Question: We finally paid off my credit cards after three years of scrimping and saving. I’m rewarding my wife with our first-ever trip to Europe. I’ve learned not to run up my credit cards, so I’m not worried about overspending — we’ve planned this vacation very well.
But we’ve been the victim of identity theft twice, both times on our credit cards. It’s happened when we lived in a big state (New York) and a small one (South Carolina). How do I make sure it doesn’t happen on another continent?
— Paul in South Carolina
Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…
First of all, congratulations! This is what being debt-free is all about: Having good, clean, no-stress, no-guilt fun. You’ll enjoy your European vacation, and you won’t feel terrible later when the bills come in — because you’ve already planned for them.
You’re also planning for disaster, which is smart, too. Identity theft is a huge problem in this country, as Debt.com has reported. While there are no hard numbers on Americans who suffer ID theft overseas, the simple fact is, you’re more exposed to the crime than here at home. Here’s what you can do…
1. Tell some people you’re leaving
Your credit card company doesn’t want you to become a victim. If you call the number on the back of your card(s) and tell them where you’re going and for how long, their fraud departments will note that and pay extra attention to potentially bogus charges.
2. Don’t tell other people
Don’t tell everyone on your social media about your vacation plans. While you might think your settings are all marked private or “friends only,” we all know social media security isn’t airtight. If you want to brag about your trip, do it when you return home.
3. Stop your snail mail from piling up
We’re so worried about online ID theft and credit card theft, we often forget those boxes where paper envelopes arrive from the Post Office. ID thieves see a full mailbox as an invitation. By cobbling together personal mail and junk mail, they can often glean enough information to make your life miserable.
4. Empty your wallet
Pickpockets aren’t a huge problem in this country, but they can be overseas. Take only essential documents with you, and never put your Social Security card in your wallet, even here at home.
When you hit the tourist attractions, carry only one credit card with you. Leave the others and your checkbook locked in the safe in your hotel room. Why? Because if you do get your pocket picked, you can report the single card stolen and still have access to money in the meantime.
5. Make copies
A photocopier can be your best friend. Make copies of your plane ticket, passport, hotel reservations, even your credit cards and driver’s license. Lock up those copies and hope you never need them. But should you get cleaned out, these copies go a long way to quickly restoring your vacation. Don’t forget to make a list of important phone numbers and make a couple copies of that, too.
6. Be careful about phone calls and computers
If you use hotel computers, never enter or access personal financial information. (You should know better than to do that over public Wi-Fi in this country.) Also, a common tourist scam is for someone to call your room and pose as the front desk, then ask to “reconfirm” your credit card number. Hang up and call the front desk yourself.
7. Consider an ID theft service
I’ve written before about identity theft protection services like Life Lock, and Debt.com even offers one called Credit Power, which is the cheapest out there while still offering all the protection you need. If you’re skeptical, you can try out these services for less than $20, which might be a small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes with them while on vacation.
Have a fun and safe vacation, Paul!