Summer travel often makes us think of the Divine. If the flight is bumpy, we pray to God for a safe return to earth. After a long day at Disneyland, those of us with young children may find ourselves asking the Lord to give us greater capacity to love and understand.
If you’re planning to take a trip this summer, you need some commandments of your own to protect yourself and your family from identity thieves. Just like Commandments number six and seven (you know, honoring the Sabbath, your father and your mother), there are some affirmative steps you simply must take. Other travel commandments are proscriptive; ignore them at your own peril.
Thou shall put a “hold” on thy mail.
If you’re going to allow a fat bundle of catalogues, bills and flyers to accumulate in your mailbox, why not simply call every identity thief in town and give them your travel plans? The effect is exactly the same. File a hold on your mail at your nearest post office or online.
Thou shall make thy home appear inhabited.
A dark home is just as enticing to identity thieves and burglars as fistfuls of mail. Recruit a friend or family member to visit your house often while you’re away to turn on the lights, and pick up any loose mail or newspapers. (Make sure this person is extremely trustworthy, since your home is a goldmine of valuable sensitive personal information, and identity theft among friends and family can be a significant risk.)
Thou shalt not travel with thy Social Security card or that of thy offspring.
You don’t need it. If you’re traveling overseas, a passport is all you should bring. The same rule applies to credit and debit cards: Leave everything you won’t need at home. Just bring an extra of each for the hotel safe deposit box in case the others are lost or stolen.
Thou shall encrypt important documents and bring them with thee.
Make digital copies of passports, visas, driver’s licenses and health insurance cards for yourself and everyone traveling with you. Save those copies on an encrypted thumb drive or an encrypted online account in the cloud. (For good measure, make a spare encrypted thumb drive and drop it into a safe deposit box at your bank.) If you lose your documents en route, rather than bugging a friend, relative or your lawyer in the middle of the night, the cloud (or that handy USB drive) will be the fastest and most secure way to access whatever you need to authenticate yourself.
Thou shall sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
STEP is the State Department’s one-stop spot for important information including travel alerts, embassy contacts, and vaccination and visa rules.
Thou shall remain alert at all times and keep a watchful eye.
Put your wallet in the front pocket of your pants. Be careful how you carry your purse, consider wearing a backpack on your chest, and always know where your smartphone, credit cards and debit cards are.
Thou shall use thy computer, tablet and smartphone wisely.
Never check important websites such as email, banking or credit accounts on public computers or WiFi systems. Both could be swarming with thieves armed with keystroke logging malware just waiting to steal your passwords and hijack your email and financial information. Only go online using encrypted Internet connections.
Thou shall use the hotel safe.
Sure it’s small, and looks as though a 5-year-old could pick it. Use it anyway, or better yet, use the main hotel safe in the lobby. Most identity thefts and burglaries are crimes of opportunity. Perpetrators hunt fruit that hangs from the lowest branches. Taking the simple step of locking your laptop, cash, credit cards, visa and passport in the room safe instantly takes you off their list.
Thou shalt not use Facebook or Twitter to announce thy destinations nor share thy travel memories as they unfold.
Many people are compelled to use social media to keep family and friends apprised of their journeys in real time. As psychology professor Kathleen Cumiskey finds, some people even believe that staying in touch on social media is a better safety precaution than carrying pepper spray.
In fact, the main thing a smartphone or social media connection will do for a person in danger “is to help local police find your body,” Cumiskey says. Moreover, if your entire network knows you’re traveling, one of them could use that information to burglarize your home and steal identity information along with your other valuables. Add these risks together and it’s simply much safer to upload photos and regale your friends with travel stories in person when you’re back home.
Thou shall be mindful of when and where to use thy cards of commerce.
Notify your banks and credit card companies before you leave as to your destinations and how long you will be away. While away, don’t make online purchases, since doing so requires typing your most sensitive financial information on suspect computer networks, and only use ATMs inside banks, not outdoors, or in delis or convenience stores.
It is also a good idea to find a secure network and check your bank and credit card accounts for unauthorized or questionable transactions while you are away.
Religiously following the above is not the silver bullet, but it can help you avoid the Hell of identity theft.