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
By Adam Levin, Special to ThirdCertainty
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.
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?
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.