Popular vacation destinations are also popular with scam artists, identity thieves and old-fashioned pickpockets. The reason? They know there will a lot of people with money who will drop their guard. And they can get you any number of ways you’re not likely to be exposed to back home.
“Visitors have a big target on their backs at all times,” said Christopher Elliott, author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle).” “The more touristy the destination, the bigger the target. And the threats come from everywhere — pickpockets prey on their valuables when they’re on the street, thieves take advantage of often lax hotel security and loot their rooms and hackers steal their identities with each swipe of a credit card.”
Being scammed or robbed can be compounded by identity theft — a crime that can do serious damage to your credit score before you’ve had a chance to spot it. There are plenty of other ways thieves can get you. The key is knowing how to prepare so you don’t end up out money and with a damaged credit score that will hurt your ability to get the best credit cards and mortgage rates.
When people are on vacation, they typically act differently than they do back home. If you’re on a computer, you’re likely going to be on an unsecured wireless network, whether at an airport, a hotel or coffee shop. The Federal Trade Commission warns that this is a significant area of vulnerability for travelers.
On top of that, you’re in unfamiliar surroundings and are more likely to both use your credit cards and be carrying more cash than usual.
“They try to aim for you because when you’re a tourist you’re distracted,” said Jason Cochran, editor-in-chief of Frommers.com, the companion website to the renowned travel guides. “People take out far too much cash, which makes you far more of a target. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t just get the money you need every day.”
And, Cochran said, some travelers pretty much ensure they’re targeted by wearing fancy watches, designer clothes, and generally looking like a tourist with a lot of money.
“Americans who haven’t traveled a lot want to make an impression, but it’s often the wrong one,” Cochran said. “Try to dress down. Don’t draw attention to yourself.”
He also suggests keeping your wallet in your front pocket and wearing a travel pouch around your waist under your clothes to hold extra cash and important items you don’t want stolen. Tourists, Cochran said, should simply resist bringing a lot of valuables. You don’t need to be a target. You have enough things to defend against (more on that soon).
While the safe in your hotel room can be of some benefit, Cochran reminds travelers that hotel staff have the ability to open every one of them. So, while stowing things in there like your laptop might be OK, it’s still best to be able to carry with you what you don’t want to risk being taken.
Other points of exposure may be less obvious, but no less of a risk. The FTC warns that skimming devices that capture a user’s private information are more prevalent on ATMs and at gas pumps in tourist areas. To play it safe, experts recommend using an ATM at an actual bank during banking hours, and to pay the attendant inside a gas station.
Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert for the online security company McAfee Inc., said to plan before you leave to avoid some situations that happen all the time.
Here are some tips he offered to help you stay safe in you’re taking a trip:
- Place a hold on your mail delivery with the Postal Service. That, he said, will prevent thieves who notice a full mailbox from poking through and finding mail with valuable personal information inside.
- Use a program that can encrypt data on your electronic devices when you’re on public Wi-Fi. If you don’t, you run the risk of having thieves capture just about anything you transmit, including bank account passwords.
- Scams involving calls to hotel room phones are common. So, do not give out private information over your hotel room’s phone, even if the caller claims to be working at the front desk. If there is an issue, just go to the front desk to deal with it and be sure you’re not being scammed.
- Protect your smartphone. The device can be a gateway to all sorts of personal information and should be password-protected to prevent anyone who might grab it from having access to anything on it.
- Use cash first. The more you use your credit cards, the more you are exposing yourself to potential thieves. Be sure your card does not leave your sight when you turn it over to pay for something. And don’t use your debit card to pay.
- After you return, be sure to check your credit card statements to check for unauthorized charges so you can dispute them as soon as possible.
Cochran also cautions about posting too much information on social networks. Knowing where you are and when can enable a thief to run a scam on people you know, use the information to steal your identity, or break into your home.
“It’s very easy for people to see that you’re not home,” he said. “Social media is a great way to find out whose place to steal from.”