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Exercise financial caution when traveling

MATT DECKER   |  Times

MATT DECKER | Times

Whether traveling for business or pleasure, no one wants to worry about being scammed or exposed to identity theft. • "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 of Identity Theft 911. • From phony Wi-Fi hot spots to "free vacation" come-ons, here's a rundown of some of the most common away-from-home scams.

Wake-up call

You're dead asleep 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. Bingo, you've just landed in the hands of scammers.

"It's one of the great scams ever," Levin said. 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 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. Typically, they require sitting through a sales presentation 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 Cailin Peterson, Northeast California Better Business Bureau spokeswoman.

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," Peterson said, but consumers should be cautious.

Check the company's complaint history on bbb.org. Search the company's name and the word "scam" to see what pops up.

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. 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.

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 or Social Security number.

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 try to 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.

To avoid it: If you're in a public space, ask for the building's official, specific Wi-Fi system. Ask your provider, like AT&T, for a virtual private network, or VPN, which is more secure. And never open personal email or access your financial accounts on a public connection.

Stranded traveler

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 an emergency that requires wiring funds immediately.

If you get such a request, call the person allegedly needing help to confirm he or she is really stranded.

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

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.

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 .

Safe travel tips

1. Stop mail/paper deliveries. Catalogs and newspapers cluttering your doorstep are a sure sign that nobody's 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. Delete, delete. Empty your wallet of extra cards and IDs. Never travel with your Social Security card or checkbook. Only put your name and phone number on luggage tags, not an address.

4. Copy important documents. Make paper copies of your passport, plane tickets, hotel reservations, health insurance card, etc.; keep them separate from originals but not in checked luggage. Or scan copies, then save on an encrypted thumb drive or an 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. Go to step.state.gov.

6. 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. Never check personal websites, email, or banking or credit card accounts on public computers or Wi-Fi systems.

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.

9. Don't post on social media. If your entire network knows you're traveling, someone could use that info to burglarize your home.

10. 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.

Exercise financial caution when traveling 08/18/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 18, 2013 7:26pm]

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