11 easy ways to avoid identity theft while traveling

New survey finds many travelers report they have been victims

Last updated: July 02, 2014 10:30 AM

The last thing you want to deal with while you're on vacation is a lost or stolen credit card, drivers license, or smart phone. Luckily there are precautions you can take to minimize your risk of theft, or, if it does happen, that it will lead to identity theft.

We’ve never been a fan of identity protection services such as Lifelock, Credit Sesame, or Experian's ProtectMyId, because you can more effectively protect yourself for little or no cost.

Eighty-five percent of cases termed "identity theft" involve the fraudulent use of an existing account, such as a credit card or bank account, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. But consumer-protection laws and zero-liability policies limit the actual cost of that crime for most consumers to zero. A much smaller but more serious threat involves a thief assuming your identity and opening new accounts in your name.

A new survey conducted by Edelman Berland for Experian’s ProtectMyID, an identity protection service, found that 18 percent of the survey's 1,000 respondents said they had "sensitive information" lost or stolen while traveling (credit or debit cards, smart phones, drivers licenses, or passports), and 9 percent said they were the victims of identity theft.

But  the study did not define "identity theft", so there is no way of knowing if respondents meant their personal information was just lost or stolen, if they experienced credit card fraud as a result, or if new accounts were opened in their name. Becky Frost, senior education manager for Experian's ProtectMyID, said they might add language that addresses that issue in next year's survey.

The results did show that many travelers failed to take some simple precautions to protect themselves before and during their trips. For example, less than half alerted their debit or credit card providers or bank before departing. Just one in three used smart phone password protection or hotel safes to protect their valuables. And more than a quarter (27 percent) brought their Social Security cards on their trip.

The study also found that consumers feel most vulnerable to identity fraud in Internet cafes and restaurants rather than hotels, where 24 percent of victims reported having their "identity stolen."

Taking these steps can help reduce your risk of identity theft.

  • Sign up for free online banking and mobile apps to monitor your checking and credit accounts daily.
  • Password-protect smart phones and other electronic devices. Skip the easy 4-digit PIN and instead create a strong password that contains a string of at least 8 characters that include some combination of letters, numbers, and special characters that don't form recognizable words or phrases. Even with the iPhone 5 S's Touch ID fingerprint reader enabled, you should still use a strong passcode. If your phone provides an option that will erase your personal data after several unsuccessful tries to enter a passcode, activate it.
  • Alert your bank and credit card issuer of your travel plans.
  • Avoid using public Wi-Fi when possible.
  • Choose to pay with a credit card versus debit card; credit cards often offer better fraud protection. Federal regulations limit your liability, usually to $50 per account, and even that is often waived by card issuers. Debit cards are more complicated. If you don’t report unauthorized charges within 60 days of a statement, you could potentially lose everything in your account.
  • Bank at a branch. ATMs in high-traffic tourist areas may put you at risk for skimming. When entering a PIN, cover the keypad with your hand.
  • Avoid traveling with unnecessary documents, such as Social Security cards, or extra credit cards.
  • Delay social media posts that indicate you’re out of town; wait until you’re back from your trip to share your travel adventures.
  • Check your statements frequently when you return from your trip and report any suspicious charges quickly.
  • Get free annual credit reports from each of the three major credit-reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—by going to annualcreditreport.com. Stagger your requests every four months from one bureau to the next so you can monitor your accounts all year long.
  • You’re also entitled to a free credit report from each bureau after you place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit file—which you should do every 90 days if you’ve been notified of a security breach, your wallet has been stolen, or you detect other red flags of ID theft. The alerts prompt lenders to more carefully verify applicants using your ID.

––Mandy Walker

Which travel credit card should you use?

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