Living with credit, Protecting yourself, Travel

Traveling abroad? 9 ways to protect your cards

Stephanie Zito

At the Hilton Northolme in the Seychelles, my breakfast was delicious and the champagne was bottomless. I had just received my Chase Sapphire Preferred card before the trip and had nearly met the minimum spend. Life was good.

Then, when I sneaked a peek at my credit card statement online, I was much surprised to discover I had surpassed the minimum spend by a few thousand dollars!

The problem? My new credit card number had been stolen!

Unfortunately, having a credit card number stolen isn’t uncommon now. Credit card and identity theft are problems for those who travel – and those who stay home aren’t immune either.

If you are traveling, doing these nine simple things can help safeguard your cards and identity, and ensure you are prepared if you run into problems with fraud on vacation or a business trip abroad.

1. Tell your bank you’re traveling (though this is not always necessary now).
The simplest action you can take is to let your bank know where you’ll be and when.

Although I don’t do this often because I’m always catching a plane, you’ll want to do this if you don’t travel often. If you don’t, transactions out of country – or even in a different part of the U.S. – may be flagged and cause your card issuer to freeze your account.

With Chase, this is as simple as filling out a travel notification online, while some other banks require just a quick call.

Interesting to note: American Express specifically states on its website that you don’t have to notify AmEx of your travel plans. Apparently, American Express already knows where you’re traveling based on the tickets you’ve purchased with your card!

2. Don’t keep everything in the same place.
Travel wallets are nice and keep everything you don’t want to lose organized in one place, but one of the biggest rookie mistakes is to keep all your valuables together!

I always split my cards and cash and store them in multiple places to ensure that if something gets stolen, I’ll still have a backup to use so my trip doesn’t get completely derailed.

Leave a card in the hotel safe or in a hiding place in your luggage, and keep one with you.

I often keep a spare card I don’t use tucked into the pocket in the back of my journal. (Hmmm, I might have to change that up now that I’ve told the internet about my secret spot!)

3. Stash your information wisely.
Keep a list of your credit card numbers and the international contact numbers for your banks. If your card is stolen or lost, you’ll need this information to call and report your card as missing and to request an emergency replacement.

You can write these numbers down and leave them at home with an emergency contact, or you can store them somewhere in an encrypted file.

In the Seychelles, I was able to make a quick Skype call to the Chase fraud department to report the fraudulent charges. My card number was frozen immediately, and Chase expedited a new card to the office where I was going to be working at my next destination in Australia. (Note for avid mileage collectors: Fraudulent charges do not count toward your minimum spend!)

4. Keep your phone locked and safe.
The smartphones we carry make travel much easier (thank you, Google maps and XE, my favorite currency conversion app), but having them with us at all times also increases the risks of financial and identity fraud.

Most of us store a lot of financial and identity information on our devices without even thinking about it – mobile bank apps, Apple Pay, ride-share services, online payment systems, and shopping and rewards apps that have links to your credit card and banking information.

When you travel, be sure that you’ve got your phone password-protected. That’s the bare minimum. For increased security, add a fingerprint ID, and set up your smartphone so that you can wipe it of your personal and payment information if it goes missing.

Losing your phone is bad, but having your financial identity compromised because you didn’t safeguard your information – and were unable to wipe your info to stop fraudsters in their tracks – is much worse.

5. Use ATMs wisely.
If you use your credit or debit cards at ATMs abroad to get local cash, be wise. Skimming devices aren’t a threat everywhere, but they are out there and in some places like Cambodia they are pretty common.

To reduce your risk of skimmers, use ATMs that are inside bank locations whenever you can. ATMs inside bank branches are less likely to have been tampered with.

I personally always try to conduct my ATM transactions during banking hours. (Why? It feels safer to me, and I’m scared to death that a banking machine is going to eat my ATM card, even though that has never happened to me.)

6. Don’t share your financial info on public networks.
While it is common sense to not share your financial information in public, many of us do this unknowingly by logging into our financial accounts without considering the security of the networks we’re using.

When traveling, take special care where and how you’re connecting online with your laptop and smartphone – especially if you’re doing any banking or even just checking your credit card transactions.

Never log in to bank accounts or accounts from a shared computer terminal – and if you absolutely have to use a public computer, use an incognito browser that doesn’t capture your data.  If you are logging in on your own device, that’s a little safer, but you are not off the hook.

While it’s uber-convenient to have free Wi-Fi at hotels, coffee shops and cafes around the world, most of these networks lack data encryption – even the ones in hotel lobbies and business centers where you would assume your information is protected.

To keep your info from being picked up by snooping fraudsters, turn off your auto Wi-fi connection when you aren’t actively using it on your smartphone, tablet and laptop. Also, when you are conducting any financial or business transactions online, be sure you’re using encrypted websites that have https:// in the address.

7. Keep your cards and passport in an RFID-blocking wallet or sleeve.
RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, is the technology that stores scannable data in the chip on your credit card and the little chip hidden inside your passport cover.

While this technology makes it convenient to pay with your credit card and to clear immigration much faster, it also makes your information easy for identity thieves to snatch via RFID-skimming tools. These high-tech pickpockets can remotely copy your encrypted information from your credit cards without ever touching your wallet.

To protect your cards, you can keep them in a special RFID wallet or a simple RFID sleeve – these are essentially card covers made from a material that blocks the scanner’s signals. You can also get an RFID sleeve or cover for your passport.

8. Don’t take cards you don’t need.
Every time I travel I do a quick wallet purge pre-departure to remove anything in my wallet I don’t need for the trip. Not only does this keep your wallet lighter, it also decreases the number of important identifying documents that can be stolen.

For example, I remove credit cards I know I’m not going to use, such as store cards I won’t need overseas, business cards I’m not going to be using on vacation, and insurance and identity cards for myself and family members that I don’t need abroad.

For me, it all boils down to this: If you don’t have it along, you’re not going to lose it!

9. Check your card statements carefully.
It’s financially responsible no matter where you are to review your credit card and bank statements each month. When traveling, you’ll want to level this up a notch. Check your statements carefully at the end of the trip, or periodically during your travels if you’re on extended vacation or business trip.

Look for any unusual charges. Note that unusual activity isn’t always large amounts – many thieves test an account by making some small inconsequential charges that may go unnoticed.

Highlight any charges you don’t recognize and charges with amounts that are unexpected. While it wasn’t fraud-related, I’ve caught several hotel after-the-fact mischarges through card statement reviews.

With a little bit of pre-trip planning and care on the road, you’ll reduce your risk of fraud and identity theft. And even if something goes wrong, with the right preparation, your bank will be able to resolve the issue so you, like me, can go back to drinking your champagne.

Oh, and that champagne breakfast in the Seychelles was free as a benefit of my Hilton Diamond status I earned from reaching an annual spend threshold of $40,000 on my Hilton Surpass American Express.

See related: How card travel insurance can save you, 5 money-saving credit card tips for savvy family travelers

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