How to Protect Your Personal Info While Traveling
When scammers and hackers are looking to steal someone's money or personal information, tourists are some of the first people they target.
Let’s be real: vacationing can be stressful. Between flights, site-seeing, meals, and all manner of other activities, it’s all too easy for a relaxing getaway to become a stressful grind. But there is one way to absolutely guarantee that your vacation takes a dark and stormy turn, and that’s falling victim to a local scam artist.
“Vacations are intended to explore the world and make memories,” said Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Director for BeenVerified.com. “In most cases, this is the outcome. However, there are instances where local con-artists take advantage of naïve travelers and turn their world upside down.”
He’s right, that’s why we reached out to Lavelle and other data security experts to find out the best ways to keep your personal information safe while traveling.
Beware these common travel-related scams.
Scammers are always going to be after some combination of two things: Your money or your personal info. In essence, they’re either trying to steal your wallet, your identity, or both. But while the destination remains the same, there are many different routes that they can take to get there.
Here are some of the common travel-related scams that you will see to steal your personal info.
Free-trip phishing scams: This first scam begins before you even book a vacation! According to Ian McClarty, CEO and President of PhoenixNAP Global IT Services, scammers love using offers of free trips to run “phishing” scams on unsuspecting marks.
“As a good rule of thumb, if something seems too good to be true, it likely is,” said McClarty. “Emails and phone calls that talk about a special trip, reward, or prize that you have won (especially ones you don’t remember inquiring about) are prime phishing attempts made by companies to get your banking and other personal information. If something seems off, it is likely a scam of some kind.”
ATM “helpers”: When traveling, you might be inclined to rely on the kindness of strangers. But you should be careful about that, especially when you’re around an ATM.
“Be aware of people hanging around ATM machines, especially overseas,” warned Lavelle. “They may insist they can help save transaction fees when their true intent is to skim your credit card number and PIN so they can drain your accounts later.”
Not familiar with “skimming?” You should be. “Hackers use this technique to steal the information from the magnetic strip of credit and debit cards; allowing them to create a clone of the card,” explained digital privacy expert Ray Walsh of ProPrivacy.com.
“To avoid this scam, never let anyone near while you are making an ATM transaction,” he continued. “Always cover the keypad when entering your PIN code. If someone is hanging out nearby, leave and find another ATM.”
Then again, even an ATM that doesn’t have someone lurking about could be a trap. According to Walsh, “cybercriminals may perform skimming with a small device attached to a payment terminal or via the hole in a legitimate looking ATM machine.”
To avoid this, McClarty recommends only using ATMs that are located inside bank branches.
Public wifi hackers: “When we travel, we tend to make use of public wifi hotspots in coffee shops, on coaches, in airports, hotels, etc.” said Walsh. “Public wifi hotspots are a great way to stay connected and can save you a lot of money in terms of data. However, they also open you up to severe privacy and security risks.
“A poorly implemented wifi hotspot—that does not have WPA or WPA2 encryption setup—could be allowing any other user on the network to access your data,” he explained.
“When we connect to a public wifi hotspot, we tend to presume that it has been set up strongly, but that is not always the case. A poorly setup wifi hotspot can allow hackers to piggyback on your session in order to steal your credentials, passwords—and a credit card or bank details—as well as other sensitive information.”
And public wifi scams don’t stop there. In fact, they get even more sophisticated.
“In addition to badly implemented wifi hotspots, travelers must be aware of the dangers of ‘evil twin’ hotspots,” said Walsh. “Evil twin wifi hotspots appear in locations where travelers expect there to be public wifi. Hackers cunningly set up these traps by giving them a legitimate sounding name such as ‘airport wifi’ or the local hotel’s name.
“Once an unsuspecting traveler connects to the fake public wifi hotspot the hacker is able to intercept all the data that passes from the victim’s device to the internet. This allows them to steal the victim’s sensitive data, including login credentials, passwords, and sensitive banking information.”
Spills on your clothing: A lot of scams require a somewhat sophisticated understanding of computers on the part of the scammers. Some scams, on the other hand … do not.
“This scam is common in Europe,” said Lavelle. “While site-seeing a person may accidentally spill something on your clothing or bump you from behind. This is a mere distraction to keep your focus on the spill and not on personal belongings. While helping clean up the mess, the culprit will pick purses or pockets.
“Avoid this scam by being aware of your surroundings and declining help should someone spill condiments or beverages on you,” he advised. “Go to the nearest bathroom and clean the stain yourself.”
Fake police officers: According to Lavelle, large cities are notorious for scamming tourists. And this a scam you’re more likely to see in larger, more urban areas.
“In this scenario, a person will approach a tourist and request illicit substances like drugs,” he said. “During the discourse, a couple of people dressed in uniform will approach and flash fake police badges. This ploy is designed to get tourists to turn over their IDs and passports.
“To avoid this scam, request the officer show ID and call the police department to confirm their identity,” he advised. “Refuse to hand over the passports, citing they are locked in the hotel room, and request they follow you to the hotel. If they refuse, simply walk away.”
Fake wake up calls: This last common scam is another lo-fi hustle that relies more on a keen understanding of human nature than it does on computer code.
“Calls in the middle of the night can be startling, said Lavelle. “Waking up from a dead sleep can make you feel disoriented and more likely to share valuable information. Should you receive a call from the front desk regarding your credit card information do not confirm over the phone.
“To avoid this scam, take the caller’s name and inform him you will come down to the front desk and verify information in person.”
Here’s how to keep your personal information safe.
