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Vacation is no time to abandon financial caution

Identity thieves waiting for you to let your guard down

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By Claudia Buck
The Sacramento Bee
Published:
Don't leave home without it: your financial security.
Whether traveling for business or pleasure, no one wants to worry about being scammed or exposed to identity theft.
But traveling, when we're so focused on work or so relaxed that we let our guard down, makes us an easy target for identity thieves and scam artists.
"The truth is, when you're on a business trip or on vacation, you're distracted. You're either thinking about the deal or the swimming pool," said Adam Levin, co-founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911, in Scottsdale, Ariz.
And scammers know that. "They're counting on the fact that you are not thinking about this stuff," said Levin. "It's the moments of distraction that are the moments of vulnerability, which is when they'll strike."
From phony Wi-Fi hot spots to "free vacation" come-ons, here's a rundown of some of the most common vacation-time scams.
Wake-up call
You're dead asleep in the middle of the night and someone who says they're from the hotel front desk calls, asking to verify your credit card information. Groggy and without thinking, you recite it, including the expiration and security code number. Bingo, you've just landed in the hands of scammers.
"It's one of the great scams ever," said Levin. If you get such a call, say you'll call them back or that you're coming down to the lobby. Hang up and call your credit card company (the number listed on your card) to ensure there's been no fraudulent activity.
'Free vacation' pitches
The come-ons land by postcard, letter or phone message: "Congratulations, you've won a free vacation!" to Tahiti, Tahoe or wherever. They often are linked to "vacation club" memberships, where you join to get discount travel deals.
Typically, they require sitting through a sales presentation at a company's office or a hotel ballroom in order to receive your "free" round-trip airline tickets or three-day hotel voucher.
After enduring an hourslong, high-pressure sales pitch, problems can arise when consumers try to claim their freebie trip: The voucher covers less than promised, lots of blackout dates apply, or "it's just incredibly difficult to book the travel," said Northeast California Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Cailin Peterson.
The promoters frequently employ several layers of marketers, schedulers and voucher "fulfillment" operators, which makes it difficult to get answers or resolve problems.
"They're not necessarily all bad. Some are legitimate," said Peterson, but consumers should be cautious.
Check the company's complaint history on the BBB's website (www.bbb.org ). Type the company's name and the word "scam"into an online search box to see what pops up.
"Research before you purchase and don't let high-pressure tactics get to you," said Peterson.
Social media fraud
Fake emails or websites, known as phishing, are nothing new online. But they've now migrated to social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, where phony, look-alike accounts pose as legitimate companies, like Southwest Airlines or Best Buy. They post accounts promising free flights or other giveaways, if you'll "like," "follow" or "comment on" their site. It's actually a ruse to get you to divulge sensitive personal information.
"Pretty much any trusted name has had their name hijacked," says Peterson. "It's basic identity theft."
The phony accounts ask you to click on a link that contains malicious software or direct you to sites that try to steal your credit card data, Social Security number or other personal information.
"If you see an offer that sounds amazing, don't click on links or download attachments," said Peterson. Instead, go to the company's website yourself - Southwest.com, for instance - to see if it's offering any such deals.
Fake Wi-Fi hot spots
You're in the airport or at your hotel on a business trip or vacation. What's the first thing you do? Check for a Wi-Fi hot spot for your smartphone, tablet or laptop.
But you could unwittingly be falling victim to an identity thief, sitting nearby and armed with a USB-based antenna to lure you in. It could be a network that sounds like your hotel "Hotel Wi-Fi," instead of "Holiday Inn Wi-Fi," for instance.
Identity thieves use hardware and software that make their Wi-Fi hot spot the strongest available signal, which means your devices may automatically link to it. Once you're connected, it might ask for a credit card or your name and room number. They could be inserting malware or trying to steal your financial information.
"It's a real revenue generator for criminals. And over the past couple years, it's gotten worse with the explosion of Wi-Fi," said Levin.
To avoid it: If you're in a hotel, coffee shop, airport or office lobby, ask for the building's official, specific Wi-Fi system. It may be worth paying a daily fee for the hotel's enhanced Wi-Fi system. Ask your provider, like AT&T, for a virtual private network (VPN), which is more secure. And never open personal email or access your financial accounts in a public place.
