Protect Yourself From ID Theft on Vacation

Here are six ways to lower your risk of becoming a victim.

I’m going on vacation next week. What should I do to protect myself from identity theft while I’m gone?

It can be easy to let down your guard and forget some of the precautions you take at home to protect yourself from ID theft, which is why scam artists tend to take advantage of travelers. Here are six ways to protect yourself against ID theft while on vacation this summer.

Notify your bank and credit card company that you’ll be traveling. Financial institutions have become a lot more vigilant about watching out for suspicious activity and may put a temporary hold on your account if they can’t get in touch with you to verify charges from an unexpected city. “If you call, we can put a travel flag on your account for your travel dates,” says Keith Gordon, senior vice-president of security and fraud for Bank of America. Also be sure to provide updated contact information, including your cell-phone number, he says. Without it, the bank or credit card company might call the wrong number to verify your information or check on a transaction, or you might miss a call to your home number -- and your account could be frozen.

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Be careful about what you throw away in hotel trash cans. Papers such as your airline boarding pass, flight itinerary and car-rental receipts could include your driver’s license number, address, name, credit card number and other personal information. “Sometimes the tiniest piece of information can be the missing piece of the mosaic that completes the picture of you,” says Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911. Shred the papers at the hotel or take them home with you.

Don’t conduct financial business on a public Wi-Fi. Rather, use a private network, a protected network at a hotel, or 3G or 4G on your smart phone or iPad. If you do use a hotel network, make sure that it really belongs to the hotel. Sometimes scam artists set up a Wi-Fi name that looks very similar to the hotel’s name. “Then they glean all the information that comes across that network,” says Kirk Herath, chief privacy officer for Nationwide. Also avoid entering personal information on hotel computers, which could have software that logs keystrokes and records your passwords and account numbers. And don’t announce on Facebook or other social-networking sites that you are traveling, lest you alert thieves close to home.

Avoid stand-alone ATMs. Thieves have been known to install software that records your bank-account information and PIN number (called skimming) so they can steal from you. “If you can, go to an ATM that is attached to a bank,” says Levin. “There’s better security there.”

Watch your wallet. Take out all unneeded credit card and personal information from your wallet before you leave home. Make copies of all of your important documents, such as your passport, driver’s license, health insurance card and travel 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 or in the hotel safe. That way, it will be easy to call if your wallet is stolen or you have any trouble with your account.

Check your credit card and bank statements frequently for unusual small charges. A charge for $1 or for a pizza can be a red flag. “Anything under $10 can be a signal that thieves are testing your account number,” says Herath. If you’re away for a week or more, don’t wait until you get home to check your account. Find a secure Web connection to access your statement online, or call the customer-service number on the back of your card to check on the last few transactions through its automated phone system.

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.