3/21/2011 11:31 AM ET|
On vacation? Beware of ID theft
Don't let your dream trip turn into a nightmare. Follow these 10 steps to protect your personal information when you're away from home.
It's easy to become a victim of identity theft while traveling, whether for work or pleasure. Follow these tips to protect yourself:
1. Let your credit-card company know if you'll be traveling (especially if you're leaving the country).
Financial institutions' fraud departments are becoming more vigilant about any unusual activity on your card, which can be a great way to detect a problem. But if you're away from home when the bank calls to verify the charges, you could end up stuck with a frozen account while you're out of town. Avoid the hassles and notify your bank before you leave home.
2. Don't automatically call back the phone number that claims to be from the bank.
If you get a phone call or e-mail about suspicious activity on your card, don't automatically call back the number on the message. This is a common ploy by identity thieves to capture personal information. Instead, call the customer service number on the back of your credit card. If the call was legitimate, your credit card issuer will be able to connect you to the appropriate department.
3. Secure your mail while you're gone.
If you'll be gone for a while, have a trusted neighbor or friend pick up your mail every day or stop your mail at the post office. Your mail can be a treasure trove for criminals -- it can contain your credit card numbers and other personal information that could lead to identity theft. "There's no greater magnet for burglars than a mailbox that is overflowing with mail," says Adam Levin of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. And don't announce the dates of your travel on your Facebook page. That's like issuing an open invitation to thieves.
4. Weed out your wallet.
Tourist destinations are often a haven for pickpockets, so go through your wallet and take out any unneeded credit cards and personal information before you leave. Don't carry your Social Security number in your wallet and take only the credit cards that you know you'll need. Also, make copies of all of your important documents, such as your passport, driver's license, health insurance card and tickets, so you'll have access to the information if your wallet is stolen, advises Levin. Leave the copies with a trusted family member or scan them into an encrypted file on your computer. Further, keep a list of contact numbers for your credit card company and bank with you, so you can reach them easily if your wallet is stolen or you have any trouble with your account.
5. Be wary of generic ATMs.
Banks have been reporting an increase in ATM skimming incidents. This is when thieves install a card reader in an ATM to capture your account information and PIN, so they can later steal from your account. Levin recommends sticking with bank ATMs at a branch to be safe. "There's a greater level of security," he says.
6. Check your accounts regularly for suspicious activity.
"Spend a few minutes online every day looking at your bank and credit card accounts, and make sure every transaction is yours," says Levin. This is a good idea any time, but it's particularly important when you're out of town, where you could miss a call from your bank about suspicious activity. Some banks also offer a service that can notify you by text message or e-mail whenever a transaction above a certain size is made on your card.
7. Be careful with hotel computers.
Don't access your accounts or personal information on public hotel computers, which could have software that logs keystrokes and records your passwords and account numbers. And be very careful when using an unsecure wireless network.
8. Don't leave personal information lying around in your hotel room.
Keep your credit cards and other important information with you or lock them up in the hotel safe, says Levin. Leave your checkbook in a safe place at home if possible. Safeguard your laptop computer, too, especially if it has account information that is not encrypted.
9. During long absences, freeze your credit.
If you'll be traveling for a long time and won't be able to check your accounts regularly for suspicious activity, consider putting a freeze on your credit report. A freeze prevents potential lenders from accessing your credit report without your authorization, which can prevent identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name. You can still make charges to your current cards without unfreezing your account. It generally costs $10 at each credit bureau to freeze the account and $10 to unfreeze it. For this precaution to be effective, you must freeze your credit report at all three credit bureaus. Contact Equifax, TransUnion and Experian individually.
10. Be vigilant after you return home.
Identity thieves are known for their patience, and it can take them a long time to pounce. Check your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com for any suspicious activity -- you can receive one free copy of your report from each of the three credit bureaus every 12 months, and you can stagger your requests so you get one copy every four months. This is a good move for everyone to do, even if they haven't left home in a while.
This article was reported by Kimberly Lankford for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.
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