Beyond the advice that’s already been doled out for thwarting would-be scammers, here are some more general tips you can follow to make sure that your money and/or your identity don’t end up falling into the wrong hands.
Don’t access personal info from a public place: “When you are traveling, do not log into personal accounts of any kind from a public computer or an insecure network,” advised McClarty. “This is an easy way for people to steal your login information and, in turn, steal your identity.”
Travel light with credit cards and ID: “You’ll obviously need identification and a credit card while you travel, but leave any unnecessary credit cards, bank cards, and your social security card at home,” recommended Lavelle. “Basically leave behind anything you have in your wallet that you won’t need on your trip.”
Lavelle also recommended replacing your credit cards with a Visa rechargeable gift card: “Rather than finding out halfway through your trip that someone maxed out your credit card or emptied your checking account, purchase a rechargeable Visa gift card for any small personal expenses (such as dining out and souvenirs).” he said.
“Visa gift cards act as debit cards with expiration dates, code on the back, and even PIN numbers. You can use them in person or for online purchases. These cards are available at most grocery stores and some gas stations.”
According to Lavelle, carrying cash is another option to avoid using credit and debit cards. But he cautioned that carrying too much makes you a target for theft. As such, it’s best to keep the amount of cash you’re carrying at any one time relatively small. Lavelle suggested never carrying more than $200.
But there is yet another option beyond cash or plastic: Traveler’s checks, which is what Walsh recommended.
And if you are going to be carrying cards, Walsh also advised that you should carry them in a container designed to prevent theft. “Keeping cards contained within a signal blocking bag or wallet will stop RFID chips on contactless cards from being scanned by hackers as you pass nearby,” he said.
Phone settings: “Set your phone to travel mode, which allows you to handpick passwords that will be available while traveling,” said Lavelle. “If your phone goes missing or is searched, this will keep your information from total vulnerability. Also, turn off the Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth functions on your smartphone when you aren’t using them.”
Get a VPN: If you want to stop hackers from remotely accessing your phone and swiping all your info, there is one service that will go above and beyond to thwart them. “The most important tool that consumers can make use of when traveling away from home is a Virtual Private Network (VPN),” said Walsh.
“A VPN service encrypts all of the data coming and going from a device that is connected to the internet. As a result, travelers can securely use public WiFi hotspots anywhere that they go.
“Even if they should happen to connect to a badly setup WiFi hotspot—or an “evil twin” hotspot that belongs to a hacker—the VPN encryption will safely scramble their data so that cybercriminals are unable to perform data theft.”
Carry personal documents with you en route: “When it comes to your passport, ID, social security card, and birth certificate, make sure they are on your person at all time,” advised McClarty. “Do not include these in a checked bag, where a multitude of different workers will have access to them. Keep all of these items on your carry-on and keep the bag with you at all times.”
Use the hotel safe for valuables and important documents: While it’s good to keep your personal documents on you while you’re actually traveling, finding a safe place to store them once you’ve reached your destination is also a good idea.
“Lock up anything containing personal information, credit cards not being used, passports or other ID, and valuables such as a wedding ring if you remove it for swimming or sports,” said Lavelle. “Many hotel employees have access to your room and there is a risk of theft while you are gone.”
Keep documentation: “Keep all of your receipts from your entire trip from start to finish,” advised McClarty. “Keeping a record of charges you made, where you were, and when, can be incredibly useful when disputing fraudulent charges. Also, if charges are added to your credit card by businesses after the fact, you can dispute the charge.”
Bill to your room: According to Lavelle, a large percentage of hotel-based credit card fraud cases involve some sort of internal collusion with hotel staff.
“While a large chain resort will have measures in place to keep their customer’s data safe, no system is completely infallible, and the ability of a thief to install data retrieving software on the point-of-sale payment processing systems is certainly possible,” he said.
“Many data or identity thefts take place at the point of sale, which means that all of the card information is being captured, including the verification codes. And the methods used can be as unsophisticated as someone standing beside you at the front desk and capturing your information, and your PIN, on their smartphone.”
Fortunately, Lavelle offered a very simple answer to this dilemma: Don’t use your credit card at the hotel and instead just bill everything to your room. And if you do ever use the card, he recommended never letting it out of your sight.
“While most hotels and restaurants are wiser to this these days and use a portable swipe machine to handle your transaction table-side, some are still going old school, which means having your credit card out of your sight and vulnerable to having the data skimmed, or otherwise copied,” he said.
Vacations are meant to be fun and relaxing—basically, everything that getting robbed is not. Follow these tips to protect your personal information, and you’ll be able to take the vacation you want, not the vacation that scammers want for you instead.
Justin Lavelle is a Scams Prevention Expert and the Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.com (@BeenVerified). BeenVerified is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. It helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives and can provide peace of mind by offering a fast, easy and affordable way to do background checks on potential dates. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses, and property records.
Ray Walsh is a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.com (@weareproprivacy) with vast experience testing and reviewing VPNs and other online security software. He has been quoted in The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & more. Ray is currently rated #1 VPN and #3 internet privacy authority by Agilience.com.
Subscribe to our newsletter for more marketing news & industry trends
The information contained herein is provided for free and is to be used for educational and informational purposes only. We are not a credit repair organization as defined under federal or state law and we do not provide "credit repair" services or advice or assistance regarding "rebuilding" or "improving" your credit. Articles provided in connection with this blog are general in nature, provided for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for individualized professional advice. We make no representation that we will improve or attempt to improve your credit record, history, or rating through the use of the resources provided through the OppLoans blog.