Spring break is here, and summer vacation is right on its heels. But it’s commonplace to have an otherwise wonderful experience marred by identity theft. It’s easy to become a victim of identity theft while traveling, whether for work or pleasure. Follow these tips to protect yourself.
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 identity 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. 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. And don’t announce the dates of your travel on your Facebook page. That’s like issuing an open-invitation to thieves.
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 wary of generic ATMs. 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; there’s a greater level of security.
6. 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.
7. Be careful with hotel computers and Smart Phones. 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. And be very careful when using an unsecure wireless network, too. Let the children know that smart phones, and applications such as Foursquare, announce to the world where you are. Turn off location-sending apps and utilities.
8. 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, and 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.
9. 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.
10. Be vigilant after you return home. 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.
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