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Identity theft doesn’t take a vacation—even when you do.

As winter sets in, the bogus offers go out: Phishing emails that can unleash malware on your computer, so-called free vacations and prizes that require a credit card or Social Security number to claim, and low-cost vacation rentals that can lead to a quick gotcha.

Let’s say you’re wise enough to avoid these and other travel scams—and make legitimate reservations. Before you pack the sunscreen or holiday gifts for distant loved ones, take these simple steps to reduce the risk of identity theft.

  • Alert credit card providers. Let them know when, where and how long you’ll be traveling. This helps fraud departments prevent bogus charges. It also reduces the chance that cards will be frozen due to unusual activity.
  • Weed your wallet. Pickpockets love popular tourist destinations. Remove unnecessary personal identifiers (read: pretty much everything but your driver’s license and medical insurance card) and all but two credit cards. Why two? One to carry with you to use, and another to be locked in a hotel room safe in case your wallet is pilfered. Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet—ever. To reduce pickpocketing risks, men should keep their real wallet in a shirt breast pocket or buttoned pants pocket; women should carry handbags with wide straps and locked clasps, diagonally across the chest.
  • Register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Enroll in STEP, which provides comprehensive traveler information, including travel alerts and restrictions; information on visas or vaccinations; crime, stability and road conditions; laws of the country you’re visiting; and consular contact information.
  • Stop mail or have a neighbor collect it. A full mailbox, especially one that contains bank statements and credit card or health insurance bills, can be a treasure trove for identity thieves (and suggest easy pickings for a home burglar). Forms to hold or forward mail are available at any U.S. Post Office. Also, stop newspaper deliveries while you’re gone to reduce the risk of a home burglary.
  • Don’t announce your travel plans on social networking websites. When you tell people where you are, you are also telling them where you aren’t—at home. Criminals can use this information to gain access to your home, which contains your valuables, including your identification.
  • Leave your checkbook at home. You shouldn’t need it on vacation if you have credit cards.
  • Choose ATMs wisely. Avoid stand-alone ATMs that are not connected with a known institution. Privately owned ATMs may be operated by criminals. Even when they have legitimate operators, they are more susceptible to card-skimming because of the lack of security around them.
  • Be careful with public computers. Don’t access online bank accounts or other sensitive information on hotel or other public computers. They could have key-logging software that records account numbers and passwords. When using your laptop, the same should apply when using public Wi-Fi networks. Hacking tools let scammers create their own parallel wireless networks that mimic the name or look of a bona fide establishment’s hot spot.
  • Leave bills at home. Travelers may be tempted to catch up with bookkeeping and bill-paying in a hotel room. But those accounts can be gleaned by unscrupulous staff and others with access to your room.
  • Beware of front desk fraudsters. One popular hotel hoax involves a late-night phone call to your room. Callers may claim to be hotel employees who need to re-enter your check-in credit card number but they could be identity thieves using phones in the lobby to get account information while you’re half-awake. If you get such a call, don’t provide any info. Instead call the front desk yourself.

If you want to do even more to protect your identity this holiday season, the Credit Report Card is a free tool that can help you spot signs of identity theft. The Report Card gives you free credit scores every month, and any significant drop in your score could signal identity theft.

Image: iStock

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