When you’re traveling, you’re thinking about seeing the sights and having fun. However, if you let your guard down while on vacation, you can easily put your money at risk.
“Thieves are always on the lookout for unsuspecting tourists, awaiting the opportunity to steal wallets and other personal items such as smartphones and electronic devices,” said Sandra Bernardo, manager of consumer education at credit reporting agency Experian. A survey commissioned by Experian’s ProtectMyID identity theft service found that 39 percent of respondents had been victimized while traveling.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to keep your money and personal information safe while traveling. If you follow these travel safety tips, you’ll be more likely to enjoy your time off.
Let Your Bank Know You’re Traveling
Banks often have sophisticated fraud monitoring systems that will flag purchases made outside of your regular geographic area, said Nicole Lorch, executive vice president and chief operating officer at First Internet Bank. So if you live in, say, New York and use your debit or credit card while on a trip in Florida, the bank might assume those purchases are fraudulent and freeze your account.
For best results, tell your bank and credit card company when and where you will be traveling, Lorch said. This will allow you to continue spending while on the road, because your financial institution won’t mistake your purchases for fraudulent ones. Also, make sure your bank has your current cellphone number so it can contact you if it does suspect fraud, she said.
Lighten the Load on Your Wallet
Before you hit the road, a good safety tip is to take everything out of your wallet you don’t need, such as extra credit cards and loyalty cards.
“Pare it down to the bare bones,” Lorch said. That way, if your wallet is stolen, you’ll only have to cancel the one or two cards you kept rather than several.
Leave Important Documents at Home
If you want to protect your money, be sure to leave important documents such as your Social Security card at home, Bernardo said. “Losing these items, which include priceless personally identifiable information, will make you very susceptible to ID theft and fraud,” she said.
If you need to take a passport to travel overseas, consider keeping it locked in the hotel safe rather than in your wallet when you see the sights.
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Keep a Record of Some Documents
Scan your passport, driver’s license and other documents with personal identification before leaving on a trip, and email them to yourself and a family member or friend who won't be coming along, said Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, CEO and founder of RxToTravel, a medical tourism company.
“If you lose them, this will save you time and money,” she said.
You also should create a record of everything else that is in your wallet, according to Experian. You can scan your credit and debit cards, or write down account numbers and contact information for your financial institutions to help protect your wallet. Follow this travel safety tip and you’ll know what’s missing if your wallet is stolen — and you’ll be able to cancel accounts if thieves get your cards.
Don’t Keep Cash in One Place
If you take cash with you while traveling, don’t stash it all in one place if you want to keep your money safe, O’Shaughnessy said. Keep some cash on you — in your wallet, front pocket or money belt — and put the rest someplace safe, such as a locked safe in your hotel room.
And make sure you don’t put cash in checked luggage, said Elizabeth Avery, founder of travel website Solo Trekker 4 U. If you put part of your money in a carry-on bag, be aware that you might be asked to check it in before boarding if the bag weighs too much. So remember to retrieve your cash before your bag is stowed, Avery said.
Be Careful About Where You Get Cash
If you need cash while traveling, be careful about where you get it. Only use ATMs that are inside or attached to a bank because they will be under better surveillance, Lorch said. And avoid any ATM with loose parts or signs of tampering, as well as those with after-market devices — in other words, something that’s been attached to skim your card’s information.
If you’re traveling overseas, also avoid exchanging currency at tourist locales, such as airports, because you’ll have to pay higher fees, O’Shaughnessy said. You might pay a lower exchange fee by converting currency at a local bank, she said.
Use Credit, Not Debit
To help protect your money, use a credit card rather than a debit card for all transactions when traveling, said Jason Glassberg, co-founder of Casaba Security and self-described ethical hacker.
“Credit cards are safer to use because they have stronger legal protections than debit cards, and they won’t withdraw funds from your account immediately,” he said.
If your debit card is stolen or thieves get your account information when you swipe your card at an ATM that’s been compromised, money can be withdrawn from your bank account immediately. Even if you alert your bank, it could take days or weeks to get the stolen money reimbursed.
“During that time, you do not have access to that money,” said Glassberg.
Sign Up for Account Alerts
Your bank and credit card company likely offer the option to sign up for email or text alerts to be notified of fraudulent activity on your account. For example, First Internet Bank allows account holders to receive alerts when transactions are made above a certain dollar amount or when the account balance drops below a certain threshold, Lorch said.
These alerts can help you keep tabs on your account and pinpoint any unauthorized transactions, she said. Be sure to sign up before going on vacation so you can catch any fraudulent activity and act quickly to keep your money safe.
Don’t Use Public WiFi to Access Accounts
It might seem like a smart move to use public WiFi to surf the web with your phone while traveling, rather than getting hit with fees for exceeding your phone’s data limit. But you could be putting your finances and personal information at risk if you log onto accounts using public WiFi. That’s because there are several ways hackers can infiltrate WiFi connections — even at hotels — and intercept the information you transmit, Glassberg said.
“Cellular signals are harder to crack and, therefore, require a more sophisticated criminal,” he said. “So while they’re not 100 percent safe, you have a lower risk of getting hacked that way.”
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Keep Your Phone Password Protected
Also, make sure your phone is password protected and that apps for financial accounts have strong passwords with a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. Following this travel safety tip will make it harder for thieves to access your personal information if your phone is stolen or lost, Bernardo said.
Don’t Make Your Wallet an Easy Target
Although it’s important to take steps to avoid high-tech ways of having your account information stolen, make sure you’re not making it easy for thieves to get your money the old-fashioned way — by swiping your wallet.
Women should put their wallet at the bottom of a handbag that can be closed with a zipper or snaps, Lorch said. And men should keep their wallet in their front pocket rather than a back pocket, where it can easily be snatched.
For a safer solution, opt to wear a money patch around your neck, said money expert Clark Howard from Clark.com.
"The pickpocketing problem has become so severe that the money belts don’t seem to be working. So the pouch that goes around your neck is a better option because it’s hidden in your clothes, which is much more effective," he said, adding that you never want to keep more than one credit card and a small amount of local currency in your pocket.
Be Vigilant in Crowded Places
Take extra caution to keep your money safe in crowded areas, such as subways and train stations, Avery said. And be alert to people who are trying to distract you by asking for directions or jostling you. They could be working with another person who is snatching your wallet while your attention is diverted.