personal information.
There are many ways to become the victim of identity theft – and most of us guard against those when we’re at home: we apply and update our passwords, we examine and carefully shred all bills and financial documents, and we are careful where and how we use our ATM and credit cards.
When you travel, however, you lose a measure of control because you’re in a different environment with different risks. So, how do you best guard against identity theft when you travel?
1. Before you leave – secure things at home
Frequent travelers often carry a lot in their briefcase or work bag, including bills that came in the mail before they left. Many people assume that hotel rooms are safe places to leave documents and papers, but they’re not. More people than you realize have access to room keys and you shouldn’t leave anything with account numbers, home addresses, or other personal identifying information in the room.
- Pay any bills that are due while you’re gone before you leave and reduce everything you’re carrying down to just what you need for the trip.
- Leave your social security cards, checkbooks, and extra debit and credit cards at home – and secure those items in locked cabinets or a safe.
- If you’ll be gone for more than 30 days, consider freezing your credit report. It prevents potential lenders from opening new accounts without special authorization.
Then, follow these expert safety tips for securing your home before you leave.
2. Empty your wallet and choose your cards wisely
You won’t need your social security card, your grocery savings card, your blood donor card and more. In fact, all of those simply give a thief who gets your wallet even more personal information to go on to make your identity their own.
- Weed out your wallet and leave everything behind you won’t need. Traveling internationally? Unless you have international health coverage, you can leave that health insurance card behind too.
- Take a couple of credit cards from different accounts. Store one in your money belt and keep the other with you. If one is stolen, you can rely on the other until you can get home or get a replacement.
- If you can, leave your ATM cards at home entirely. Electronic access to cash leads to kidnappers taking tourists to ATM machines and forcing them to clean out the cash in their accounts.
- Don’t travel with a copy of your credit card numbers – see this much better system.
Consider going to far as to employ a fake wallet. Put a few small bills and some expired cards in there. Carry this wallet with you and keep the other wallet hidden in your money belt or deeper pockets. If mugged, you can easily hand the thief the fake wallet with confidence knowing the real goods are safe.
3. Secure your electronics and hush the social networking
These days, we can carry a whole lot of data on our smart phones, tablets, laptops, even our MP3 players and flash drives. Those are also small, portable items that are easy to lose and easy to steal. You may do everything right to secure your home when you leave, but if you’re posting to Facebook with pictures from a beach in Bora Bora, you might as well have left the front door wide open.
- Remove non-essential files and information from your laptop (if you have to take it at all) and disable all file-sharing, peer-to-peer communication, and remote connections.
- Update every electronic device you’re taking with strong passwords and limit your social network sharing until you get back.
- Lock your electronics in the hotel safe, the safe in your room (although these are questionable), or secure it in a hard case that’s locked to an immovable object with a locking cable.
While you’re gone, avoid using public computers and public wi-fi spots. Key logging software records the keystrokes, including when you’re typing a password while accessing a private account, and makes it possible for identity thieves to steal access to your checking account while you’re standing in line for your morning espresso.
4. Be aware of suspicious activity and scam artists
Scam artists employ a range of confusing tricks to catch people off guard hoping to get credit card numbers and other personal data. A phone call in the middle of the night to verify your card might not really be from the hotel front desk. A text saying your account has been compromised might not be from your bank.
- If you get a call or a text, go directly to the source and clear it up yourself. Walk down to the hotel desk or call your bank directly and give the representative your phone password.
- Be cautious when using any cash machine. Examine the device for a skimmer and use machines inside banks, hotels, and the like over outside ones. Hold your hand over the keypad while typing your PIN to block a recording device.
- If you can avoid it, don’t let your card out of your sight. Take your restaurant bill up to the register and pay there instead.
These days, you just have to avoid anything that sounds too good to be true – from a private art auction to free nights in a time-share to starring as your own travel agent – think carefully about what you could be getting yourself into.
5. Be vigilant after you return
Even if you couldn’t check your accounts while you were gone, thieves are relatively patient and happy to take a break to let you settle into your routine at home before they pounce. Just because you’re home doesn’t mean it’s time to let your guard down.
- Call your bank and let them know the date of your return. If charges continue to appear from your destination after your return, they may be false and the bank will appreciate as much advance notice as possible.
- Verify the receipts you brought home with the charges on your card. Notice anything out of the ordinary? Call your bank at once and let them know.
- Check your financial accounts regularly and your credit report at least once a year. You have a right to one free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every 12 months – stagger those requests and you can see a copy from at least one bureau several times a year.
Some travel insurance plans include coverage for identity theft. Of course, this coverage is useful after your identity is compromised and it’s best to avoid that situation altogether if at all possible.