Vacations are times to put all your worries behind you. Unfortunately, scammers know all too well that travelers have other things on their minds besides protecting themselves from their schemes. That knowledge emboldens them to follow the latest trend in crime: identity theft.
Vacation identity theft: Two ways to get cheated
Identity theft when you travel takes two main forms. First, thieves can steal important items from you, like your passport or your credit cards, while you're traveling. According to a recent survey from Experian, more than three-quarters of all travelers take their driver's licenses and credit or debit cards with them on their trips, and keep them on themselves at all times. Not only can pickpockets leave you in a bind far from home, but they can also wreak havoc with your cards and personal information, selling card numbers to other criminals for future use.
The other trap that travelers fall into is that thieves can attack their homes while they're away. Breaking into your home is the most obvious crime that can occur, but some criminals are more subtle by taking steps like intercepting your mail, and looking for credit card or other financial statements that contain personal information. Merely taking a credit card offer can cause you a big hassle for weeks, or even months, after you get home from your trip.
Why identity theft is a big deal
One reason why many people don't pay as much attention to identity theft as they should is that they believe that they're protected from its consequences. It's true that, for credit cards, U.S. law limits potential liability for identity theft and fraud to $50. For debit cards, that $50 limit applies if you report your card stolen within the first two days. Moreover, both Visa (NYSE:V) and MasterCard (NYSE:MA) offer zero-liability policies that apply to many cardholders, keeping them from having to pay even that $50 amount.
But even if you end up losing none of your own money, dealing with identity theft takes extensive effort. The Experian survey found that, among those who have been victims of identity theft while traveling, more than half said that it had at least somewhat of an impact on their entire travel experience, distracting them from the true purpose of their vacation. Moreover, resolving the fallout from identity theft is a major undertaking, with more than half of those surveyed saying that dealing with the theft took a week or longer. Fully 10% said it took several months to sort through the damage that scammers did to their credit ratings and financial lives.
Some basic to-dos to protect against identity theft
Modern technology has made it a lot easier to take steps to prevent identity theft, or to minimize its effects when it does happen. With online and mobile access to bank and credit card accounts, you can see almost in real time when unauthorized transactions hit your account. Many credit card companies encourage their customers to inform them when they're traveling, so they can adjust their fraud-monitoring detection systems to take these travels into account, but also to be on the lookout for common travel-fraud problems.
But people make other common mistakes that can cause trouble. Simply stopping your mail delivery can prevent scammers from tapping a treasure hoard of personal information, but only 40% of those surveyed do so. Social-media sites are a common way people share their travel experiences, but they also give criminals vital information about a person's whereabouts that they can then use to track movements, and plan their activities accordingly.
The last thing you need while you're traveling is to have a con artist steal your identity. By taking just a few moments to be vigilant about protecting yourself, you can help reduce the odds that your next vacation will become an identity-theft nightmare.
Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends MasterCard and Visa. The Motley Fool owns shares of MasterCard and Visa. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.