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7 tips for staying safe while traveling

Key Points
  • Many fraud cases occur while traveling. Learn how to protect yourself while away from home.
  • The rise of the Internet and storing personal information online have made it easier for hackers to access your sensitive information. 
  • After an identity theft, the negative impacts on your finances and security could last for years.

As people continue to store more of their personal information online, identity theft has become a crime on the rise. And that risk becomes even greater when traveling. 

In 2016, more than 15 million Americans were victims of identity theft, up 16 percent from the previous year, according to Experian, a global information services group. About 33 percent of that fraud took place when people were traveling.

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The fear is present for Americans, with 84 percent acknowledging their concern about the security of personal information online. Yet they apparently haven't taken the necessary precautions. To that point, nearly 64 percent of those polled said it's too much of a hassle to constantly worry about securing their online information, according to a survey by Experian.

The survey was conducted in March by Edelman Berland on Experian's behalf, and polled 1,000 U.S. adults online.

The rise of the Internet has only aided hackers in their quest for your personal information, said Michael Bruemmer, vice president of consumer protection at Experian.

"Your information, once it's out there on the Internet, it's out there," said Bruemmer. "You can't grab it back.

"Unlike the days of a physical piece of paper where, unless it was copied, you could get that physical piece of paper back, now, once you hit send or enter on your keyboard, it's gone," he added. "We leave a digital footprint everywhere we go."

Here are seven tips on how to stay protected while travelling. 

1.  Avoid using public WiFi

Public WiFi makes it easy for thieves to hack into the information stored on your mobile phone or laptop, according to the report. Yet less than half (47 percent) of respondents avoid using public WiFi when traveling.

"We never recommend using public WiFi, and of course you're given free public WiFi in most hotels," Bruemmer said. "So people say 'OK, so if I shouldn't use public WiFi, how can I check my transactions like my bank statement or my credit card statement?'"

Instead of using public Wi-Fi, get a portable router to set up your own WiFi hotspot, the report advised. To do this, you'll need a local SIM data card, which you can purchase at an electronic store or an airport kiosk.

Brent Lewin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

2.  Password-protect phones and add tracking tools

Your phone stores sensitive information, such as access to your emails, and possibly even credit card information (if you use Apple Wallet or bank apps.) Only 48 percent of respondents password-protect their smartphones, making it easy for thieves to access that information. Also, only 26 percent have a tracking device set up in case their phones get stolen, the report said.

Not only should you set up a password to unlock your device, but you should create a strong, unique password and change it regularly, the report advised. In addition, enable location tracking and install a wiping software so you can track down your phone or destroy the data on it if it's ever stolen. 

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3. Don't post location or agenda on social media

Only 32 percent of people avoid posting photos or status updates online while traveling, and only 20 percent disable geotagging on pictures, according to the survey. Sharing your agenda or location on social media allows potential thieves to keep track of where you are, making it easier for them to time a crime. Instead, wait to post about your trip until you get home, the report said.

4.  Bring only what you need; lock up what you do

Only bring a passport with you if you're traveling abroad, and always avoid bringing your Social Security card or birth certificate with you, the report advised. Also, don't bring all of your credit and debit cards; choose instead to carry only a select few.

If you do bring sensitive documents with you on your trip,  lock them up in a hotel safe or other secure location, Bruemmer said.

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5. Keep a record of important documents

If your wallet or any important documents do get stolen,  it's important to know exactly what's missing, the report said. Before you go on your trip, write down all the information from your credit and debit cards, driver's license, medical insurance and other important documents. This will help you figure out who to call after a theft and what to tell them. 

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6. Monitor credit cards and reports

Monitoring bank and credit card accounts (58 percent), as well as credit reports (55 percent), was seen as helpful in detecting suspicious activity. Yet 53 percent of respondents say monitoring financial transactions is challenging, and 81 percent trust banks and credit card companies to catch fraud for them. 

However, you must rely on yourself to catch a thief by constantly monitoring your accounts.

If people think monitoring their accounts is normally a challenge, it's an even bigger challenge away from home, Bruemmer said, 

"When people are traveling … you're out of your normal environment or routine," he said. "And it just makes things a little bit harder even with a smartphone…to check some of your online accounts." 

Jonathan Bainbridge | Reuters

7.  Protect your home while you're away

Before you leave for your trip, stop your mail delivery. An overflowing mailbox is like a huge neon sign on your house that says "no one is home."

This will also ensure that important documents aren't stolen from your mailbox while you're gone, Bruemmer said.

"Stop mail delivery, online through the postal service," he said. "That way, nobody can take pieces of mail and open it up, especially bills or tax statements."

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Get these common misconceptions out of your head

A majority of respondents (72 percent) think thieves are only interested in "wealthy people's identities," according to the report. However, thieves target all people from all rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. 

Many (66 percent) think the threat of identity theft diminishes over time after their personal information is stolen, with 14 percent believing risks lasted just a few days after an information theft, 20 percent saying a few months and 23 percent a few years. Just 44 percent knew the risk can last a lifetime.

Bottom line:

If you abide by these guidelines, you have a much better chance of avoiding security breaches and identity theft while traveling. Identity theft takes a long time to recover from, and has lasting negative impacts that you don't want to ever have to experience. 

Of those victimized by identity theft while traveling, 55 percent stated it took from weeks to more than a year to resolve issues related to identity fraud, the survey found.

Victims also acknowledged the negative impacts to their short and long-term financial goals (37 percent and 27 percent, respectively).

41M Americans already the victim of identity theft
41M Americans already the victim of identity theft