Avoiding Identity Theft While Traveling

When I was in college, I road tripped from San Francisco to San Diego with my grandma one spring break. On our second day, we explored San Francisco Bay and Fisherman’s Wharf only to return to our rental SUV to find the window smashed and much of our stuff gone.

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Shame on me for being a naive teen and thinking I could leave my wallet, school books and handmade-by-Great-Grandma baby blanket in my backpack stuffed under the front seat. It was the biggest DUH moment of my life and one of those instances when a snap decision changes everything.

Amazingly, the SFPD apprehended the thief while he was sorting through our goodies at a diner the next day, and we got almost everything back…  except the two most important things: my blanket and my social security card. 

While the immediate worst part of the whole ordeal was having my very special, very sentimental blanket stolen, that trauma was only the beginning of what I would endure thanks to our sneaky thief.

***

Two years later, I was preparing to leave on my summer study abroad trip to Paris. I applied for an emergency-only credit card – just a $500 limit – from my local bank, and was promptly and vehemently denied. Apparently, my credit report showed more than $1,300 in unpaid cell phone bills from Verizon, which was pretty nuts considering I didn’t even own a cell phone at the time. There were also dozens of attempts to open accounts in my name at other cell service providers. I pulled up a credit report as soon as I got home and found that as far as the bank was concerned, I’d been living in Oakland, Calif., since 2001 and getting up to all sorts of illegal shenanigans. In reality of course, I’d just been minding my own business in Florida oblivious to the fact that our San Francisco thief was still wreaking havoc on my life.

It took more than 6 months of admin, phone calls and mailing police reports & forms to the credit bureaus to clear up and prove that I hadn’t been opening accounts all over California. It was a miserable experience and one I never want you to have to go through! Check out the following identity theft prevention tips from TrustedID (my comments in parenthesis):

  • Stay Thin: Before you take on your summer adventure, go through your wallet and remove unnecessary credit/debit cards, as well as anything displaying personal information. Make copies of important documents before you leave, such as passport, driver’s license and travel tickets, in case something happens to them. (I keep copies of the front and back of every credit card, a trick that came in very handy when I was pick-pocketed in Athens. It also helps to scan all those items and keep them filed in your email in case you don’t have a hard copy but still need access. Don’t EVER carry your social security card with you when traveling.)
  • Stay Secure: Hotel computers and unsecure Wi-Fi connections are easy targets for hackers and identity thieves. If you need to check your email, always ensure that you’re using a secure network. Never access sensitive information, such as your bank account, on these networks. (I confess I pay very little attention to this.)
  • Stay Safe: While you shouldn’t carry personal documents with you when you’re out and about, hotel rooms aren’t necessarily the safest option. Smartphones, tablets and laptops contain a huge amount of valuable data, so use room or hotel safes to lock these valuable items away.
  • Don’t Stand-alone: Stand-alone ATMs are more likely to have skimming devices. Stick with bank ATMs whenever possible.
  • Beware Pickpockets: It sounds old school, but this does still happen. Pickpockets prey on you in high traffic areas such as malls, amusement parks and sporting events. Some are only interested in cash, but others are out for your driver’s license and social security number. Keep your credit cards and ID in a secure place, like a money belt. Don’t keep all your cash in the pouch though—spread it around with some in your wallet, some in the hotel room and some even in your shoe. (I never liked using money belts, but I’m a big fan of PacSafe products.
  • No Checkbook Checkout: Checking account fraud is one of the most difficult types of identity theft from which to recover, and being far from home will only add to your frustration. When traveling, use cash, traveler’s checks, or credit cards for purchases. (When traveling, I drain my checking account, funneling the money into harder-to-access accounts. It’s a complicated system, but worth it in the event my debit card were to fall in the wrong hands.)
  • Don’t Brag: You may be traveling the world, but don’t let the world know you’re away.  When you  share your excitement and plans on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., the Internet now knows that your home will be unattended. There’s no better opportunity for a thief to empty out your house. Share travel plans only with close friends! (This one doesn’t apply to the travel bloggers of the world – obviously, everyone from close friends to perfect strangers know when we’re abroad! If you DO have a house and assets, you could be a target when traveling. Ensure your privacy settings are in order before you announce your house will be unattended.)

