Last summer, Americans spent around $101.1 billion on travel. And while that’s great news for the cities where tourists typically flock, it also means there’s a lot of cash up for grabs by scammers.
Traveling presents many opportunities for pickpockets, hackers and other nefarious folk to get their hands on your financial information. So whether you’re touring Europe or enjoying a staycation this summer, here’s how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.
1. Clean out your wallet and leave your debit card at home.
For some thieves, pickpocketing is an art. Spending time in busy trains, restaurants and shopping areas means you’ll undoubtedly be a target at some point.
It’s important to keep small bills and change on hand for tips and other small purchases, but no more than about $50 total. It’s a good idea to spread it out, too. For instance, keep some cash in a secure crossbody bag or a money belt hidden under your clothing. Sneak another bill under the pad of your shoe or in your bra. If you’re traveling with another person, have them hold some of your cash, too.
You should also leave your debit card at home since it grants direct access to your bank account and offers less protection than a credit card. “Debit cards are more complex in terms of usage and regulations, and you could potentially lose all the money in your account,” said Steven Bearak, CEO of personal identity protection service IdentityForce.
Instead, you should carry a chip-enabled credit card ― ideally, one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees ― as well as a backup credit card. Set up alerts on these cards, so you get a text or email any time a purchase goes through.
As far as other documents, such as your Social Security card, birth certificate or checks, it’s best to leave them at home, too. Instead, scan copies of any important documentation you might need.
“Scan your credit cards, passports, identification and prescriptions (including eyeglasses and contacts), and upload them all to your cloud of choice,” said Kate Horrell, a personal finance blogger and frequent traveler. “Having easy access to the information you need can make it 100 times easier to cancel and replace.”
2. Set up two-factor authentication and turn off automatic Wi-Fi.
Your phone probably holds more valuables than your actual wallet. With your email, online banking apps and other sensitive information all just one tap away, you can’t afford to let access to your phone fall into the wrong hands.
Bearak recommended that whether it’s your smartphone, tablet or any other device you bring along, set up a strong passcode of four or more digits to unlock them.
Additionally, setting up two-factor authentication will add an extra layer of security. Two-factor authentication is a second verification step required to unlock a device or account in addition to entering a password ― for example, your smartphone’s fingerprint or facial recognition feature.
And although you should avoid accessing sensitive information from public internet cafes or Wi-Fi networks, sometimes it’s necessary.
“Even if it’s a quick look at your email, these connections may not be secure … criminals could get into your system covertly and then install a keylogger program that sends all your activity back to them,” explained Bearak. “If you need Wi-Fi, only choose networks that are password-protected. And, turn off the setting on your phone that allows it to automatically connect to open Wi-Fi networks, because you never know who is tapping in and waiting for you.”
To be extra safe, set up two-factor authentication on your email account as well, since that’s where scammers will go to reset online banking passwords. For instance, Gmail offers this feature, which requires you to enter a unique code sent to your phone every time you log in. Just be sure that if you enable additional verification steps, your cell phone will work properly in the areas you plan to travel.
3. Stick with ATMs inside banks.
When you do use a debit card, be wary of ATMs in dark corners or off the beaten path. Often, these machines can be rigged with tools to swipe your card information.
For instance, criminals can place counterfeit card readers over the real ones to capture your card data. That’s why it’s important to use a chip-enabled card and ATM only, which rely on a unique transaction code every time you use them. Even so, as long as your card still has a magnetic strip on the back, you’re still susceptible to fraud.
Some ATMs might also be under surveillance by a small camera meant to capture your PIN as you enter it into the machine.
It’s a good idea to stick with ATMs inside banks, rather than in gas stations or convenience stores or on street corners. You can never be too careful, though, so always take extra precautions, such as jiggling the card reader before inserting your card to check for tampering and covering the keypad when entering your PIN.
4. Don’t look like a clueless tourist.
During the summer months, droves of jet-lagged travelers swarm the streets. It’s a feeding frenzy for pickpockets and scammers, who can easily spot distracted foreigners and take advantage. Don’t put a target on your own back by looking like a tourist.
“The stereotype of a loud American with a baseball cap, huge white sneakers, and an oversized camera is real, and it will make you a target in some places,” said Horrell.
Do some research ahead of time to learn how the locals dress. “You don’t have to change your entire style,” said Horrell. However, you’ll probably want to leave the Crocs and cargo shorts at home. “Plus, fanny packs SCREAM tourist,” Horrell added.
Look up your routes ahead of time and know where you’re going so you’re not caught staring at a map or your phone as you navigate. This is a big red flag that you are unsure of your surroundings and distracted. If you do get lost, fake it till you make it ― appearing confident and alert at all times will make you a less attractive target.
5. Keep it off social media.
Although your focus might be on thwarting criminals abroad, preventing theft starts at home. The person who scams you on vacation could be one of your friends ― Facebook friends, that is.
Social media presents countless opportunities for TMI, and that includes information about where you are. “Posting real-time updates, including photos, during a trip sends a clear message that ‘I’m not home! You can go break into my house!’” said Bearak, CEO of IdentityForce. This can leave your valuables at risk, as well as documents and paperwork containing sensitive information.
Friends taking advantage of you in this way seems totally unlikely, but it happens.
“Even if you have strict privacy settings on your accounts, you never know if any of your connections have a history of stealing identities — especially if they’ve never been caught. Share the memories and photos, just wait until you are back home,” said Bearak.