How to avoid hackers, scammers and fraudsters—and enjoy your vacation

Be aware of tricks, traps so you don’t become a victim of financial or identity theft

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Spring has begun, which means open sea­son on trav­el­ers who aren’t well-versed in the var­i­ous scams wait­ing for them on the seami­er side of par­adise. While the scams abound, being fore­warned is forearmed.

Adam Levin, chair­man and co-founder of Credit.com and Cyber­Scout (for­mer­ly IDT911)

Here are some typ­i­cal scams that can ruin your vaca­tion, drawn from my book Swiped: How to Pro­tect Your­self in a World Filled with Scam­mers, Phish­ers, and Iden­ti­ty Thieves.

1. Anti-social media?

One sel­dom-pub­li­cized use of social media involves mon­i­tor­ing post­ed pho­tographs for clues about where you live and what you have that’s worth steal­ing. In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing a visu­al inven­to­ry, pho­tographs can con­tain hid­den infor­ma­tion called geo­t­ags that allow a thief to pin­point the loca­tion of your home. If you post pic­tures while you’re on vaca­tion, you might as well dis­play a flash­ing neon sign say­ing, “Rob me.” Rather than shar­ing your adven­ture in real time, it is far safer to relive the mem­o­ries with every­one you know when you return. If you sim­ply can’t resist the urge, at the very least tight­en your pri­va­cy set­tings so that you strict­ly lim­it who can see these posts.

2. Tick­et scams

You receive a let­ter inform­ing you that you have a chance to cash in on a big win: free air­line tick­ets. There have been sev­er­al attempts to con­tact you about the tick­ets (you won them through a sweep­stakes you have nev­er heard of, in which you were auto­mat­i­cal­ly enrolled), and you’re going to lose them if you don’t con­tact the trav­el agency or cruise line imme­di­ate­ly. The let­ter pro­vides a toll-free num­ber to call. You call it and there are cer­tain require­ments (like pro­vid­ing a cred­it card or Social Secu­ri­ty num­ber). Meet­ing those oblig­a­tions will cost you far more than the alleged free tick­ets. (Fall­en for this one? Be sure to check your cred­it for warn­ing signs of iden­ti­ty theft. You can view two of your cred­it scores for free, with updates every two weeks, on Credit.com.)

3. Hotel front-desk scam

Your plane gets in late, you can’t get a taxi, and by the time you arrive at your hotel all you want to do is take a show­er and go to bed. About an hour after check­ing in, the phone in your room rings. It’s the front desk call­ing to tell you that the cred­it card you gave them was declined. “Can you please read me your cred­it card num­ber again? Or, if you would pre­fer, you can give me anoth­er cred­it card.” If this hap­pens, in lieu of read­i­ly hand­ing over your dig­its, take a trip to the hotel lob­by to con­firm whether there is an actu­al issue.

4. Hotel piz­za scam

When you check into your hotel, you see fliers in the lob­by or under your door for a piz­za joint. It’s late and you’re starv­ing, so you call the num­ber on the fli­er. Some­one answers exact­ly the way you expect they will. You place your order. They ask for your cred­it card num­ber, which you imme­di­ate­ly pro­vide because your mind is on the pie and not your per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion. Sev­er­al hours lat­er, you’re still wait­ing. And starv­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the only one get­ting fed is the thief—and your cred­it card is their dinner.

5. Vaca­tion rental scam

A thief finds a rental prop­er­ty online and uses the details to cre­ate his own web­site and list­ing. They’ll even have bogus five-star reviews from fake renters, and it will be par­tic­u­lar­ly afford­able, pos­si­bly due to a one-day-only inter­net sale. You book the list­ing and pay either by cred­it card or wire trans­fer, and you get ready to pack your bags.

Here’s the prob­lem: When the time comes and you show up for your vaca­tion, that’s not your con­do. It’s not just a mat­ter of bait and switch, where the gor­geous prop­er­ty on the web­site doesn’t exact­ly live up to real­i­ty. In this case, the prop­er­ty is very real and even very beau­ti­ful … but you didn’t rent it. There may even be anoth­er fam­i­ly stay­ing in it that week. You now find your­self on vaca­tion with nowhere to sleep, and your scam­mer is nowhere to be found.

If the per­son can’t answer ques­tions accurately—or takes too long to answer, which indi­cates that they’re also doing an online search—that could be a red flag. It is pos­si­ble that the rental agent is locat­ed in anoth­er city, but some­one in his or her offices should have at least laid eyes on the prop­er­ty and be able give you an idea of the answers.

Tip: When­ev­er you’re book­ing a rental prop­er­ty, there’s a sneaky lit­tle trick you can use to ver­i­fy the authen­tic­i­ty of the list­ing and the prop­er­ty. Instead of email­ing, call the per­son on the phone, but first do an online search for oth­er busi­ness­es in the area sur­round­ing the prop­er­ty, then ask the list­ing agent some spe­cif­ic ques­tions that you’ve already fig­ured out the answers to. How far is it to the near­est beach access? Where is the near­est restau­rant with a kids’ menu? How far are we from an emer­gency room in case some­one in our group gets hurt?

6. Skim­mers

Key­pad over­lay devices, ATM skim­mers (you can see one in action here) with a pin­hole camera—there are many ver­sions. Some­times skim­mers and the hard­ware asso­ci­at­ed with them can be spot­ted (if you know what you’re look­ing for and it’s one of the skim­mers you can detect, for instance, by bang­ing on the ATM machine or try­ing to shake the user-inter­face mod­ule), but often it’s impos­si­ble to detect a skim­mer scam. When you’re out hav­ing fun, by def­i­n­i­tion you are dis­tract­ed and under­stand­ably off guard. Try to remem­ber that even in the midst of the time of your life there are bad guys out there intent on a major buz­zkill. And mon­i­tor your bank state­ments care­ful­ly so you spot any fraud that may have occurred.

7. Wi-Fi scams

Not all Wi-Fi is cre­at­ed equal, and it’s not all secure. If you’re not sure about a Wi-Fi con­nec­tion, be care­ful about what you do online. Do your bank­ing and bill pay­ing on your secure home net­work, and let your time off tru­ly be down­time so that you don’t end up hav­ing a down­er of a vaca­tion. You can go here to learn more tips for bet­ter inter­net safe­ty.

Full dis­clo­sure: Cyber­Scout spon­sors Third­Cer­tain­ty. This sto­ry orig­i­nat­ed as an Op/Ed con­tri­bu­tion to Credit.com and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the com­pa­ny or its partners.

More on iden­ti­ty theft:
Iden­ti­ty Theft: What You Need to Know
3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
How Can You Tell If Your Iden­ti­ty Has Been Stolen?