DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: What tips can you recommend to help retirees guard against identity theft when traveling? My sister and her husband had their identity stolen while on vacation last year, and I want to make sure I’m protecting myself on my trip to Europe next month. – Paranoid Pam
DEAR PAM: Most people don’t realize that when you travel, your risk of identity theft increases. Here are a few simple steps you can take to protect yourself while you’re away:
• Alert your credit card companies: Before you leave, let them know when, where and how long you’ll be traveling. This helps their fraud departments stop bogus charges if your card is used where you’re not. And, it reduces the risk that your card will be frozen when you use it far from home.
• Secure your mail: Get a friend or neighbor to pick up your mail every day while you’re gone, or stop your mail at the post office. A full mailbox can be very inviting to identity thieves and burglars. Also, stop the newspaper, and don’t broadcast your travel plans on social networking websites.
• Clean out your wallet: Pickpockets love tourist destinations, so take only essential identifiers, like your driver’s license, and just two credit cards — carry one with you, and lock the other one in a hotel room safe in case your wallet gets stolen. Also, don’t ever carry your Social Security card in your wallet, and leave your checkbook home too.
It’s also a good idea to make copies of your plane tickets, hotel reservations, passport, driver’s license and credit cards, and leave them with a friend or relative you can call in an emergency. And make a list of contact numbers of your credit card providers so you can call them if your pocket gets picked.
• Protect your smartphone: These are gold mines for ID thieves. If you use a smartphone, protect your personal information by using the security settings to lock your screen with a password. Then install a GPS location tracking app on your phone such as “Where’s My Droid” for Android devices, or if you’re an iPhone user, activate the built in “Find My iPhone” app. You can also set up your phone so that if it does get stolen, you can remotely erase its data. Your wireless carrier may offer this service, and many security apps include this feature.
• Use safe ATMs: If you need cash while you’re away, use ATMs that are located at banks. These are more secure than stand-alone ATMs which can be rigged to capture your card information that thieves can steal.
• Safeguard your hotel: Never leave your wallet, passport, credit cards or other valuables lying around your hotel room. Either keep them with you or lock them up in the hotel safe. And if you have a laptop computer or tablet, get a locking device that lets you lock it to something fixed in the room. You local computer store can help you with this.
• Be careful with hotel computers and free Wi-Fi networks: Don’t access your personal accounts or disclose any of your financial information on hotel or other public computers or on public Wi-Fi networks. You never know what identity-stealing software is at work.
• Freeze your credit: A temporary freeze denies access to your credit history, so ID thieves can’t open accounts in your name while you’re away, but it doesn’t stop you from using your credit card. To set up a freeze, contact each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax (equifax.com, (800) 685-1111), Experian (experian.com, (888) 397-3742) and TransUnion (transunion.com, (877) 322-8228). It typically costs around $10 per credit bureau to freeze your account, and $10 to unfreeze it. If you’re going to be gone for an extended period of time, this is a good extra protection.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC “Today” show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.