Your bags are packed, you have your travel itinerary and you’re counting down the days until you embark on an international trip. You might think you’ve checked everything off your to-do list, but have you thought about how you’re going to protect yourself physically and financially?
“We face the same threats abroad as we do at home but it can be more difficult to manage these when you are in a foreign country since you wouldn’t have the resources you might be used to in the United States,” said Trevor Buxton, certified fraud examiner and fraud awareness manager at PNC. “Also, by virtue of being a tourist in a foreign location, you’re automatically a target. There are fraudsters and criminals who seek to commit crimes against you if they know you’re not a local and probably unfamiliar with the area.”
We asked Buxton and two other PNC experts, senior line of business risk specialist Beverly Bauer and physical intelligence team security lead Eric Gumbert, for their advice and tips to help travelers stay safe and enjoy their trips to the fullest extent possible.
Q: What should you do prior to leaving for an international trip?
Gumbert: Know where you’re going. It sounds silly, but you need to know more than just the destination, hotel and your itinerary. I recommend visiting the State Department website to understand the threat level of where you will be.
Additionally, one thing I tell people not to do is to post on social media about their upcoming travel plans. It’s especially important not to post on publicly facing social media accounts. By alerting your networks about your upcoming trips, you run the risk of attracting the attention of criminals who could take advantage of the fact that you’re away from home.
Also, make sure you check the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites to see if there are any vaccinations that are required or recommended for you to get before you leave.
Lastly, store the contact information for your family members, consulate and bank in a place separate from your mobile device. If you only have that information recorded in your cell phone and it is stolen while you’re traveling, you might not have a way to access it.
Bauer: Make sure you contact your bank and let them know where you’re going. If you use your debit or credit card abroad without giving your financial institutions advance notice, they could assume it’s suspicious, fraudulent activity and freeze your cards.
Also, make sure your data is protected. A lot of countries don’t have the same search and seizure laws as the United States does. If you’re in those countries, local authorities might have the right to inspect your laptops or cell phones. In some cases, threat actors could also be working for the government and take the data right from your devices.
Buxton: Only pack what is absolutely necessary. You shouldn’t bring documents or credit cards that you won’t need. For instance, I can’t think of any reason why someone would need to bring their Social Security card with them if they’re traveling abroad.
Also, make sure your phone can receive and make international calls. If your phone doesn’t have that capability, try to find another that does. If there’s an emergency or you are the victim of any kind of fraud event, you need a way to get in touch with your financial institutions and loved ones back home.
Q: How can you protect yourself when you are traveling or in a foreign country?
Gumbert: Prior to leaving, register with the U.S. State Department for all the places you intend to visit. This ensures the U.S. government is aware and able to help in emergency situations, from natural disasters to terror attacks, or local detainment.From the time you leave to the time you land, practice the buddy system. There is strength in numbers. In certain countries, human trafficking is a very real threat. Traveling with one or more people makes you a harder target.
Bauer: Don’t check your technology in a piece of luggage. When at all possible, keep your devices and valuables on your person. Theft can and does happen in airports, and depending on what country you’re in, there might not be strong safeguards.
Buxton: When possible, use the chip on your credit cards instead of the magnetic stripe, as it’s more secure. Even better, if you have mobile payments enabled on your cell phone, try to use that frequently
When you get home, I recommend checking your credit report to see if anyone captured your information and has opened accounts in your name. Also, if you use your phone or computer to access websites while you were abroad, reset or change your account passwords when you return from your trip. You want to take an abundance of caution in case someone was listening in on your web traffic while you were abroad.
Q: What threats do international travelers need to be aware of?
Gumbert: Petty crime and theft are very real, present threats. In some countries, it’s easier to identify tourists, and threat actors will target them. It can be even more problematic if you’re traveling to a place where you don’t have direct access to an American embassy or consulate.
Similarly, cybercrimes are on the rise. Criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated and can take advantage of lapses in judgment, which are common when people are traveling. It’s easy to become distracted and let your guard down. There are threat actors who are waiting for that moment where you log into an unprotected WiFi network or leave your devices unattended for a few moments.
Additionally, travelers should understand the weather patterns of places they’re visiting. The possibility of a natural disaster is something you should take into account before you leave and while you’re traveling. If there is a serious weather event, the country’s civil infrastructure telecommunications capabilities could go down, and you might not be able to contact anyone back home.
Bauer: Certain pockets of the world have higher degrees of instability and violence. If you’re not educated on your destination’s political struggles, you could find yourself caught up in unrest or even inadvertently detained.
Q: What should you do if your passport is stolen while you’re traveling? Or your credit/debit card?
Gumbert: First of all, it’s a smart idea to make photocopies of your passport before leaving the country to keep in various places, such as a safe place at home, your luggage, etc. You should also consider getting a passport card, which may be used to re-enter the U.S. by land or sea if you lose your passport or it’s stolen.If your passport is lost or stolen, make sure you immediately contact the American embassy and/or consulate. You will not be able to get back home without your passport.
They can expedite getting you an emergency passport so you can get back into the U.S. However, be aware that they operate on normal business hours. If your passport is stolen on the weekend, you likely won’t be able to get the process started until Monday or later.
Bauer: If your debit or credit card is stolen while you’re traveling, immediately contact your bank. They can deactivate the card so the criminal won’t be able to use it.
Buxton: If you determine that your personal information was compromised, add fraud alerts to your credit profile; you might also want to add a security freeze to stop new account fraud.