05/12/2010 11:15 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Protect Your Personal Information on Vacation

This is the time of year when many people finalize their summer vacation plans -- confirming travel and lodging reservations, dusting off suitcases and looking for games to occupy the kids on long road trips. Just be sure that when your brain goes into vacation mode, you don't ignore the same precautions you take during everyday life to protect your personal information.

Here are a few safeguards to keep in mind:

Guard your itinerary. In the old days, police warned against sharing too much information about funerals and marriages in the newspaper, for fear robbers would target empty homes. But these days, many people think nothing of sharing their vacation schedules on social networking sites or in outgoing phone or email messages.

Sure, you might only share your plans with a few friends, but who's to say they won't inadvertently pass it along to someone you don't know? Plus, no matter how carefully you shield your plans, your kids might have no such reservations with their online friends. Consider instituting a family rule that no vacation plans or photos get posted until you're safely home.

Streamline your wallet. It's never wise to carry too much information -- or cash -- in your wallet, but that's especially true when traveling. Bring two credit or debit cards, in case one inadvertently gets damaged or deactivated by the card issuer because of suspected fraud, but leave the rest at home. Also, never carry your Social Security card or other sensitive papers -- leave them safely locked up.

But do carry your health and car insurance identification. Also, photocopy or make a list of your wallet's contents (and passport, if traveling abroad) and keep it in a secure, locked location, such as a hotel safe; and leave a copy with someone at home you can call in the event your wallet is stolen.

Card precautions. Let the financial institution that issues your credit and debit cards know when and where you will be traveling so they can be on guard for unauthorized transactions. While you're at it, make a list of their toll-free fraud hotlines in case of theft and carry it separately. I also program these phone numbers into my cell phone for quick access.

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. Also avoid using unusual looking ATMs because they could have an altered card slot and hidden cameras that can be used to steal your account information and password.

Computer precautions. Whenever logging onto the Internet on your laptop at a Wi-Fi hotspot, hotel business center or other public facility whose server may not be encrypted, be extra cautious before doing online banking or other password-protected services.

Safeguard your home. If no one will be house-sitting while you're away:
  • Have your mail held at the post office.
  • Suspend newspaper subscriptions.
  • Leave a car parked in the driveway.
  • Ask a trusted friend or neighbor to remove fliers, packages or free newspapers from the porch or entryway.
  • To save energy and prevent damage from power surges, unplug electrical appliances (especially home electronics), turn down the water heater to vacation setting and don't leave heat or air conditioning running unchecked.
Here are a few other travel and vacation safety tips:
  • Watch who handles your luggage and never leave it unattended at curbside or in hotel lobbies.
  • When going through security checkpoints, look ahead to make sure nobody walks off with your belongings.
  • Insert a business card into luggage tags instead of your home address and phone number -- 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 more 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 tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how tax laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.
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