Using credit & ATM cards when traveling

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ATMs & point of sale machines.  Advances in technology have seen credit card skimming and shimming technology become more sophisticated and widespread. Any machine that looks tampered with or altered in any way should be treated as suspect, and you should seek an alternative ATM. Learn more.

Wi-Fi safety.  There are a few possible ways to avoid fake Wi-Fi connections. First, ask an employee which one is correct. In most cases, it will be an encrypted signal, especially at a hotel or airport.  Second, you 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.”  Learn more

Smart phone.  If you are checking anything sensitive on your smart phone, 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.  Learn more

Helpful strangers.  Be on your guard, and don’t place too much trust in overly-helpful stranger that wants to help with money, banking, or ATMs. 

The fake front desk call.  Fraudsters can impersonate the front desk at your hotel asking for your credit card information. Always hang up and call the front desk to verify.

Check if your card is accepted. Choose a U.S. credit card that’s widely accepted abroad. Generally, this means taking a Visa or MasterCard rather than Amex or Discover. Call your credit card company to find out how widely its accepted overseas and what fees you may be charged for purchases in foreign currencies.

Let your credit card company and bank know about your trip. If a credit card company or your bank starts seeing purchases overseas, they may flag your card as fraud and freeze your account. This is great if your card had actually been stolen, but less great when you’re traveling and your means of paying for things gets cut off. Let them know the locations you are traveling to and the dates of this trip so they do not freeze your card. They should note this in your account so there are no issues.

Know your credit limit. It’s not uncommon to accidentally to go over your credit limit – especially if you’re travelling for weeks at a time. At home, going over limit may be an inconvenience or incur a small fee, in different countries where credit cards are not as widely used, this may be seen in a harsher light. U.S. State Department websites vaguely suggest that Americans have been arrested for “innocently exceeding their credit limit while traveling abroad.” That’s probably an unusual situation, but one in which you certainly don’t want to find yourself.

Write down the international customer service number for your card(s). The usual 800 number for customer service won’t work abroad so find out the international number where you can reach them if your card is stolen, lost, or you encounter any other issues. Store it in your phone, e-mail it to yourself, or write it on a piece of paper you’ll keep with important documents.

Transfer extra funds to a savings account. If you’re bringing your debit card, only have the money in your account you will need for the trip and a little extra for emergencies. Transfer any excess to a savings account. This way if your card is stolen, the thieves can’t wipe out your entire account.

Make copies of your cards. Make a copy of the fronts and backs of your credit and debit cards. This way if you’re cards are stolen, you can report it to the local police and the U.S. Embassy.

Emergency Hotline & Funds.  Keep a separate note that contains the emergency hotline contact details of your card issuer.  Keep this information separate from your actual card and in another location that could be easily stolen. You might also want to get a backup card, which could be another credit card or a prepaid debit card loaded with a certain amount of funds and tied to your bank account.  Again, carry and store these cards separately from your main card at all times.

Limit your cards. You don’t need to take your entire wallet and all of your credit cards. This will just make the situation worse if your bag gets lost or stolen. Choose the best credit card for your travels, and bring one or two.

Be aware of what’s covered by your credit card. You may be pleased to find out your credit card may offer a form of travel insurance for anything you charge on the card. For example, if you charge a rental car with your card, you can be insured for any damages. Call your credit card company to see what’s covered abroad.

Protect your cards. Carry your cards in a safe way, like a money belt that wraps around your body or a purse that wraps across your chest. Wallets and purses around a shoulder can be targets, and a backpack can be easily looked through while you’re not paying attention. When you’re putting in your PIN, cover it. Someone can be looking over your shoulder to attempt to steal it.

Keep track of your card. Don’t let your card out of your sight. It’s not uncommon for merchants abroad to double swipe or take it in the back to copy information down. And of course, always make sure you get your card back before you leave.

Track your purchases. Keep a receipt for your purchases. Check your statements regularly while you’re still traveling. If you have any charges that shouldn’t be there, call your credit card immediately because time is a factor.

Ask if there’s a fee to charge. Some places charge a hefty fee for not paying with cash, so double check anywhere you go. Some credit cards charge an additional few percentage points of the transaction as a foreign currency transaction fee.

Always carry back-up cash. There’s a good chance you’ll encounter places that only accept cash. Also, credit and debit cards aren’t as reliable as you would hope. An ATM can eat your card, credit card machines can be down, or you can run into other problems using your card.

Act fast if your card is stolen. If your card is missing, contact your credit card company, the local police, and the U.S. Embassy. When you’re home, you can contact the IRS Identity Protection Unit to report any stolen credit and debit cards as a first step in mitigating potential harmful effects of identity theft.

Beware of pickpockets. While pickpocketing has been on the decline in the U.S for the past fifty years or so, it’s still a major problem in Europe. Pickpockets often work in groups, are often children and are typically well-dressed and they may have an accomplice.  Be extra vigilant around tourist attractions, public transportation, restaurants, bars and hotel lobbies.  Be wary of anyone trying to get your attention for anything, from showing you a map or menu to dropping an item.  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.  It is easy for a pickpocket to cut into or rifle through your backpack.