Vacations are meant to be a time for you to relax and to enjoy yourself. It's likely that the last thing on your mind when you're vacationing is becoming the victim of theft.
However, vacation time is also when identity thieves are at their busiest.
"People are at a greater risk of identity theft when they are on vacation," said Ward Clapham, vice president of recovery services at Absolute Software in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a former officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
"Generally, vacationers blindly trust vendors and places when they travel, and tend to let their guard down when they want to experience their trip to the fullest," Clapham said. "Unfortunately, criminals around the world know this, particularly during the summer months, and take advantage."
Digital treasure trove
Thieves look for paths of least resistance, Clapham pointed out. A vacationer’s computer or digital device can become the easiest and best target for identity theft.
While the hardware itself is valuable, it's the wealth of personal information stored on the device that can be exploited for an extended period of time.
Much of this data is filed away in obvious places on the computer or personal device, giving thieves easy access to bank accounts, emails, personal photos and videos.
"The biggest risky behavior travelers engage in is using unsecured Wi-Fi networks and public hotel computers," Clapham said. "Because they're on vacation, they most often want to quickly check an email, or post a picture to Facebook, and blindly connect to a network not knowing or caring who runs it or its security setup."
One of the most common mistakes we make on vacation is to assume that our hotel rooms are secure bastions, Clapham added.
We often stroll out of our rooms, leaving our iPods, laptops and phones on desks or in bags in the room, despite the fact that they hold a jackpot of valuable data. Pictures, addresses, credit card info, contact details — all provide the entry point for someone to take advantage of your identity and pose as you.
It isn’t only on the road, unfortunately, where you have to be vigilant about protecting your identity. There's a lot that you've left behind at home.
Vacationers often leave clues to their absence : having lights on all day and night, leaving their garbage cans out for extended periods or not stopping mail collection. Any of these can alert burglars and other criminals that you're not home.
Even leaving your computer or tablet at home could be a risk if someone were to break in and turn them on.
Steps to take
Protecting your identity while on vacation takes some effort, but the steps you can take to ensure your safety are fairly easy.
— Stop your mail service, use a locked mailbox or ask a friend to stop by to collect the mail every day.
"While you're on vacation, your mailbox fills up with credit-card offers and bank statements," said Boston-based identity-theft expert Robert Siciliano. "The bad guy can steal this mail and use it to open new credit cards in your name, or to take over existing accounts."
— Contact your credit-card companies to tell them that you'll be using the cards in new locations and venues. Keep all your receipts and double-check them against your bills.
Siciliano recommends, if possible, using cash for gas and in restaurants and avoiding ATMs, all of which are common targets of card skimmers.
— Make your house look lived-in, with lights on timers, or ask trusted friends or neighbors to stop by the house periodically. Don’t forget to double-check that all the doors and windows are locked.
— Password-protect every electronic device, both those you leave at home and those you take with you on the road.
If you’re able to set a password to your hotel room's voicemail, don't use the same password as your home or cellphone voicemail.
— Don't access personal or financial information from public computers. When using your laptop or smartphone, make sure that the connection you're using is legitimate and secure.
Adam Levin, co-founder of San Francisco-based credit-management company Credit.com and of Scottsdale, Ariz., identity-risk-management company IDentity Theft 911, recommends staying away from password-free Internet cafes or Wi-Fi hot spots.
— Use the hotel room safe to store your passports, credit cards, small mobile devices and other sensitive and valuable belongings, but don’t assume that your hotel room is totally secure.
Siciliano warns that sometimes the desk clerk assigns the same hotel room to two different parties, and some keys work in multiple rooms, so never leave anything of value where it can be easily found.
— Consider carrying your essential documents in a money belt, or one that hangs from a lanyard around your neck, hidden under your shirt.
You should also always carry photocopies of your identification, but they won’t do you any good if they’re stored in the same purse that was just snatched. Instead, scan all your pertinent documents in full color and upload them to a secure Web-based encrypted digital vault.
— Brag about your trip and share as many photos as you like on social media — but only after you get home. Don’t let it be known that you are leaving behind an empty house.
— Hotel bills, airline itineraries and rental car contracts include your personal information. Keep anything with your personal information in a safe location during your travels. When you get home, shred or burn the paperwork you no longer need.