A few other tips from me:

  • Shred everything with your name and account number on it.
  • Check your accounts frequently for unrecognized charges.
  • Get a credit report once or twice a year to verify that everything is copacetic. I never knew what was going on because my thief was opening new accounts in my name – NOT accessing current accounts that I was paying attention to.
  • If you are a victim of theft, cancel all your credit cards and then immediately contact the three credit bureaus – Experian, TransUnion and Equifax – to put fraud alerts in place. Believe me, it’s the biggest hassle in the world, but ultimately it’s another layer of protection between you and some jerk pretending to be you.

Identity theft may look hilarious when depicted by the fabulous Melissa McCarthy, but in real life, it’s not half as much fun. Have you ever had to deal with it while traveling?

***

Check out my story on identity theft in Seventeen. (Page 2) And forgive my ridiculous hair. We’d just left the 90s, folks! 

COME AWAY WITH ME!
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  • April 17, 2013

    All good tips, Angie.

    The one thing I still haven’t figured out is how to manage financial accounts for an extremely long trip. In the past, while overseas for just a couple of months, we set up a travel bank account and pre-arranged transfers into the account with just enough cash to cover our expenses. That way we never needed to expose our “real” accounts to potential thieves.

    But for our upcoming travels that we expect to be more or less permanent, I haven’t quite figured out how to manage my finances without ever being able to access our accounts. My guess is I’ll have to periodically find and buy dedicated internet cards in various locations to guarantee secure connections for banking.

    Any other ideas?
    Brian recently posted..A Tax Loophole for the Middle ClassMy Profile

    • May 17, 2013

      It’s tough managing finances in a long term travel situation. I’ve never focused much on finding secure internet connections… could be the death of my bank account one day, but so far I haven’t had any trouble with it.
      Angie Away recently posted..The Beautiful Traveler – May 2013 EditionMy Profile

  • April 23, 2013

    Sorry you had to go through that. I’ve had issues with credit checks before, but it turned out it was just because I’d moved house and not registered to vote yet. I’m really careful with my details but these thieves are getting very sneaky!
    Arianwen recently posted..Dona Marta favela: is it safe?My Profile

  • April 24, 2013

    It’s horrible that you had to go through that experience, but now you can help other people be safe while traveling. Thank you for all the tips. They are really helpful and something I really should take into consideration!
    Emily recently posted..Why You Should Have a Morning MantraMy Profile

  • April 25, 2013

    I would also recommend to keep of copy of all important documents mentioned in your post, passport, credit card, etc to a trusted person.
    Michel recently posted..Comment on Comments by adminMy Profile

  • April 28, 2013
    Kristie

    Angie, thank you for sharing the story. This may help other people.
    Kristie recently posted..Projektowanie wnętrz PoznańMy Profile

  • May 01, 2013
    andrew

    hi there , loved your column and one thing i would like to add is to always have your smartphone pass-worded , i have mine on an automatic lock after an hour and yes its a slight pain to type in the password if the phone is locked but then i figure thats small amount of work compared to if someone gets my phone and then can access all my info

  • May 19, 2013
    Marielle Farinas

    Identity theft is a form of stealing someone’s identity in which someone pretends to be someone else by assuming that person’s identity, typically in order to access resources or obtain credit and other benefits in that person’s name. The victim of identity theft (here meaning the person whose identity has been assumed by the identity thief) can suffer adverse consequences if they are held accountable for the perpetrator’s actions. Identity theft occurs when someone uses another’s personally identifying information, like their name, identifying number, or credit card number, without their permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.-*,`

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