9 Ways to Protect Your Identity While Traveling

Quick Answer

Ways you can protect your identity while traveling include leaving unneeded documents and cards at home, being careful when using ATMs and avoiding public Wi-Fi networks.

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You've already got enough to worry about when you're traveling: Will your flight be canceled or delayed? Is your car in travel-ready shape? What will the weather be like at your destination?

So, the last thing you want to add to your worry-about list is identity theft. Unfortunately, travelers are prime targets of identity thieves. But you can take steps to keep identity thieves at bay. Here are nine ways to protect your identity while traveling.

1. Update Your Devices

When you're traveling, you should keep your electronic devices as safe as possible to prevent your data from getting into the wrong hands. You can do this by ensuring you've got the latest software and other updates installed on your cellphone, laptop and other devices. Updates repair security flaws, improve security features and fix performance issues.

You'll typically be notified about an update by a device maker or software provider, and you should install the update as soon as possible (as long as you've verified the patch is legitimate).

Cyber attackers look for software and operating system vulnerabilities that enable them to tap into personal and financial information stored on your devices. The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency emphasizes that cyber attackers might target device vulnerabilities months or years after an update is issued, so it's best to stay on top of these updates.

2. Avoid Public Wi-Fi

Connecting to a Wi-Fi network at a hotel, coffee shop or another public spot in the U.S. is usually safe, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That's because most public Wi-Fi systems encrypt your data to make it pretty useless to hackers.

Based on the FTC's assurance, signing onto a public Wi-Fi network in the U.S. shouldn't be a big concern (though it's best to avoid sharing personal information). But if you're visiting another country, public Wi-Fi networks might be more vulnerable to hacking, so extra caution may be in order.

If you're worried about the safety of a public Wi-Fi network:

  • Avoid logging on to bank accounts or other online accounts. This might expose your personal or financial information.
  • Resist the temptation to shop online. Shopping might seem like an innocent activity, but making an online purchase may require that you provide a credit card number, a debit card number, login credentials or other sensitive information.
  • Consider using a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs, some of which are free, can shield your information from hackers through encryption.

3. Secure Your Phone

For a crook, your mobile phone could be the gateway to stealing your identity. After all, you've likely downloaded banking apps, set up email access and stored login credentials—all of which can make your phone a treasure trove of personal and financial information.

Therefore, you should take steps to secure your phone:

  • Use a passcode or a biometric feature (like a fingerprint) to lock your phone.
  • Turn off automatic logins.
  • Set up GPS tracking in case your phone is lost or stolen.

4. Don't Share Travel Details on Social Media

If you brag to all your Facebook or Instagram buddies that you're heading to Aruba for a week, it's an invitation for a burglar to break into your vacant house while you're away. A burglar might not only take off with valuable items but also valuable personal information.

Even if you have strict privacy settings on your social media accounts, you might want to delay posting photos, videos or information about your getaway until you've returned home.

To further protect your home, consider setting up timers or smart switches to turn lights on and off automatically, as well as security cameras that might catch a burglar entering or ransacking your home.

5. Set Up a Mail Hold

If you're going to be away from home for more than a few days, submit a mail hold to the U.S. Postal Service for up to 30 days. You can retrieve your mail once the hold has expired.

A mail hold can keep bank statements, credit card bills and other mail from being used to steal your identity. To hold your mail longer or to reroute your mail, sign up for the Postal Service's forwarding service.

6. Don't Bring Unneeded Documents and Cards

Travelers typically need to carry a driver's license or identification card, travel credit cards, insurance cards and possibly a passport. But you should leave behind your Social Security card, birth certificate and other documents that have sensitive personal information.

In other words, your wallet, purse or backpack shouldn't hold documents and cards that you may want to bring but don't need to bring.

Once you've gotten settled at your destination, think carefully about what you take with you on a day-to-day basis. Ideally, you should grab cash and a credit or debit card. But you might consider stashing unneeded items in a hotel safe or another secure spot. Or you may opt to store important items in a money belt, a crossbody purse or a wallet you hang around your neck.

7. Be Careful at ATMs

For identity thieves, an ATM can be a money-making machine. For instance, they might install a skimming device or shimming device on an ATM to capture card numbers and PINs.

To protect your card number and PIN at an ATM when you're traveling:

  • Use a bank-operated ATM rather than a non-bank ATM. Non-bank ATMs, found at places like convenience stores, might not be as safe as those overseen by banks and other financial institutions.
  • Change your ATM passcode before and after your trip.
  • Use your hand to block the ATM keypad. This can help prevent a person or a hidden camera from seeing your PIN as you're typing it.

8. Act Quickly if a Card Is Lost or Stolen

If your credit or debit card has been lost or stolen while traveling, report it right away to the card issuer. This may help prevent or minimize financial harm. You can contact the card issuer by looking for the customer service phone number on the card or finding it on the card issuer's website or app.

Federal law safeguards consumers against steep financial losses from a lost or stolen credit or debit card. In the case of a lost or stolen credit card, you might be responsible for as much as $50 in unauthorized charges (though many cards offer zero liability protection). For a lost or stolen debit card, your financial liability depends on how fast you report that the card went missing.

9. Consider an Identity Monitoring Service

Adding an identity monitoring service to your security toolkit could give you some peace of mind while you're traveling. An identity monitoring service like the one offered by Experian tracks personal information in credit applications, on websites, in public records and in other places to spot possible signs of identity theft, and may also offer ID theft insurance.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Among the actions you should take if your identity is stolen while traveling are:

    • Contact your providers. Reach out to all of your banks and credit card companies, not just the one directly involved in the identity theft. You might be advised to close existing accounts and open new ones to help avoid problems.
    • Contact the authorities. File identity theft reports with a local law enforcement agency and the FTC.
    • Freeze your credit files. You have the right to freeze your credit files with the three major credit reporting agencies—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. A credit freeze severely limits access to your credit information. You can unfreeze your files at any time.
    • Review your recent transactions. Go through your bank and credit card accounts online to see whether any suspicious activity shows up. If it does, reach out to your bank or credit card company as soon as possible.
    • Monitor your credit report. Obtain your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. You can get your Experian credit report for free anytime. You can also get your reports from all three bureaus weekly at AnnualCreditReport.com.
    • Change online passwords. This is especially important for bank accounts and credit card accounts.
  • You should never travel with your Social Security card. Instead, leave it at home in a safe place.

    In fact, the Social Security Administration advises not carrying your Social Security card with you at all, whether you're traveling or not. Instead, share your card only when it's required, which the federal agency says rarely happens.

  • Travel insurance might cover credit card theft. However, the coverage likely won't include reimbursement for financial losses. Rather, a travel insurance company's representatives can help you cancel credit cards, file a police report and carry out other tasks associated with credit card theft.

The Bottom Line

Just as you pack clothing and toiletries for a trip, you should pack tools to protect your identity while traveling. This may include steps like updating your electronic devices and avoiding public Wi-Fi networks. You might also consider exercising your right to set up a free fraud alert with Experian before you head out on your trip. A fraud alert notifies a potential issuer of credit to verify your identity before extending in case an identity theft is applying for credit in your name.