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The lazy days of summer are just around the corner and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) has some advice for vacationers: don't be lazy about your personal information. The PRC recently released tips for protecting PII while on summer holiday. A few minutes of planning, they say, can help prevent a ruined vacation. (Tips printed here with the permission of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, www.privacyrights.org.)

Planning a summer vacation? Be a privacy-smart traveler

Many people are scaling back their summer vacation plans because of the current economic situation. Some are staying closer to home. Others may be taking shorter vacations. But it’s important to remember that when you travel, your risk of exposure to fraud and identity theft may increase. It’s a fact that people tend to let down their guard while on vacation. Criminals know this.

Identity theft is often a crime of opportunity. Don’t be a vacationer who presents a crook with that opportunity. Your personal information, credit and debit cards, driver’s license, passport, and other personal information are the fraudster’s target. A few minutes spent planning before you travel can help reduce the risk that a fraudster will ruin your vacation. Here are some tips to help you avoid any nasty surprises:

  • Clean out your wallet. Remove unnecessary credit cards, your Social Security card, and other unneeded documents that could compromise your identity if lost or stolen while on vacation. If you have a Medicare card,   make a photocopy without the last 4 digits of your Social Security number.
  • Contrary to some advice, it’s best to carry two credit cards. Carrying too many credit cards will subject you to additional aggravation if your wallet is lost or stolen. But there’s a risk in carrying only one credit card if, for example, your card inadvertently becomes inactivated due to suspected fraud or if the magnetic strip becomes damaged. Having this happen while away from home could become a major headache.
  • Photocopy or make a list of the remaining contents of your wallet. Keep it in a secure and locked location or with a trusted individual at home whom you can contact in case your wallet is lost or stolen.
  • Do not leave your wallet or any documents containing personal information in your hotel room unattended. Hotel rooms are not the most secure places. Many people have access to the room. Use a hotel safe when available.
  • Use traveler’s checks or credit cards for payment. Leave your checkbook in a secure locked place at home.
  • Call your bank and credit card companies to let them know when and where you will be traveling. Their fraud departments may then monitor your accounts for unauthorized transactions during this time.
  • Do not use or carry any debit cards (check cards). This reduces your vulnerability to having your checking account emptied while you are on vacation. See www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs32-paperplastic.htm#2 for an explanation of why debit cards are a very bad choice for consumers.
  • If you plan on using an ATM card during your vacation, use one that does not have debit or check card privileges (one that always requires a PIN and does not contain a Visa or MasterCard logo). You can ask your bank to change an ATM/debit card to one that is “ATM only.” It's best to use ATM machines found at banks or credit unions that are in well-lit areas. Be sure to examine the ATM machine carefully for signs of tampering. Be on the lookout for anything that looks suspicious.
  • When dining in a restaurant, try to keep an eye on your credit card when you pay your bill. If the server removes your card from sight, they may be able to create a “clone” by using a portable card skimmer that will copy the information from the cardmagnetic strip.
  • Ask your Post Office or a trusted neighbor to hold your mail for you. Mail that is left in an unlocked mailbox is a goldmine for identity thieves. It also sends a signal to potential burglars that your house is vacant.
  • If you are bringing your laptop with you, be very careful when using it to access online banking or other password-protected services from Wi-Fi networks. Be sure to use Wi-Fi hotspots that are secure. For some Wi-Fi tips from the FBI, see www.fbi.gov/page2/may08/wifi_050608.html.
  • If you are using cyber-cafés, hotel business centers, or other public-access Internet facilities, be aware that keyloggers (software that can track your keystrokes) may be tracking you. Public-access facilities may use servers that aren’t encrypted. Therefore, never access any sensitive information from a public computer.
  • Always be cautious with the information you share on social networking sites. You wouldn’t put a sign on your front door saying “Away on Vacation.” When you broadcast your travel plans on a social networking site, you are doing the same thing electronically. This information can then be used by criminals who will know that you will be away from home.

If the worst should happen and you become a victim of identity theft, be sure to read Privacy Rights Clearinghouse’s Fact Sheet “Identity Theft: What to Do if it Happens to You” at www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs17a.htm.

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