Summer. Vacation. Identity theft.
That’s not the thought process most of us go through when we begin planning a summer vacation for ourselves or our families.
So say consumer protection advocates such as the Better Business Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Reports, all of which have issued tips in recent weeks to help vacationers avoid what has become a serious problem in this country.
Just how serious?
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says an estimated 16.6 million people – roughly 7 percent of all Americans 16 years of age or older – experienced at least one incident of identity theft in 2012, which translated into $24.7 billion in total losses.
More recently, the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network reports that identity theft ranked No. 1 of all consumer complaints in 2013, accounting for 14 percent of the more than 2 million complaints filed. Debt collection was the next most popular category at 10 percent.
For its part, New Mexico ranked 19th in identity theft complaints that year, tied with Connecticut based on its ratio of 69.4 complaints per 100,000 population, though lower than the neighboring states of Arizona (No. 7), Texas (No. 8) and Colorado (No. 13)
“When consumers go on vacation, identity thieves go to work,” the BBB says. “A little preparation can go a long way toward making your trip more enjoyable.”
Here are a few tips recommended by consumer protection experts to ensure your vacation doesn’t get interrupted or end on an unhappy note:
- Clean out your wallet or purse: Like the catchy song in Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” think “bare necessities.”
No more than a couple of credit or debit cards. No Social Security card. No library card. In short, the less items that contain your personal information, the better, just in case your wallet or purse should be lost or stolen while you’re away.
- Be wary of Wi-Fi: As difficult as it may be, resist the urge to check your financial accounts while logged into a public Wi-Fi network.
It’s not that difficult for scammers to hack into these networks – if not set up a free dummy network of their own disguised as your hotel or favorite coffee shop. That means they could steal your usernames, passwords and other personal or financial information.
“When we are on vacation, we tend to spend a little too much, and so we are constantly monitoring our account balances,” says Connie Quillen, executive assistant at the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southwest Colorado. “It’s best to use the phone system rather than Internet unless you have a secure connection.”
- Watch your laptop: If you must bring a laptop, don’t let it out of your sight – especially in busy places such as airports, restaurants and the like.
Make sure your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs are up to date and, again, don’t use it to access your bank accounts while connected to a Wi-Fi hot spot.
- Ditto for your phone: Make sure your smartphone is password protected and be quick to report if it’s lost or stolen – first to local law enforcement and then to your wireless provider.
- Put a hold on your mail: Before you leave, contact the U.S. Postal Service – you can do this online at usps.com – and enter a start and end date for holding your mail until you return.
There’s nothing like an overstuffed mailbox to tip off criminals that you are away, which gives them an opportunity to rifle through your mail in search of personal information about you.
- No address on luggage tags: Less is more when writing out contact information on your luggage tags. A last name and telephone number is more than enough; there’s no need to include your full name and home address.
- Social media can wait: Yes, it’s a lot of fun to share photos of your trip on Facebook and Twitter on a minute-by-minute basis, but keep in mind that it also alerts those who aren’t your “friends” that you are away. For identity thieves, that’s an open invitation.
Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.