You’re on your honeymoon in Italy when you receive an alert on your phone: your credit card is compromised, and access has been blocked. What happened? How can you avoid being scammed while traveling? Let’s go over some of the more common credit-card related scams you’re likely to encounter while traveling abroad, and how you can protect yourself with some simple credit card rules.
Table of Contents
Before You Leave
The first precaution to take is informing your bank or credit card lender that you will be traveling. They will note this on your account, so that when you start purchasing items overseas, it will not be flagged as possible fraud. However, this may not always work, as even banks that have been informed of travel plans will sometimes overlook the notes and lock out the credit card (like on the first day of your Italian honeymoon — I speak from experience). It’s always a good idea to keep the 24-hour customer service hotline for your credit card readily available, whether it is to access your account should it get locked, to regain access following an emergency fraud alert, or to report a stolen card. You may also consider setting up a fraud alert, as well.
As an aside, if you are going to be traveling when your credit card statement is due, be sure to set up an automatic payment. While you can pay from a phone or computer overseas, it is not recommended, for reasons we will explore in a moment.
Beware of ATMs
How do you avoid credit card fraud abroad? The simple answer is to pay attention to all of your ATM transactions. One of the most prevalent problems when it comes to credit card usage while traveling abroad centers on unscrupulous locals watching you enter your PIN.
There’s a few common examples. A friendly local may approach you, possibly while you are in line for an ATM, claiming he knows a machine that has a lower international transaction fee. Or, it may be after hours at the bank, and there are supposedly fees on the bank ATM. Whatever excuse they use, they will lead you to another machine. This machine, however, has been modified with a skimmer. Your helper stands close, watching you enter your PIN as the skimmer copies the magnetic information, or scans the RFID chip. Now they can clone your card. Be wary of any local that wants to help with money, banking, or ATMs. Be careful with where you place your ATM card, and use an RFID-blocking wallet if your card has a RFID chip (which is different than an EMV chip).
In a similar scam, a small piece of clear plastic is placed inside the credit card slot. When you insert your card, the mechanism is jammed. You enter your PIN, complete the transaction, but no card is returned. There may be a sign to enter the PIN again. Still, nothing. You leave, with no other options. This is when the scammer swoops in, un-jams the card slot, and runs off with your card, having memorized your PIN when you entered it. The sign telling you to enter your PIN twice to return your card goes with the scammer, a way to ensure they copied your PIN down correctly.
This scam can be modified slightly, to be a ticket machine for a train, or even a station locker, where a helpful local offers their locker and key, only to use a second key to steal your valuables. The only real defense is constant vigilance. Be on your guard, and don’t place too much trust in overly-helpful strangers.
While on the subject of ATMs, use your debit card only at ATMs while overseas. When making a purchase, use a credit card. Because debit cards pull directly from your bank account, rather than charging to a line of credit, a thief with your debit card number can drain your account in just a few minutes. Your money is gone until after any fraud investigation is concluded. With a credit card, your money is safe, and the charges can be disputed. When in doubt, use cash, with your card as a backup.
The Fake Wake-up Call
Your room phone rings. It’s 3:23 a.m. and the hotel’s front desk is calling. “Sorry to disturb you while sleeping,” they say, “but there’s been a problem,” and we need your credit card number again. Still half-asleep, you give the number, and fall back to sleep. In the morning, as you leave for the day, you ask the front desk if everything was sorted out. The woman behind the desk stares at you for a moment, before informing you there was no problem, and they did not call you. You stare back, understanding dawning.
It was not the front desk; it was scammers. They impersonated the front desk, preying on your sleep-addled brain to coax the relevant information out of you, so they could turn around and use your card as you fell back to sleep.
Should there be a problem, real or imagined by a scammer, always go to the front desk and work directly with a hotel employee.
Though not directly credit card-related, another hotel scam is the surprise inspection, performed by two people dressed as employees. One “inspects” while the other holds your attention. When done, you suddenly realize your wallet and important documents are missing from the end table. Again, calling down to the real front desk can verify if an employee is a real employee there on hotel business, or a clever scammer.
Remember how you should set up an automatic payment of your credit card from home? The reason is fake Wi-Fi signals. While it may look legitimate, the signal you connect to could be an imposter, already set to record all the information you enter, or even every keystroke. If you use your credit card to pay for anything while connected, you put yourself at risk for fraud.
There are a few possible ways to avoid fake Wi-Fi connections. First, you can simply ask an employee which one is correct. Chances are, it will be an encrypted signal, especially at a hotel or airport.
Second, you can simply encrypt all of the data going in and out, even on an unsecured connection. For this, you will want a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. While there are many services you can pay to use, there are free VPNs, such as Opera, a browser much like Chrome or Firefox.
Incognito mode or Private Browsing can also help, as will sticking to sites that use “https.” Don’t forget that your smart phone has these capabilities, too — and if you are checking anything sensitive, it may be better to turn off wifi and just use data, especially if you are checking your bank statement to see if there are any errant charges.
A Disappearing Card Trick
Going back to constant vigilance, be wary of anyone trying to get your attention for anything, from showing you a map or menu to dropping an item. They may have an accomplice with sticky fingers, or even cut into or rifle through your backpack.
Your best bet is to keep your money and cards in a money belt that goes inside your pants. It’s hard not to notice someone trying to steal from there, while stealing from your backpack can be trivial for practiced fingers.
A Turn for the Worse
If your card is compromised, or your wallet stolen, don’t fret. Noted European traveler Rick Steves offers steps to take when you’ve lost it all while traveling. Take a deep breath, ask for help — especially from English speakers — and file a police report. Cancel your cards, call your bank. Replace any important documents, including your passport. Rearrange travel plans if needed. If the banks are less than helpful, as they were to Elisa Doucette when she was in Southeast Asia, there are more steps, but don’t panic. The situation will be resolved, even if it hurts travel plans.
When traveling, the most important part of preventing fraud or theft is to simply be aware of your surroundings, especially in tourist areas. Knowing that locals will pick you out as a target for a scam is half the battle. Be careful where and how you spend, but don’t forget to have fun when traveling abroad.
Looking for more information on how to use your credit card while traveling? Visit our credit card resource center for more guides.
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