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13 Ways Hackers Get You When You Travel

An expert reveals the surprising ways you're more vulnerable to identity theft when you travel—and how to protect yourself.

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Charging your phone in public

Roughly 70 percent of travelers have unknowingly engaged in risky behaviors that expose them to cyber attacks, according to a new IBM survey. Example A: While most of us wouldn’t think twice about charging our phones at a public USB station, tech experts caution against it. Cybercriminals can secretly install malware or tamper with USB connections in hotel rooms or airport lounges to download data from a phone. To protect your device, it’s best to pack a back-up battery or use a traditional wall outlet, instead.

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Connecting to public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi networks are free to use, but they could come with a hidden cost for plugged-in jet setters. “While many international travelers try to reduce the costs of roaming data by relying on public Wi-Fi, it’s also easy for cybercriminals to create rogue Wi-Fi networks in public places, where they can easily collect your data,” says Charles Henderson, an IBM Global Managing Partner and Head of IBM X-Force Red. When you absolutely must log on to public Wi-Fi, be on the alert for these red flags that someone just stole your identity.

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Paying bills while on the road

Think twice before catching up on monthly bills while relaxing by the hotel pool. If you pay your bills online, hackers can use hotel Wi-Fi networks to snoop on you. “Even legitimate networks hosted by establishments can be open to digital eavesdropping, so if you were to make a purchase with a credit card, an adversary could steal it,” Henderson says. Carrying around paper bills can also be risky since anyone with access to your belongings can swipe them. If you do travel with sensitive documents, follow these tips to keep them safe in your hotel room.

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Using a laptop without antivirus software

Phones are not always the most desired devices to cybercriminals, as it turns out. According to Henderson, “laptops and other personal devices can contain personally identifiable information—credit card statements, address, employment status, account passwords, and more—that, in the hands of the bad guys, can make it easy for a cybercriminal to steal your identity.” Although you’re better off leaving your laptop behind while on vacation, Henderson recommends installing the latest antivirus software and security patches on any device that you do bring.

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Purchasing items with a debit card

Tight on cash in an unfamiliar city? Don’t pull out the plastic just yet. Stores and restaurants that don’t secure their sales systems are more vulnerable to hackers who can steal your card’s digits, according to Henderson. He suggests using a credit card—which can offer more protection if it is compromised—instead of a debit card. And once you do get to an ATM, opt for one inside an airport or bank to minimize the chance of tampering or skimmers on the machine.

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Logging on to shared computers

The threat of digital identity theft now reaches far beyond our own tech. These days, even online activity on public devices are valuable (and vulnerable!) to thieves. That’s why you should avoid using shared computers at hotels or internet cafes while on the road, according to Henderson. “Adversaries can install malware on them that records keystrokes and can get access to your passwords, email, bank account, or other sensitive information,” he says. Identity thieves don’t want you to know these secrets, either.

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Ignoring your loyalty rewards account

In 2015, cyber criminals hacked a whopping 10,000 American Airlines and United accounts, using some of the stolen perks to book free flights and upgrades, the Associated Press reported. Unfortunately, these types of cyber attacks are on the rise; transportation was the second most targeted industry by hackers this year, up from number tenth in 2018, the IBM survey found. Frequently check your loyalty rewards accounts for any unusual activity, and use strong passwords and two-factor authentication to keep thieves at bay.

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Announcing your travel plans on social media

Beware of posting about your travels on your social networking feed. Though it may be tempting to brag about a monument you saw or meal you ate, details about your whereabouts might find their way into the wrong hands. Stick to sharing your travel plans with family and friends in person, and wait to post that amazing beach selfie until you have safely returned home. Don’t forget to do these 13 things to keep your home safe while you’re away, too.

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Turning on your device’s location tracking

Word to the wise: By letting your phone track your location, you could be revealing information about your travel patterns and frequented locations to hackers. Turn off the location tracking on your phone before you hop on the plane, especially for individual apps such as social media, maps, or ride share apps. “When on the road, it’s important to be vigilant not only with keeping your devices physically safe but also cyber safe,” Henderson says.

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Using the same password for every account

If you use the word “password” as the log-in for all of your accounts, it’s time to change your settings. In fact, “password” and “12345” are among the first passwords that cybercriminals will guess when hacking your account. Choosing unique, long, and strong passwords for every online account will limit the overall damage if one gets compromised, Henderson says. Just make sure your new passwords aren’t on the list of the 25 worst passwords for your security.

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Installing sketchy apps

arisara/ShutterstockUnless you find yourself in a serious pinch, avoid installing apps that you aren’t familiar with while on the road. Any new app can increase your exposure to cyber attacks, and “the data within the phone can be a goldmine for hackers,” Henderson says. He suggests taking the old-fashioned route with printed maps and phone calls instead of GPS and texting. Worried that your device might be hacked? Look out for these red flags someone is spying on your phone.

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Saving ticket stubs

Tickets, receipts, or boarding passes may seem like harmless mementos of your trip, but they could be more dangerous than you think. From those small pieces of paper, skilled crooks can mine a laundry list of clues about your credit card, loyalty rewards account, and other personal or financial information. Rather than tucking away old tickets or boarding passes as keepsakes, Henderson recommends taking a photo and then shredding them as soon as you can.

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Bringing personal documents like SSN cards

arisara/ShutterstockNothing ruins a vacation quite like losing your wallet, especially if you stashed more than a few bucks in there. To avoid giving out some of the most important information that thieves can steal, purge your wallet of everything but a credit card, ID, and cash before hitting the road. Sensitive documents like insurance cards or birth certificates are better off in a safe deposit box—not your carry-on. Leave your Social Security card at home, too; it tops the list of things you should never keep in your wallet or purse.