By Teresa McUsic
July typically spells the beginning of vacation season for most Americans. This year, be sure to add identity theft protection to your vacation checklist of sunscreen and water bottles.
A survey released this week by the credit bureau Experian showed that almost one-third of travelers have experienced ID theft when traveling or know someone who has.
“The last thing people want is for their trip to fund an identity thief’s vacation,” said Becky Frost, senior manager of consumer education for Experian’s ProtectMyID. “Identity theft can derail vacations quickly, but taking some precautions before and during travel can help consumers protect themselves.”
Here are ten ways to protect your identity while you travel:
1. Clear out wallet. Almost one-third of travelers surveyed said they carry their Social Security card around with them while they travel. Don’t do it, advised Frost. You won’t need it. Also don’t take your checkbook, credit card receipts and bills, advises the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. If you want to take your Medicare information (which has your SSN on it), make a copy and cut out the last four digits, the ITRC advises.
2. Use credit not debit cards. Ninety-two percent surveyed said they carry credit cards or debit cards while traveling, yet more than half are unaware of their card’s liability limit if lost or stolen. Most major credit cards have zero liability to the cardholder if they are stolen and used. But a debit card in the wrong hands can drain your bank account, so leave it at home. Also, notify your bank and credit card providers when and where you are taking a trip to avoid blocks or delays when using your cards. Frost said.
3. Password protect cell phone. Just one in three travelers use passwords to protect their smart phones, according to the survey.
“Smart phones can hold your bank account, credit card accounts, social media accounts,” Frost said. “If you were to lose that phone, someone could get so much information on you. ID theft could happen quickly. Same is true for tablets and personal computers.”
And remember that the most popular passwords, “12345” or “password,” are not good passwords. Use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols instead.
4. Get apps for lost phones. There are many free apps to download to a smart phone that will remotely track, lock or erase your personal information. Some even will take a photo of the thief or trigger an alarm on the phone. To search for these apps by phone type, go to the CTIA Wireless Association website, www.ctia.org.
5. Beware of “Shoulder Surfers.” Shoulder Surfing used to only apply to those who looked “over your shoulder” to see information. But with the it is important to remember that you are in a public venue and may expose things that a thief can use. The survey showed that the highest places where ID theft occurred was in hotels (24 percent), restaurants (18 percent), airports (12 percent), taxis (8 percent) and car rental offices (8 percent).
“Make sure the Wi-Fi you are using at a hotel or restaurant is a dedicated Wi-Fi, not a public Wi-Fi by asking a manager,” Frost said. “A secure connection requires a log in like a room number or name.”
Instead of using public Wi-Fi, consider getting a portable or travel router (which cost between $20-$50) and a prepaid Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card to create your own personal Wi-Fi for a more secure connection, Frost said.
6. Bank at a branch — If you need cash, ATMs in high-traffic tourist areas may put you at risk for your card and password being skimmed. Sometimes fake ATMs are set up temporarily in tourist areas for ID thieves to get the card data. Instead, only use ATMs within or outside a bank branch.
7. Don’t post on Facebook or other social media that youare out of town, Frost said. Wait to share your trip when you are safely back at home.
8. Disable geotagging on all cameras and phones. Geotagging marks your location when you take a photo. If you post a photo that has been geotagged on social media, ID thieves can find out that you are not at home as well as exactly where you were. Turn off the geotagging feature on your camera or smartphone before you go on your trip, Frost advised.
9. Use that safe. Just 35 percent of those surveyed used the hotel safe, but both Frost and the ITRC recommend it for jewelry, laptops, passports and any other important documents. A suitcase is not a secure way to lock up information
10. Thief-proof house. Before you leave, set up getting your mail held, along with your newspapers and deliveries. Nothing says “I am not here” to thieves like mail and newspapers piling up outside your door. Also notify a trusted neighbor of your trip and how long you will be gone so they can watch the house.
Take these measures, along with the sunblock, for a safe vacation.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She can be reached at TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net