How to keep your credit card safe when traveling abroad6 min read
On a recent family trip to Vienna, Austria, an American tourist discovered an ATM skimmer, designed to steal information about the credit and debit cards that pass through it so that criminals can use their data, at an ATM outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
Unfortunately for the crooks, the tourist, Ben Tedesco, is a senior technical services consultant at the security firm Carbon Black, and he knew what he was looking at.
He recorded a video of himself removing the skimmer from the ATM and uploaded it to YouTube. The video has been viewed more than 4.5 million times.
Tedesco later updated the description of the YouTube video to say that he notified Vienna’s police department to let them know about the skimmer, which to the untrained eye looks like part of the ATM.
(Carbon Black says the video is real, and the company did not plant the skimmer there to make the video.)
Other tourists probably won’t avoid the same fate.
According to a new survey from the payments company ACI Worldwide and market-research firm Aite Group, credit and debit card fraud worldwide is actually growing.
The groups surveyed about 6,000 consumers in 20 countries and found that 17% of consumers said they have experienced fraud multiple times in the past five years, compared with 13% who said they had in 2014.
The countries where consumers are most likely to have experienced card fraud were Mexico, where 56% said they had experienced fraud in the last five years, Brazil, at 49% and the U.S., at 47%.
In Mexico, card issuers and merchants have had trouble implementing EMV technology, which is supposed to be a more secure card technology than a magnetic stripe, the report says. The U.S. has also been slower than many other countries to transition to EMV, or “chip,” cards.
Plus, the size of the U.S. and Brazilian economies, which both have high numbers of online shoppers, make them targets for criminals, the report says.
Criminals have also become more organized over time, particularly with the rise of social media, said Andreas Suma, the global leader of data and fraud at ACI. When consumers put more information on their social profiles, including where they live, what schools they attended and what their shopping preferences are, criminals can easily put together the pieces in a way that helps to confirm their identities, he said.
At a time when card fraud is prevalent, travelers are still not taking precautions before they travel, according to a new survey from payments company PayPal.
Some 73% of the 1,000 consumers PayPal surveyed said they think their money is safe while they travel and they don’t think about it.
When asked what measures they take to protect money while traveling, 56% said they limit the cash they keep on them, and 12% said they avoid using cash. Yet 12% said they make frequent trips to ATMs so they don’t have too much cash on them at any one time.
How to keep your money safe
To avoid “skimmers” like the one Tedesco found in Vienna, consumers should bring some cash on a trip and convert it at an airport upon arrival, said Ben Johnson, who is the co-founder and chief security strategist at Carbon Black.
But if a consumer has to visit an ATM, it’s better to use one at a bank than on the street or at another non-financial institution.
It can also be helpful to examine the slot where travelers put their cards into the machine, he said; if that part of the ATM appears not to fit (the skimmer Tedesco found, for example, was larger than the real card slot it was covering), or have visible glue on it, or is chipped, it may be a skimmer, he said.
Credit cards can also be a better choice than debit cards when trying to avoid fraud, he said; in most cases, credit-card companies will assume liability for fraudulent charges and dispute them, whereas with a debit card, cash will immediately come out of an account, and restitution — if any — takes longer.
Mobile payments provide an extra layer of security, he said, because they use “tokenization,” a process that allows consumers to make a payment without sharing credit and debit card numbers with a merchant when they pay; each transaction is unique. For that reason, they can be a good option when traveling.
And because criminals can sometimes access consumer information on Wi-Fi networks, Johnson suggested avoiding public networks as much as possible, especially when making a purchase. To be safe, consumers should change passwords before and after traveling, he said.
To stay on top of any transactions made on cards, it may also be a good idea to frequently check account activity while traveling, or even sign up for transactional monitoring alerts, which many banks and credit card companies offer, that will notify consumers when any activity has happened on their accounts, said Adam Levin, the chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and the author of “Swiped.”
Levin also suggested being wary of any email links or attachments a consumer is unfamiliar with, as they could be ways criminals are trying to access card information.
It may also be a good idea when on a group trip to pay with just one card, and have other travelers reimburse one person, Levin said.
What to do during the Olympics
Travelers might also consider bringing some prepaid cards if they are worried about fraud on vacation, or when visiting Brazil for the Olympics, Johnson said.
Suma, who spent eight years living in Brazil, said consumers should never let a merchant there take a card out of sight; many Brazilian merchants have mobile devices they can use for check out, he said, so there should be little reason for them to take it away from a restaurant table, for example. When he was living in Brazil, a merchant took his credit card and swiped it in a skimmer. His card was then charged $5,000 in a short amount of time, he said.
There are some practical, lower-tech tips to keep in mind too, he said.
Tourists should never carry every card they own on them, or anything else they can’t afford to lose, he said. He also suggested putting payment methods in separate pockets or otherwise separating them.
“If something unfortunate happens, you should only have enough to satisfy the person that’s not being friendly,” he said.
Consumers should be careful of making their cash or wallets too visible, Levin said. It’s common for pickpockets to cut a bag off someone’s arm, he said, so he suggested carrying bags close to the body, such as under the arm.
In hotels, consumers should put any valuables in a safe, since many people have access to rooms, including room service, cleaning service or security.
“There’s an irrational concept that your hotel room is your castle, and unfortunately, they don’t come equipped with moats,” he said.
Never give credit-card information to someone who calls, claiming to be the hotel’s front desk, he said. Instead, visit the front desk in person to verify they are the callers.
And be wary of flyers placed under doors or outside hotels; companies claiming to be food-delivery services could also be crooks.
He also suggested being careful about advertising trips on social media, which can lead to burglary at home, or stalking on vacation.
“Try not to tell everyone in the known universe where you’re going, when you’re going and how long you’re going to be gone,” he said.