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When you leave for a trip, the last thing you do before hopping in the car is lock your front door. You may have also set up timers on the lights to make the house looked lived in or ask a neighbor to check on things. The last thing you want when you come home is to discover somebody broke in and stole your most treasured items.
However, most of us don't take the same type of care to protect our most valuable asset—our identity—when we head out for a few days. Identity thieves can steal your personal information in both high-tech and low-tech ways, at home and on the road. To prevent identity theft while traveling, here are some tips that can help you protect you and every member of the family.
Steps to Take Before the Trip
You can take several actions to reduce the chance of identity theft before you ever hop on a plane. As you're winding up your vacation itinerary and creating your packing list, don't forget these important tasks.
- Clean out your wallet or purse. Only carry what you absolutely need for the trip, such as your driver's license, passport and the credit or debit cards you'll be using. Remove everything else that could identify you.
- Contact your bank and credit card providers. Let them know you'll be traveling to alert them of unusual charges, and they won't decline your card due to suspected fraudulent activity.
- Check your credit report. This will give you a baseline of information the credit companies have on record.
- Set up identity theft protection. This type of service will monitor your personal information activity and financial accounts and alert you if it detects problems.
- Set up a mail hold. The U.S. Postal Service will hold your mail for up to 30 days while you travel. While you're setting up the mail hold, consider signing up for Informed Delivery, where the post office scans your mail on each delivery day and emails you a PDF of the letters. That way you'll know if anything is missing.
- Add ribbons or unusual luggage tags to your suitcases. This way you can quickly identify them at the baggage carousel. Your luggage tag should include minimal information: your last name and your cell phone number. This way you can be contacted if it goes missing, but if it is stolen or taken by mistake, no one will have your address, email or other personally identifiable information.
- Share your travel plans with a few trusted people. Do this in person rather than announcing it on your social media accounts. Even with the strictest settings, there is never complete privacy with anything shared on the internet.
- Pay your bills. Make sure your bills are all paid—or set up with autopay—before you leave so you won't have to worry about logging in to those sensitive accounts while traveling.
- Update your devices. Any software patches or operating system updates should be done through your secure home internet connection. It also leaves fewer holes that can be exploited by hackers when using questionable connections.
Keep Your Identity Safe During the Trip
You're not off the hook yet. In fact, diligence while you travel is especially important. Here are some precautions to take.
- Try not to use public Wi-Fi, which is easy to hack. If you must use public Wi-Fi, don't share any personal information. Similarly, try to avoid using a public computer; but if you do, always make sure you completely log out of any website you visit and don't do any banking or bill paying.
- Guard your boarding passes. Your airline boarding pass shares a lot of information about you, from your full name to your travel plans. Use a mobile ticket when possible. If you do use a paper ticket, don't toss it in your hotel trash can. Rip it into pieces or tuck it away until you get home where it can be shredded.
- Don't put anything of value in your checked luggage. Keep the most sensitive documents in a bag tucked under the seat in front of you on a plane, rather than in anything that goes in the overhead bin—and out of your sight.
- Lock up important documents. Unless you need them, keep your passport and other documents locked in your hotel safe. Consider keeping a second wallet that includes copies of each person's passport, a list of credit card numbers and phone numbers of credit card issuers, and some extra cash locked in the safe. That way if your real wallet or purse goes missing, you can contact authorities and put a hold on your credit cards.
- Avoid ATMs in remote locations. These devices may have skimmers attached or cameras watching your withdrawal. While it can be impossible to avoid ATM machines on vacation, especially if you're on a long trip, use them sparingly and try to only use machines connected to a major bank.
- Limit your social media activity. Don't share pictures of your trip or tag your travel itinerary on social media while you're away. It advertises that you have an empty house and it allows fraudsters to track your movements. (If traveling in a group, ask your companions to not tag you in their pictures or outings.)
- Verify every personal inquiry. The front desk at the hotel will not call your room asking for your credit card number, for example, but if you aren't sure, hang up and call the front desk yourself before giving out any personal or financial information.
What to Do After You Return
If you think you've made it through your trip without incident, follow these steps to make sure.
- Check your credit report, credit card accounts and bank accounts. This will ensure no unexpected changes—or show you otherwise.
- Share your pictures and travel stories … sparingly. Frequent trip updates or pictures from exotic locales tell a would-be thief a lot about your habits, your schedule and your wealth, making you an attractive target.
- Change passwords as necessary. This is especially important for websites and accounts you accessed when using public internet connections or computers.
What to Do if Your Identity Is Stolen While Traveling
If you think there is a chance you or a family member (remember, children are at risk too) were the victim of identity theft while traveling, you need to take action immediately.
- If your passport was lost or stolen while abroad, contact the nearest embassy for help.
- If your credit card or debit card goes missing, contact your issuer and bank.
- Change passwords, user names and security questions (if possible) for anything that was stolen.
- Put a freeze on your credit reports.
Thieves are always looking for ways to make money, and your identity offers another way to do that, whether by selling that information on the Dark Web or using it to set up fraudulent accounts. People tend to let their guard down and relax when traveling, but not paying attention can actually make you more vulnerable to identity theft. You know to lock your door before leaving home. Also remember to lock down your identity, and you'll be more likely to enjoy your trip.