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News & Features | Jan 6th, 2012

Wifi Hacking and Identity Theft Rise on the Road: How to Protect Yourself When You Travel

Jan Legnitto

When identity theft and fraud expert John Sileo traveled to Florida to give a speech to the Treasury Department on avoiding ID theft, he wasn’t expecting to become a victim of the crime he’d studied for years. But that’s exactly what happened.

According to USA Today, after spending the day at Disney World with his daughter, Sileo returned to his hotel to learn that his bank had suspended his credit card because a thief had used it to go on a $3,000 online spending spree. Sileo, a consultant for the identity protection provider CSID, told USA Today that he suspects the culprit used a smartphone to take a snapshot of his credit card number at Disney World’s electronic ticket booth.

Why ID Theft Is Easier to Commit on the Road

What happened to John Sileo proves that anyone can become a victim of America’s fastest growing consumer crime. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission received over 250,000 complaints about identity theft – almost one fifth of the total number of complaints received by the agency.  What’s more, business and vacation travelers face even greater challenges protecting their personal data.  That’s because folks on the road rely more heavily on wireless devices that can be hacked or lost.  And they’re often distracted or disoriented when they’re away from home, making them ideal targets for data thieves.

Last year, we filed a Freedom of Information request with the Federal Trade Commission asking for consumer complaints about Wifi hacking incidents that led to identity theft.  The majority of complaints we got back came from business and vacation travelers.  A trucker, an airline passenger, a Naval reservist training for a Mideast mission and a traveling employee using a company laptop all told the FTC their computers were hacked and their personal information was stolen while  they were using Wifi hotspots.

Data thieves are also getting a lot of help from absent minded folks on the road.  A 2011 study by Credant Technologies, a data protection company, found that travelers lost over 11,748 mobile devices at five of the nation’s busiest airports. Nearly 75% of them were laptops and smartphones.

Thieves Use Online Information to Commit Offline Crimes

Travelers aren’t just losing their wireless devices, they’re broadcasting their travel plans online.  That makes them vulnerable to identity theft before and during the time they hit the road .  In 2011, Experian ProtectMyID commissioned a study which found that one fifth of respondents posted their summer vacation plans on social networking sites.  Even worse, almost 50% between the ages of 18 and 34 updated their travel plans on their social media pages. When data thieves get hold  of information like that, all they need to do is look up travelers’ home addresses online and steal any mail containing information that can be used to commit ID theft.

According to a 2011 State of the Net survey of over 2,000 online households conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 23%  of active Facebook users didn't know some of their “friends” well enough to feel completely comfortable about their own or their family's security or safety. An additional 6 % admitted to having a friend who made them uneasy about those things.  So why are consumers sharing information online with people they don’t trust?

Not surprisingly, most of the travelers Experian ProtectMyID surveyed stayed connected using public Wifi during their trips.  And that spells trouble.  Wifi hotspots at hotels and airports are hotbeds of activity for hackers. Every time you log in, cyberthieves can access your personal financial information, download malware or read your email. Remember, whether you’re on a business trip or on vacation, hackers mean business. There is no vacation from cybercrime.

How to Protect Your Identity When You Travel


∙  Make sure your firewall is turned on and your virus and malware protection are up to date.

∙  Use strong passwords composed of 8 to 20 letters, numbers and symbols.  Use different ones for every site and change them often.

∙  Configure your laptop to let you approve access points before you connect.  Identify Wifi hotspots as “public” which allows your laptop to use more secure network settings.

∙  Disable file and printer sharing and remove sensitive data from your laptop before you travel.

∙  Check to make certain you’re logging into your hotel’s Wifi network, not a fake hotspot designed to steal your personal information.

∙  Don’t pay bills, use credit cards or conduct other financial transactions at Wifi hotspots.

∙  Don’t connect to Wifi hotspots unless you use a virtual private network solution like PRIVATE WiFi™.  VPNs protect your identity by encrypting the information traveling to and from your computer.  That means it’s invisible to hackers.

∙  Follow the Federal Trade Commission’s advice and “get wise to Wifi”:

Was your identity stolen on the road?  If it was, we’d like to hear what happened to you.  Sharing your story may prevent others from becoming ID theft victims.




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