Protect yourself while traveling
The summer travel season is almost here, and thieves are looking forward to it as much as you are. Don’t have your vacation ruined by a stolen credit card. While you aren’t likely to be liable for any fraudulent charges made on your card, the hassle factor is considerable, especially if the compromised card is your primary debit or credit card.
The good news is that card issuers have systems in place to catch unauthorized use before it happens, says Marina Hoffmann Norville, a spokeswoman for American Express. “We have sophisticated monitoring to detect fraud activity, so we do a lot of this on the back end,” she says. “We can see a granular level of detail, so we can pick up cards with unusual activity.”
But don’t just rely on the card companies to catch fraudulent transactions. There are a few simple steps you can take yourself before, during and after your getaway to help protect your information.
Empty your wallet
There’s no reason to bring all of your credit cards on vacation. That just increases your risk of having one lost or stolen. “Unload your wallet. Only take the cards with you that you intend to use,” says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Designate one card you plan to use for everything during your vacation. Choose one with a high credit limit so you’re prepared for any unforeseen expenses, and if you’re traveling overseas, pick a card with a low or zero percent foreign transaction fee. In addition, bring one backup card. Cunningham goes so far as to recommend not bringing your debit card, but that may not be practical if you don’t trust yourself not to overspend with a credit card, or if you anticipate having to visit ATMs to take out cash.
Make copies of the front and back of each card that you plan to bring. You want to make sure the account number and the toll-free customer service number are legible. If you’re traveling outside the U.S., check to see if the number you can call to reach customer service from outside of the country is on the back. If not, call your issuer and ask for it. You’ll want two copies; one to leave with a trusted friend or family member back home, and one to bring with you.
Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911, suggests bringing digital “copies” if you’re tech-savvy. “I would have a copy of my critical documents that would identify me if money is being wired to me. I would scan in my credit cards, my passport and driver’s license. I would scan that into my computer and save it on an encrypted thumb drive,” he says.
As with paper copies, store these in a safe place, but not in the same place as your actual cards. Levin suggests wearing the thumb drive on a lanyard around your neck, tucked under your shirt.
Contact the issuers
This step is as much for your convenience as for your protection. If you live in Chicago and your credit card company sees charges coming in from Rome, they might conclude someone’s already stolen your card and freeze it. This could create a huge headache if you’re actually in Rome.
Give the card companies as much detail about your itinerary as possible. Going to Europe? Tell them which countries and which cities, and the dates you’ll be there. If you’ve already made your travel budget, it wouldn’t hurt to tell them how much you plan to spend.
Make sure the issuers have a mobile phone number where they can reach you if something goes awry, says Norville. “For a fraud alert, we’ll contact you on the number we have on file. Putting your mobile number as one of the numbers we can contact you is a good idea,” she says. If you’ll be traveling in an area where your cellphone doesn’t get voice service, consider buying a locally compatible phone and give the issuers that number.
Set up alerts
Norville also recommends taking advantage of whatever kinds of alerts you can receive while you’re away. If you’ll be able to receive text messages at your destination, explore what kinds of options your issuers offer as far as text alerts.
Many will let you set an alert that will send you a text message if a purchase over a certain dollar amount is made, for instance. Not a texter? You might want to get your alerts via email if you’ll bring your laptop or smartphone.
Norville says these alerts can even help you stick to your budget, if you set an alert that will contact you if your balance goes above a certain threshold. When you get home, you can disconnect those alerts as easily as you set them up.
Divide and conquer
Don’t keep everything together. Keep the account data you copied in a separate location from your actual cards; there’s no sense keeping it in your wallet or handbag, because you’ll need that info if you get pickpocketed or fall victim to purse snatching.
You may wish to bring only your “main” card and leave your backup card in the in-room safe. John Sileo, a professional speaker and consultant on the topic of identity theft, advises against leaving valuables in a central safe by the hotel’s front desk. A large number of staffers probably have access to that, he says, which could make your information susceptible to theft.
If you brought digital copies of your information, make sure the folder or drive in which they’re stored is encrypted, so even if someone gets the actual device, they can’t access your data.
Check up on your account
If you brought a laptop, you can monitor your accounts from your hotel room or even the pool. Make sure the Internet connection is secure (did you have to enter a password to get online?) and check your transaction records.
Under no circumstances, says Sileo, should you do this at a shared or public computer in a hotel’s lobby or business center. “The instances of tracking software on public computers are so high it’s like playing Russian roulette,” he says. If a public computer is the only one available to you, consider calling your issuers instead to verify you’re the only one using your accounts.
Keep an eye on your cards
Whenever possible, don’t let your credit cards out of your sight. Stories abound of service professionals taking a card to process it and helping themselves to the data via a handheld skimmer in the process. “Waiters and waitresses can have skimmers, and all they have to do is run it through and they have your information,” says Cunningham.
In reality, keeping your card in view might not always be practical, although some establishments might give you the option of bringing your card up to the front to pay your bill. If you’re in a store or market, though, you should be able to observe the transaction. If you’re really concerned, plan to pay for meals in cash. Levin says there’s nothing wrong with letting your instinct guide you. If something seems fishy, go elsewhere.
Follow up at home
When your vacation is over, keep an eye on your accounts for a little while; some professional scammers may not use or sell the numbers they collect right away. Monitor your statements carefully because thieves will sometimes run a tiny purchase — maybe only a few cents — through to see if the card number is still active.
If you have reason to believe one of your accounts may have been compromised, you may want to consider asking the card company to cancel the card and issue you another with a new number. If you take this step, don’t forget to update any merchants with which you’ve set up recurrent billing.