When you travel, your risk of identity theft increases. Taking steps to prevent identity theft before, during, and after your trip can protect you from all sorts of scams. For examples, thieves might take advantage of your absence to open new credit card accounts or drain your bank accounts. Or, they might pick your pocket or track your online activities while you are on the road. If you are planning a trip, use the tips below to protect yourself and your family from identity theft.
Planning Your Trip
The travel industry is anything but immune from scammers. Consumers have paid for tours that didn't exist, entered their credit card information onto phony websites, and more. To avoid such troubles, before signing up for an online or telephone travel offer, check the travel companies with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the attorney general's office in the state where the company does business. (To find a state attorney general office, visit the National Association of Attorney General's website at www.naag.org. For BBB contact information, visit its website at www.bbb.org.
Securing Your Home
Ordinary burglars in search of jewelry and cash aren't the only potential threat to your home. Identity thieves may steal things like checks from your checkbook, important papers, or any credit cards you've left behind. And don't forget that if they steal your laptop, they may steal much personal information with it. Here's how to frustrate their efforts:
- Make your home look like it's still lived in. For example, bring in trash cans off the street (or ask the neighbors to do so after a pickup) and leave on a light or two -- preferably using a timer.
- Get a housesitter. This will mean there's someone there to make the house look lived in and deal with unexpected events. Of course, you need to find someone you can trust implicitly -- otherwise the housesitter could turn out to be an identity thief.
- Lock away valuables. If you have a safe deposit box, transfer your most precious items (including your checkbook, extra credit cards, and Social Security card) and personal documents there. If not, find a hiding place within your house. A locked drawer is best, but you can improvise, perhaps using your basement or attic.
- Make provisions for your newspaper and mail. You don't want newspapers or mail sitting on your front porch or stuffed in your mail box. Ask a neighbor or friend to collect papers and mail and store them for you until you get back. Alternatively, you can stop your mail and newspaper delivery. But be aware that some scammers have access to change of address forms and newspaper delivery information. By stopping delivery you could be alerting thieves of your absence.
- Ask a friend or neighbor to remove the pizza fliers or other deliveries. Even if you've stopped service on your mail and newspapers, things will appear in your front porch -- and unless someone removes them, they'll create an obvious sign that you're away.
- Freeze your credit. A credit freeze blocks access to your credit report and score, preventing identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name. You can undo the freeze when you're back, or simply wait until the next time you need to apply for a loan or credit card.
- Schedule online bill payments while you're gone. It's fast and easy -- simply call your bank to find out how to set up temporary online payments. Avoiding having paper statements sent to you while you're away can dramatically reduce your chances that one of your bills will be stolen from your mailbox, which could give a thief important account information.
Sometimes what you leave at home is as important as what you bring on a trip. Your decision making will depend partly on personal choice and the safety of your destination. But here are some general tips for most everyone:
- Withdraw as much cash as you feel safe carrying. The safest way to travel is with cash or a combination of cash and traveler's checks. If you don't take enough cash, you may find yourself dependent on an ATM machine that seems shady -- and probably is. The more machines with your information stored in them, the higher your risk is of identity theft.
- In case your cash isn't enough. Research the locations of several local bank branches and print out directions from your hotel to each of them. That will help you avoid ATMs that aren't secure (and you can check out ATM fees, while you're at it).
- Keep your wallet or purse light. Bring only one credit card for emergency use, hotel incidentals, and car rentals. And leave your checkbook, Social Security card, library card, and other unnecessary items in a safe place at home.
- Put valuables or personal documents in carry-on luggage. Bags that you check in are not safe places for your credit cards, traveler's checks, cash, and valuables. In fact, carry these with you to the airplane restroom if you can -- thefts have happened from carry-on bags, too.
- Make two copies of your passport, driver's license, and credit card. Take one set with you and leave one with a friend or relative who you can call in an emergency. If your wallet is lost or stolen, these will give you a quick and easy reference for account numbers and emergency phone numbers with which to cancel your accounts or apply for a replacement passport.
- Decide how you'll pack your laptop. If you bring one on your trip, make sure it's secure. It should be password-protected (in case of theft), and have the latest Internet security software installed. Also consider disguising it in a nontraditional case, such as a duffel bag.
- Slip an envelope into your luggage. This will be handy for collecting credit cards and ATM receipts while you're traveling, so you can dispute any inaccurate charges after you're home and get the bill.
- Create a list of account numbers, credit limits, and customer service phone numbers for your credit cards. Bring it with you so you'll know who to contact if your wallet or purse is stolen. The best place to store this list is in your locked hotel safe.