As a frequent flyer and having relocated to two different countries in as many years, I am always hyperaware of where the important things are. Whether in transit or working at a local café, I am constantly checking that I am in possession of three things at all times -- my smartphone, my wallet and my MacBook Air.
The last time I lost a credit card was when I absentmindedly left my purse in a taxi that was taking me from chapel to wedding reception. In Las Vegas of all places and, yes, Elvis married the happy couple. But without any ID I was left out of the late night celebrations.
Then I lost one mobile phone on a plane (misplaced among too much stuff, including a cat), and had another stolen while at a restaurant in Prague. These are all situations where I was seemingly in control, but perhaps just had a bit of bad luck. Or temporary loss of my mental faculties. In any case, I was able to cancel bankcards and file police reports with relative ease.
This kind of tangible loss is quite different from having one's identity stolen in the online space. Indeed, identity theft is a far more elusive threat. It is something I think about often as I'm using my debit and credits cards at shops and in ATMs internationally.
How do cyber crooks get past the sophisticated firewalls that are supposed to protect us? The answer is not always very complex. From old-school thievery to what U.S. News calls "visual hacking" it seems everyone is at risk.
In light of those major data hacks headlining the news reports, I wanted to scale it down to what I can do to protect my personal information while traveling. To get ahead of the deception and scams, I reached out to Sean Trundy, founder of FraudFighter.com.
1. "When checking personal information such as bank account or email whilst abroad, always ensure the data connection is encrypted with a password on a secure device," advises Trundy. So while you are enjoying your lazy mornings in charming European cafes, avoid checking your credit balance. Crying in your cappuccino isn't cute anyway.
2. "Take extra precautions in cities and countries that have rampant organized fraud. One example is the state of Florida, which ranks first in identity theft cases and makes a significant contribution to the hundreds of thousands of fraudulent tax returns filed every year that cost the U.S. government billions."
And that is no exaggeration. George Piro, special agent in charge of the FBI's South Florida office, told the Associated Press, "In many cases criminal organizations are shifting from violent crimes to those involving mostly digital data." And it's happening the world over. Cities such as Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Hanoi and (surprise, surprise) Prague consistently make top 10 lists as places to beware of pickpockets.
3. "Never assume that your hotel room is safe, either hire a safe or keep important documents on your person." If choosing to do the latter, make sure to check out Amazon for a wallet or money belt before you take off.
4. "Minimize your personal details before traveling, keep only what is essential for your trip." Trundy gives the example of if you're not hiring a car while abroad, don't take your drivers license.
"Also try to limit how many cards you take away with you, knowing that credit cards offer more protection from fraud."
Trundy believes the future of identity verification lies in mobile solutions.
"If mobile verification is in place, the ability to defraud is dramatically reduced because it facilitates real-time identity verification systems already in place."
So while I was lucky to have that smartphone tracked down by Czech police, who arrested the thief and returned the phone to me about two months after the heist, I am going to make sure I am protected on all fronts -- especially the ones I can't see.
Fraud Fighter develops risk prevention solutions for the hospitality, retail and financial industries. Sean Trundy and his team have worked with Marriott, Kohl's and Chase Bank, to name a few.
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