Spring break is a time to cut loose, enjoy family and friends, and relax. Vacationers are not usually thinking about identity theft.
Unfortunately, criminals use this time to think of additional ways to steal your identity. Reported instances of vacation identity theft are rising steadily each year.
Your personal information, credit and debit accounts, driver’s license, and other identifying information are the target. If you aren’t careful, your vacation could turn into a detour of unknown financial horror. When identity theft happens, it could take years to recover from your vacation.
It’s essential that you take steps to reduce the possibility of identity theft, both before you leave and once you arrive at your destination. The steps are deceptively simple, but don’t let simplicity fool you. Sometimes it’s the small things that foil identity thieves.
Before Your Vacation
Even before you leave for your vacation you should be actively preparing to protect yourself and taking precautions against identity theft. Even taking a few precautions before you turn you back on the world for a few days will help prevent identity theft. This list reflects some of the steps you should take before you pack your bags.
- Call your financial institutions and credit card companies to let them know you’re going to be traveling. Be sure they know where you will be and the dates you will be away. Most financial institutions will help monitor your accounts for unauthorized transactions in other locations during this time, because it reduce their liability if a criminal gains access to your accounts.
- Don’t carry more than you need. Leave your checkbook and extra credit cards at home. As a general rule, when you’re on vacation, you should use only cash, one credit card or traveler’s checks. Everything else should be locked in a safe or a safety deposit box until you return.
- Pay any bills that may come due before you leave. Set your bills up for automatic payment or pay them in advance. But don’t take anything with your account numbers and personally identifying information with you. And if you do, don’t leave it unattended in a hotel room.
- Reduce what you carry. Leave extra credit cards, social security cards and anything that might have personal information on it at home and make copies of everything else as a backup in case the unthinkable happens.
- Don’t leave your home unattended. Mail sitting in your mail box and newspapers piling up on the porch are a sure sign that no one is home. Identity thieves watch for opportunities to grab information, and your vacation is their perfect opportunity. Ask someone you trust to pick up your mail and news papers, preferably as soon as they’re delivered, and ask them to turn on lights in different areas of your house each night. You can also have your mail and newspapers put on hold until you return if there’s no one you trust enough to give them access to your house.
- If you plan to take your computer on vacation with you, take the time to update your anti-spyware and anti-virus programs before you leave. You’ll be connecting to the Internet through connections that aren’t necessarily secure, so you want to be as protected as possible.
- Remember that mentioning on facebook and other social media about your vacation plans lets the world know that you will be away from home for an extended period of time … save photo shares until you return!
While on Vacation
When you’re actually on vacation, it’s easy to let your guard down. Don’t do it. Use these suggestions to keep your identity safe.
- Always remain aware of your surroundings. You never know when the person standing over your shoulder is an identity thief. The increased number of cell phones with cameras also increases your risk because it makes it easy for criminals capture credit card or debit card information.
- Always keep your electronics close. It takes just a second for a criminal to steal your computer, PDA, cell phone, or any other device you carry. Worse, you may get in a hurry and forget them. It’s much better if you leave your gadgets at home.
- Don’t leave anything with your personal information (or of value) on it in your hotel room. Place it in the hotel safe or take it with you. Hotel staff usually has no criminal record, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a criminal in the group. Identity theft is most often a crime of opportunity. Don’t be the person who presents the opportunity.
- Don’t leave personal information, travel documents, or anything of value in your vehicle. It’s not at all uncommon for vacationers to rent a car, but even rented cars are subject to theft. Treat the rental just as you would your personal automobile.
- Be careful of pickpockets. Use a fanny pack or body travel pack when out of your hotel room. As odd as it sounds, use fanny packs Velcro closings. The Velcro is easier to get into, but it also makes noise, so you’ll be alerted if someone tries to pick your pack. Body packs are a much better choice than fanny packs because they can be placed anywhere on your body, under your clothing.
- Don’t access personal accounts from your computer or from computers in your hotel or Internet café while on vacation. Publically available computers are an identity thief’s heaven. Most usually they’re not protected, and since so many people use them, they’re a goldmine of personal information.
There are no guarantees that if you use all of these suggestions your identity won’t be stolen. Even the most diligent people sometimes fall victim to identity theft. Protecting yourself, however, is the first step in reducing your chances of being victimized. Take the small steps necessary to make it harder for identity thieves to get to your personal and financial information.
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WOTV 4 women’s finance expert Nancy Loftis