Identity theft doesn't just happen when you're at home. In fact, you may be even more vulnerable to it while traveling because you're carrying your valuable personal information around with you in unfamiliar and distracting environments. In this article, we'll give you some tips for keeping your identity safe while you're on the road.
TUTORIAL: Credit Cards
Don't Perform Sensitive Transactions over Public Wi-Fi
Whether you pay for access or not, public Wi-Fi networks are not secure. It's tempting to log on in airports, hotels and airplanes whether you want to kill some time, check your email or make sure you have enough money in your bank account to pay for the rest of your trip.
Don't do it. Criminals can use a technique called Wi-Fi sniffing to intercept data transmitted insecurely over a wireless network, and programs that facilitate Wi-Fi sniffing are readily available online. Even accessing your Facebook account could be a bad idea. If someone hijacks your account, they could send embarrassing messages to your friends, post inappropriate status updates and do other things that might damage your reputation. Smartphone users can protect themselves by using their carrier's secure 3G or 4G service. Otherwise, handle any sensitive online business on your secure home network before you leave town. (For related reading, see What To Do If Your Identity Is Stolen.)
Use a Different Computer Exclusively for Travel
Laptops and netbooks are so cheap these days that you might be able to afford more than one. If you travel enough to make such a purchase worthwhile, get a new computer that you will use exclusively for travel. Since it's not possible to completely erase data from a computer, strictly limit the amount of sensitive data that goes onto your travel computer. If it's lost or stolen, you won't have as big of a problem as if you had lost your main laptop with all your tax returns on it.
Clean out Your Wallet
Pare down the contents of your wallet to only the essential items you'll need on your trip. If your wallet is lost or stolen while you're traveling, it will be easier to clean up the mess if you know exactly what your wallet contained and if it only contains a few items. You'll need your driver's license or other ID, two different credit cards, some cash and that's about it. Leave your debit card at home if at all possible. Credit cards offer superior theft protection. You also shouldn't need your health insurance card, numerous credit cards or any checks. You certainly shouldn't bring your Social Security card with you. In fact, it should never be in your wallet.
Use a Money Belt
A wallet isn't that hard for a pickpocket to snatch, but a money belt that's worn under your clothes and against your body is considerably more difficult to grab. As long as you avoid getting into your money belt in public, a potential thief won't know where to look for it, and you'd likely feel it moving against your body if a pickpocket did manage to find it. Not all money belts are worn around the waist. Some can be worn around the leg or around the neck. Get one that feels comfortable and secure.
Put Mail Deliveries on Hold
Nothing says "we're not home" like a pile of newspapers in the driveway. And while you may not care if someone steals your newspaper while you're gone, you will care if they steal a package you ordered or anything out of your mailbox. You also don't want to signal that there's no one inside your home - if someone can steal your identity out of your mailbox, think of the damage they can do with all the documents that are probably lying around your house. It's free and easy to place a hold on your postal service deliveries at the USPS website, and many newspapers will also let you put your subscription on hold through their websites. Ideally you would also have a neighbor, friend or relative check your house once or twice a day for any flyers that get hung on your front door or left on your doorstep.
No one wants to spend his or her entire vacation looking over his or her shoulder, and you don't have to be suspicious of everyone you meet. At the same time, you shouldn't be too trusting around strangers. Don't ask someone at the airport to watch your bag while you run to the restroom (that's a bad idea anyway given airport security procedures). Make sure no one is trying to observe what you're doing on your laptop or smartphone, be careful what you reveal in cell phone conversations in public places and be aware that strangers asking for help are sometimes trying to distract you while an associate picks your pocket.
The Bottom Line
Don't put yourself at high risk of identity theft when you travel. Identity theft is not a crime you can entirely prevent, but you can take basic precautions to minimize your risk of becoming a target. (For related reading, see Identity Theft: Who To Call For Help.)