Identity Theft While You Travel: Should You Really Be Worried?

by  Darren Murph | Jul 30, 2014
Credit card
Credit card / Phatchara Bunkhachary/iStock

Keeping your funds in a money clip and your passport in a fanny pack is a great start to guarding your essentials when traveling, but these days, you also need to consider digital safeguards. Yes, there's certainly a fair bit of misinformation and fear-mongering when it comes to keeping one’s information and devices safe, but some of the concerns you've probably heard about are worth paying attention to. Here are three of them -- plus what you can do to be less vulnerable.

1. Credit card skimming.
In a nutshell, this involves a very small radio-powered device that can essentially lift your credit card information directly from the magnetic strip on its backside, if it gets physically close enough. It's easy to roll your eyes the same way you do with general identity theft warning, but think about it -- at some point or another, you've probably seen some fraudulent charges to your credit card account. While specific figures are murky,  card skimming is at least a multi-billion dollar a year industry, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that "9 million Americans have their identity stolen every year due to these or similar kinds of scams."

How it usually happens is that devious thieves usually look to nightclubs, public transit, and other densely packed spaces to swipe numbers. If you’re concerned about dealing with such a thing while traveling, you can pick up a wallet with "RFID" shielding -- or lining that essentially blocks the radio frequencies that skimming devices use. You'll find these for as low as $10-$15, but if you don't want to switch out your wallet, there are also RFID-blocking cards that you can bookend your credit cards with.

2. Unsecured WiFi networks.
Particularly when you head overseas and are unable to use your mobile phone without egregious roaming charges, you’re going to need to lean on WiFi. While connecting to open networks at airports and coffee shops could be harmless, it’s worth being cautious -- particularly as around 8 in 10 travelers tap into a public network while on the go. This can be risky because an unsecured network could allow someone on the other end to trace your Internet activity and your keystrokes, meaning that they're able to save your login credentials when you check your bank account or your credit card information when you make an online purchase. Even if you disable auto-fill for passwords, it's possible that an unsecured network could allow someone to access stored files on your device and sift through your personal folders.

The best rules of thumb? Don't connect to open WiFi hotspots where you aren't sure of the origin, and always double check the network's name and security with an employee when you're in a place of business. Be equally suspicious of networks or hotspots that are shared from a stranger's phone or computer. Even hotel wifi and business center computers are vulnerable -- to a point that the government has issued a warning to the hospitality industry. If you must connect to an unsecured network, consider a VPN (virtual private network), which essentially encrypts your data so that it's not readable even if others access it. There are a variety of services at different price points; Hotspot Shield, free with ad support or $2.49 per month for mobile, and Private Internet Access, from $3.33 per month for desktop, are just two examples.

3. Your location.
Another concern that VPNs help with is masking your location, which has both privacy and practical implications. The same way you don't want to announce on the streets where you live and when you'll be gone on vacation, you wouldn't want to broadcast your location and absences virtually, either. Even if you're extremely cautious with websites and social platforms that you share your location with, your internet service provider is always logging your data.

In certain regions of the world, websites that you frequent may be blocked. A VPN can help you access Netflix from France or Facebook in China, since it can reroute your traffic back through the U.S. But some websites, like banks', will also prevent logins from irregular locations as an anti-hacker measure. A VPN could also help avoid getting locked out or having to make an expensive international call to get the issue sorted. 

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