One minute, you're checking your balance as you wait to board your plane; the next, someone else is dipping their hands in your honey pot, leaving you high and dry on what was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime. Or worse: A few years down the road, you're denied a bank loan because a stranger played fast and loose with your credit.
Identity theft is nothing new -- even the most diligent people can be vulnerable to theft. However, we often let our guard down and put ourselves at even more risk when we travel. Becky Frost, senior manager of consumer education for ProtectMyID (an identity theft protection provider powered by Experian), refers to identity theft as "a crime of opportunity." And just few minutes on a public Wi-Fi network or a single piece of uncollected mail could grant strangers access to your bank account, credit cards and even health insurance.
Unfortunately, there's no surefire way to guarantee the safety of your identity, but there are steps you can take before, during and after your vacation to reduce your chances of becoming one of the 27,000 Americans who have their identities stolen each day. As Frost put it, "The last thing you want to do is have your vacation lead to an identity thief's vacation."
Before you go
Clean out your wallet
Often so preoccupied with what we need to bring on our trip, we sometimes forget about what we should be leaving behind. "I'm always surprised that people carry their social security card in their wallets. It shouldn't be one of the items you carry," Frost said. Before you leave, take a few moments to remove anything you won't need, such as credit cards you don't plan on using while away. As you're doing that, create an inventory of everything in your billfold -- that will make it easier to fill out a report should your wallet get lost or stolen. You can do this the old-fashioned way (with a pen and paper) or by using ProtectMyID's "Lost Wallet" feature, which allows you to record any credit, debit and medical cards you have so that ProtectMyID agents can cancel them more quickly if necessary.
Stop your mail
A pile of newspapers on your doorstep or an overflowing mailbox isn't just an invitation to burglars; savvy fraudsters can use information in unopened bills and other letters to worm their way into your life. Before you leave town, contact the post office and place a hold your mail, or ask a neighbor or friend to collect your correspondence until you return.
We don't just mean your door, we mean everything. Store any sensitive documents (including the items you just cleaned out of your wallet) in a locked compartment in your home just in case of a burglary. The same goes for your devices: "No one intends to lose his or her phone or laptop, but it can happen -- even if you're careful," said Joe Sullivan, chief security officer at Facebook. "Make sure each device has a strong password set so that a stranger can't easily access your information, and encrypt the drive on the device if you can." (If you have an Android device, you can do this by navigating to your settings and clicking on the security option; iOS automatically encrypts your information when your device is locked.) Frost also suggests having the capability to wipe your phone, tablet or laptop of any sensitive information should you lose it; both Android and iOS devices can be wiped remotely.
Take stock of your online identity
You may not realize it, but your social media accounts may be leaving you vulnerable to identity theft. "[Identity thieves] know that, as humans, we share information online," Frost said. And that information could be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. For example, if you're friends with your mother on Facebook, and you use her maiden name as your bank account security question, cunning crooks can finagle their way into your accounts after a peek at your contacts. And if you like to post pictures of your dog on Instagram, your pup's name isn't the best password choice. Frost advises taking a closer look at your privacy settings: "It's important to do an inventory: What information are you posting and is it public or private?" To see who has access to the information you post to Facebook, click on the little padlock icon that appears in the top right-hand corner of your profile. Your Instagram privacy settings can also be managed through Facebook or directly through the mobile app by clicking "Edit Your Profile" and setting your posts to private.
Update your software
Identity thieves and hackers are continuously finding new ways to access information, meaning that your anti-theft and virus protection software could be out of date. Sullivan strongly recommends doing some maintenance on any device traveling with you. "[Updating] your software to the latest available version [...] will help protect you from the latest known threats," he said.
During your trip
Connect with caution
When it comes to logging on to public Internet in airports, hotels or cafes, proceed with caution: Identity thieves often set up faulty Wi-Fi networks for the sole purpose of scamming folks who just can't bear to disconnect. Frost suggests avoiding public connections by creating your own hot spot with a portable router, which usually operates off of a local SIM card. (The cost of a portable router starts at about $5, and they can be purchased at most electronic stores.) With a portable router, you can set a password and limit access to specific devices.
If you decide to risk surfing on a public Wi-Fi connection, be careful about which websites you frequent. "Visit sites that support network encryption known as HTTPS or SSL -- most sites like your bank, Facebook, and commerce sites will run this way by default," Sullivan said. Frost follows one simple rule of thumb: "I don't access anything that requires a password on public Wi-Fi," she said, adding: "Don't do anything that you wouldn't want a thief looking over your shoulder and seeing."
Take care in what you share
Like a pile of newspapers on the doorstep, social media posts about vacation can draw unwanted attention. If you've slacked on maintaining your privacy settings, posting photos or "checking in" on social media sites like Facebook and Foursquare will alert strangers that you're not at home and increase your chances of returning to the scene of a home invasion. When posting updates, Frost highly recommends turning off any geolocation features. And when it comes to pictures, "Wait and upload those photos until you're home," she suggested.
Being diligent about what you share on the Internet (and how) won't only help deter identity thieves, but also those interested in using your information for other purposes without your permission. In an op-ed published in January 2014, New York Times travel writer Seth Kugel described how he reacted when he discovered his family photo on a billboard in Brazil; the photo was used without the family's permission. What happened to Kugel is not uncommon. When posting and reposting information is the norm, keeping track of pictures and other personal assets has become increasingly difficult. However, Sullivan reminds us: "If you use Facebook to post about your travels, you're in control to share information with only the people you want." He recommends using the Activity Log tool (which you can access by clicking the "View Activity Log" button at the bottom of your cover photo) to control who can see each specific update you post on your profile.
When you get home
Scan for viruses
You may bring home more than souvenirs from your vacation -- viruses can haunt you long after you've returned. Once you finish unpacking, Sullivan suggests taking a few minutes to run your antivirus software. This will help you catch any bugs your devices may have caught while you were away.
Signs of identity theft may not appear right away. It's important to keep an eye on your credit card and bank statements and report any irregularities as soon as possible. "One of the most obvious mistakes is thinking 'It won't happen to me,' and not having a plan," Frost said. "When something happens, your response time is critical to limiting the repercussions." Identity monitoring services like ProtectMyID act as virtual security guards, watching for any suspicious activity (such as a fraudulent change-of-address request) alerting you to irregularities in your credit. You'll also receive help restoring your identity should you become a victim.
For additional information on identity theft and tips on how to prevent it, visit the ProtectMyID blog.
-- Miriam B. Weiner