With summer vacation right around the corner, you're probably busy planning itineraries, shopping for new bathing suits and finishing work projects so you can truly relax during your break. But before you completely check out, take a few minutes to review a few financial safeguards that could save you a ton of grief and money -- and protect your identity.
Credit and debit cards. If you're planning to travel -- especially overseas -- follow these precautions:
- Tell your card issuers where and how long you're traveling so they'll be on guard against unauthorized transactions. Also, bank fraud departments have sophisticated systems for detecting unusual account activity, so if a transaction raises concern and you're not home to field their call, your account could be frozen until you can be reached.
- Hint: Consider providing your cellphone number as backup. Also, some banks will text or email you whenever transactions over a certain size are made.
- Immediately report lost or stolen cards and/or unauthorized transactions to your card issuer.
- Carry at least two cards in case one gets damaged or closed temporarily. It might take a few days for the bank to mail you a new card.
- In case of theft, carry a list of card issuers' fraud hotlines and your account numbers separate from your wallet. Perhaps leave a copy with a trusted friend. I also program these numbers into my cell phone for quick access.
- Some banks' toll-free numbers may not work internationally, so ask for the right numbers before you leave.
- Avoid using standalone or unusual-looking ATMs not located in secure areas. They might be altered or have hidden cameras that can "shoulder surf" your account information and PIN.
- Beware of card skimming, where dishonest restaurant or store employees use a portable card reader to copy information from your credit or debit card's magnetic strip.
- Save and check all receipts against your statement; also scan your statement for unauthorized transactions.
Even when not traveling, if you receive a phone message or email purporting to be from your card issuer, don't automatically click on enclosed links or call back on the number provided. That's a common ploy to steal personal information. Instead, call the number on your card or the company's website -- if the message was legitimate, you'll be connected with the proper department.
Guard your travel plans. Resist the temptation to share your vacation itinerary on social networking sites or in outgoing phone or email messages. It can alert criminals that you're away from home or work, making those sites vulnerable to theft or vandalism. Even friends who know better might inadvertently forward an email or Facebook posting that contains critical dates and destinations.
Also make sure your kids understand that this information is off limits until you're safely home. Chances are their online social networks include many people they don't know personally and who don't need to know your family's business.
Streamline your wallet. Don't carry too much personal information. You'll of course need identification, like a driver's license or passport, but don't bring your Social Security card or other highly sensitive papers. But do carry your health and car insurance identification. Also, photocopy, scan or make a list of your wallet's contents and keep it in a secure location, such as a hotel safe; and leave a copy with someone at home you can call should your wallet be stolen.
Electronic precautions. Whenever logging onto the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot, hotel business center or other public facility whose server may not be encrypted, be extra cautious before conducting online banking or other password-protected transactions. And, it probably goes without saying, but your computer and cellphone should always be password protected in case of theft.
Safeguard your home. If no one will be housesitting in your absence:
- Have the post office hold your mail.
- Suspend newspaper subscriptions.
- Park a car in the driveway and put a prominent interior light on a timer.
- Ask a friend or neighbor to remove fliers, packages or free newspapers.
- To save energy and prevent damage from power surges, unplug electrical appliances (especially home electronics), put the water heater on vacation setting and don't leave heat or air conditioning running unchecked.
Here are a few additional travel safety tips:
- Watch who handles your luggage and never leave it unattended.
- When going through security checkpoints, look ahead to make sure nobody takes your belongings.
- Put your work contact information in luggage tags rather than your home address -- you don't want to give a thief a map to your home.
- Build extra money into your vacation budget for unexpected expenses, such as flat tires, replacing lost items, emergency room visits, etc. When traveling abroad, stay abreast of public unrest, disease outbreaks and strikes at your destination, and have back-up plans. The U.S. State Department maintains updated travel warnings and alerts.
For additional tips on preventing identity theft while traveling, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's Planning a Summer Vacation? Be a Privacy-Smart Traveler, the FBI's Be Crime Smart page and the Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft, Privacy and Security page.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.