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Make it a theft-free holiday

Sandra Block USA Today

Remember the old American Express travelers checks commercials? A horrified couple discovers that someone has stolen all their cash. Where will they go? What will they do? And why are they being stalked by Karl Malden?

Today, those commercials seem almost quaint. As financial fraud becomes increasingly sophisticated, losing cash is the least of travelers’ concerns.

These days, thieves use the information they get from stolen wallets and purses to drain bank accounts, borrow money and set up fraudulent credit card accounts.

Don’t let identity thieves ruin your summer vacation. Here are some tips you shouldn’t leave home without:

Clean out your wallet before you leave.

If you’re taking a barge trip on the Amazon, you probably won’t need your Bloomingdale’s card. Carry only the credit cards and identification you need for your trip, says Kim Forde, spokeswoman for American Express. Remove cards that show your Social Security number, she advises.

Use stored value cards instead of cash or debit cards.

If you carry a “signature” debit card, which typically has a Visa or MasterCard logo, a thief can make purchases simply by forging your signature. MasterCard and Visa have “zero liability” policies for debit cards processed through their networks, but replacing the money can take up to 10 days, says Linda Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center. If it’s the end of the month, you won’t be able to pay your bills on time. And checks you’ve already written could bounce.

Stored value cards are a good alternative. MasterCard, Visa and American Express all offer versions of these cards, which are similar to gift cards. You can load them up with a specific amount of money and use them like debit cards. If the card is stolen, the issuer will replace the money. More important, the thief won’t have access to your bank account.

Leave your checkbook at home.

Stolen checks and deposit slips are popular with thieves, Foley says. With a high-quality printer and blank checks from an office supply store, they can use your account information to create fraudulent checks. And check fraud is one of the most difficult financial crimes to clear up, she says.

Pack a backup credit card in case one of your cards is stolen or an account is closed.

Running up big charges on your credit card may trigger your card issuer’s fraud-detection alert system, says Tom Lekan, chief security officer for KeyBank.

Out-of-state or overseas transactions may also trigger a fraud alert. The bank may temporarily close your account until someone contacts you and verifies that you made the charges, Lekan says. “If that’s the only card you have, you’re in trouble,” he says.

You can avoid an unexpected shutdown by alerting your credit card issuer before you leave, says Jessica Antle, a spokeswoman for MasterCard. Tell your financial institution the dates you’ll be traveling and where you’re going.

Be aware of your surroundings.

Pickpockets gravitate to such high-traffic areas as airports, vacation resorts and county fairs, Foley says. Many are more interested in stealing information than cash. Carry cash and credit cards in a travel pouch or money belt worn inside your clothes.

Lock up your laptop.

Even on vacation, some people lug along their laptops so they can squeeze in some work or stay in touch with the folks back at the office. But your diligence may make you a target. Laptops are coveted by criminals, particularly overseas, Lekan says.

Many people store personal financial information in their computers. Hackers can bypass passwords and other security measures, Lekan says.

Many travelers leave their laptops connected to the hotel network when they’re not in their rooms, Lekan says. That enables a dishonest hotel employee to search your computer for information that can be sold to identity thieves.

If you must take your laptop on vacation, store it in the hotel safe when you’re not around, Lekan says.

Don’t leave your rental agreement in the car.

Many rental car agreements contain personal information that could be used by identity thieves, Lekan says.

When you check out, take your key card.

Many travelers leave these cards in their rooms when they head home. Bad idea, Lekan says. Some hotels embed customers’ credit card numbers or other personal information in the magnetic strip on the back of these cards, he says. Criminals can remove the strip and extract the information.

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