Stranded traveler
Also known as the "grandparent scam," this can be particularly effective during summer, when we expect our friends and family to be traveling.
Scammers call or email with urgent messages that someone you know has been hit with a medical or financial emergency that requires wiring funds immediately. The caller frequently begs you to "not tell anyone," ostensibly out of embarrassment.
If you get such a call, take a breath. Call the person allegedly needing help to confirm he or she is really stranded. Never wire money to a stranger.
Just last month, Peterson said, her own grandmother in Illinois was targeted by a scammer, claiming a vacationing granddaughter was in a car accident and desperately needed $2,500 wired to cover surgery. Alarmed, Peterson's grandmother immediately drove to a Walmart store to wire the money, but became suspicious about the caller's insistence on secrecy. Ultimately, she called her granddaughter to check, then the police to report the fraud.
Time-share offers
Preying on time-share owners eager to sell their unwanted vacation condos, scammers will offer to purchase the time share, often at inflated prices. As part of the offer, they require the consumer to deposit money in a supposed escrow account to cover fees. No surprise: The escrow company isn't real and you're out the deposit.
Fake vacation homes
Similar to home or apartment rental scams on Craigslist, consumers view ads for a vacation home or resort rental and, based on the enticing description or photos, wire a deposit or put money onto a prepaid card, such as Green Dot. If it's a scam, when they arrive at their destination, they discover the address isn't real, the property isn't owned by the person who took the deposit or the "gorgeous" resort turns out to be rundown or even closed.
To avoid those unpleasant scenarios, the BBB advises Googling the address to confirm the property exists and isn't out of business. If it's a third-party travel site, call the hotel or resort's 800 number to verify your reservation.
Wiring a deposit is always a red flag. "We don't recommend that people wire money or put money on a reloadable card," said Peterson. "Once you do, you generally have no way of getting it back."
Word to the wise
Traveling is always an adventure. And with a few safeguards, you can enjoy it worry-free.
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Safe travel tips
1. Stop mail and paper deliveries. Catalogs and newspapers cluttering your doorstep are a sure sign that nobody is home.
2. Make your home look inhabited. Recruit a trusted friend or family member to house-sit or stop by to turn on lights, water plants and pick up loose mail and papers. Or put lights on timers to go on and off at regular hours.
3. Lighten the load. Empty your wallet of extra cards and IDs. Never travel with your Social Security card or checkbook. Only put your name and phone on luggage tags, not an address. (Bring a spare credit card in case yours is lost.)
4. Copy important documents. Make paper copies of your passport, plane tickets, hotel reservations, health insurance card, etc.; keep separate from originals but not in checked luggage. Or scan copies, then save on an encrypted thumb drive or email to yourself.
5. Sign up for STEP. The U.S. State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program lets you set up an account when traveling overseas. In a financial, legal or medical emergency, the local U.S. embassy can help you more efficiently. STEP also offers travel alerts, embassy contacts and visa and vaccination rules. Go to step.state.gov.
6. Watch your pockets. Be alert for pickpockets. Carry your wallet in a front pocket. Wear your purse strap across your torso. Split money into small amounts in different zipped pockets or on your body. Use cash inconspicuously; avoid pulling out a wad and fumbling with bills.
7. Go online with caution. On your laptop, tablet or smartphone, never check personal websites -- email, banking or credit card accounts -- on public computers or Wi-Fi systems. Update security software and be sure you've got strong passwords on all devices. Only go online using encrypted Internet connections.
8. Use the hotel safe. It may not look secure, but it's safer than leaving your laptop, passport, extra cash or credit cards exposed in your room. Even if you're only running down to the lobby or heading out for an errand, use your room or hotel safe.
9. Don't post on social media. Wait until you get home to share travel posts/photos on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. If your entire network knows you're traveling, someone could use that info to burglarize your home.
10. Alert your bank/credit card companies. Before leaving town, notify your banks and credit card companies where you'll be traveling and for how long. Use credit cards, which generally have more fraud protections than debit cards. Try to use ATMs only inside banks, not in busy, touristy spots.
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©2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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Story tags » VacationsTravelPersonal FinanceIdentity theft

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