Nearly 50 million travelers are expected to hit the road or take to the skies this holiday weekend, predicts AAA.
But can you guess who else might be coming along for the ride? Hackers.
While it’s vacation time for many, cybercriminals are working diligently to capture and exploit your sensitive information.
These malicious attempts may have started in the planning phase (booking through phony rental and hotel sites), when you’re on your way (lifting your info from free airport Internet or pickpocketed at gas stations) or whenever you’ve reached your destination ( data breaches at tourist shops or paying for nonexistent excursions).
“Unfortunately, there are several travel-related risks to watch out for, ranging from accommodation scams to putting your data at risk over public Wi-Fi networks, which may allow cybercriminals to intercept your connection and gain access to sensitive financial information,” cautions Kelly Merryman, president and chief operations officer at Aura, a leading digital security company.
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“Whether travelers are gearing up for a road trip or packing carry-ons for a flight, they need to be aware that fraudsters are on the prowl and are taking advantage of travelers through various scamming tactics,” confirms Paul Fabara, chief risk officer at Visa. “And they are getting more sophisticated: these scams can involve fake travel agents and even fraudulent copycat airline websites.”
According to the FTC, consumers lost more than $95 million to vacation and travel scams in 2021 – and that’s when travel was lighter because of the pandemic.
To ensure a smooth travel experience this holiday weekend, the experts suggest the following:
Use trusted, reputable websites
When transacting online – before or during your trip – always use sites where URLs start with “https” instead of “http,” as the “s” stands for secure.
“Make sure to also book air travel and accommodations directly from the airline, hotel or through a site that you recognize,” suggests Merryman. “Be careful of individuals renting their home through Facebook or other social media.”
On a related note, rely on credit cards instead of debit cards. “When you can, make all purchases with a credit card as they offer a lot more protection than debit cards,” Merryman adds. “Other ways to stay vigilant include alerting your bank of travel plans and regularly monitoring your credit card statements for any suspicious activity.”
Fabara says it’s also a good idea to sign up for free text alerts when a “transaction exceeds a pre-set amount or when unusual card activity is detected.” You can check with your card issuer for details.
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Shop in stores instead of online
In-store, using a payment card with a chip or contactless symbol on it protects your card data from being stolen in case of a data breach, confirms Fabara, through encryption technology called “tokenization.” This reduces the chances of fraud as store or restaurant staff don’t ever see your actual card number.
If you realize your card is lost or stolen, contact your card issuer immediately to report it. Fabara also suggests updating your login information “regardless of if it was your actual card that was stolen or just your account number, as changing your username, password and PIN to prevent further fraud.”
Avoid public Wi-Fi hotspots
Merryman warns travelers against using free wireless Internet at places such as coffee shops, hotel lobbies and airport lounges.
“Hackers can hack a router, spy on a Wi-Fi connection and even eavesdrop on conversations to steal personal information like credit card details, passwords to your social media accounts and compromise your online banking accounts,” she says.
Instead, when using your laptop on the go, consider creating a personal hotspot by leveraging your smartphone’s cellular connection. Be aware, however, this counts towards your mobile phone’s data plan and research roaming rates when outside of the US
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If you absolutely must use free public Wi-Fi, at least run VPN (Virtual Private Network) software to browse anonymously. A browser’s “Private” or “Incognito” mode isn’t the same thing, as those only wipe your history and cookies clean when you close the browsing session? what you’re doing while online can still be seen by your service provider, advertisers and malicious types.
“Also, update security software and your operating system before shopping on your computer, tablet or phone, [as] staying up to date helps patch known vulnerabilities,” adds Fabara.
But it’s recommended to refrain from inputting personal information, such as passwords and usernames and resist financial transactions, such as shopping online, day trading or paying bills – until you’re on a secure network.
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Other cyber-safe travel tips
Store digital copies of important documents Store digital versions of important documents in a secure cloud app you can access on your smartphone, plus make sure your device is secured with a complex passcode or facial recognition.
Watch for over-the-shoulder snoopers. Consider a “privacy shield” (from $15) on your laptop to avoid nosy onlookers. Unless they’re directly in front of your screen, which is where you are seated, it will look blacked out, as if the display was turned off. You’ll buy one based on the laptop make and model and screen size, such as 11, 13, 14 or 17 inches.
Don’t announce your whereabouts on social media. While it may be tempting to post vacation photos at the moment, remember these posts are also broadcasting the fact that your home is vacant at that time. Instead, wait until you get back home, to err on the side of caution.
Stay away from communal PCs. It’s not ideal to use a shared computer in a hotel’s business center or airport lounge, as cybercriminals could secretly install software to capture your typed words (including passwords). If you must, at least remember to log out of your online activity (like webmail service or social media account) before you leave and restart the machine.
Avoid public printers, too. Similarly, don’t use public printers at a hotel’s business center, especially if it’s sensitive financial or work documents, as those could be hacked, too. And what about that print job you don’t think worked? It might spit out those papers after you’ve left.