Americans may be traveling to exotic places like China, Russia, Germany, and Brazil this summer without ever leaving the comforts of home. Unfortunately, identity thieves take no vacations and might be trading or selling consumers' personal information around the world.
Consumers that travel are particularly vulnerable to having their identity stolen: 3 out of 5 respondents to a new Experian survey say they've been a victim of identity theft, or know someone who has while traveling.
But somewhat alarmingly, the same survey shows only a third of those surveyed express significant concern about identity theft while trekking the globe and only half secure their passport in a safe place.
How Does Your Personal Information End Up Abroad?
A few years ago, data security company Bitglass ran a test to see just how far information can travel on the dark web.
They generated a list of fake phone names, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and a few other pieces of data, compiled them in an Excel file and watermarked it with a code that would track any access to the file, reporting back to them on when and where files were opened.
The results? The data traveled around the world in two weeks, with over 1,000 views and 47 downloads. Information ended up being accessed in North America, Asia, Europe, Africa and South America with the most grabs happening in Nigeria, Russia, and Brazil.
When data is traded and sold on the dark web, it is usually posted on a marketplace-type of a site—think of it like an Amazon but for personal information where you simply browse through items and click ‘purchase.'
It's a similar environment. The dark web can be accessed by anyone with the right anonymous browser and credentials to enter these marketplaces from anywhere in the world.
Why Passports Are Attractive Goods on the Dark Web
While only 25% of survey respondents think passport numbers are sold on the dark web, it is one of the most common pieces of information available. In another blog post, I outlined how much personal data is selling for—stolen U.S. passports can cost a few hundred dollars and those that are forged are about $1,000-2,000 each.
They are expensive compared to an SSN (which sells for only $1) because counterfeit passports often include security features that replicate the RFID chip and biometric data that security personnel check and passports open the gates for those seeking to maneuver through countries.
Passports from the U.S. and U.K. had the most power because each allows access to 147 countries, according to Vocativ, a media and technology firm that analyzed passport prices and created an index of what nationality is the most useful. Luckily, passports were near the bottom of a list of the most common items lost or stolen among Experian survey respondents.
Protecting Your Identity While Traveling
As you prepare for your vacation—buying tickets, packing suitcases, and posting a bon voyage on your social media account—don't forget about protecting your identity before and during your travel.
Prior to departure, take steps such as holding your mail at the post office, make copies of your identification documents to take with you in case they get stolen, and only pack the minimum amount of credit cards you need to use for the trip. Make sure to keep your documents with you at all times in transit.
Be just as careful during the vacation; criminals and crime rings prey on tourists and often steal items from pedestrians, passengers using public transportation and parked vehicles. So it's important not to carry important documents with you, such as your passport, or leave them in an unsecured place. Lock items up in the hotel safe or a locked suitcase in your room at all times.
Also, always use a chip-based credit card for purchases; if the establishment doesn't use a chip reader it is wiser to pay in cash rather than swiping a card because that puts your card—and finances—at risk. Lastly, don't post too much information on social media and password protect your smartphone.
Don't take this last tip lightly; in case your phone is lost or stolen the password will help keep your data safer. Be sure you also have enabled the location search application available such as Find My iPhone in the Apple store or Find My Device in the Google Play store.
These can be invaluable services that allow you to login into your account from any device to geolocate an approximate location of your phone. You should send remote text messages with your contact information so someone can get in touch with you and return your device.
If you are not lucky enough to retrieve it, you should purge the entire phone as soon as it boots up. You can also wipe the phone via these apps if you're not able to recover it and you suspect it was stolen.
To get instructions on what you should do if you are abroad and are missing your passport, visit the U.S. Department of State website. Read more here about how to keep your personal information safe while on vacation.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on July 6, 2018, and has been updated.