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6 ways to protect your credit cards when traveling

Enjoy your vacation by not losing track of your credit cards

By Jen A. Miller

Vacation should be about one thing: relaxing. If your credit cards are stolen, though, you'll spend more time in your hotel room undoing fraud than lying on the beach sipping a drink decorated with a tiny umbrella. 

6 steps to protect your plastic while on vacation

Lost or stolen wallets, checkbooks, credit and debit cards make up 43 percent of all fraud cases where the person knows how their information was stolen, according to Javelin Strategy & Research's 2009 identity fraud report.

Here are six ways to prevent credit card fraud while you're away from home.

1. Pack light
All of your credit cards don't need to go on vacation. They won't appreciate the view.

Cate Williams, vice president of financial literacy at MoneyManagement International, a national credit counseling agency, says bring one or two cards per person, and only carry one with you when you're not in your hotel room.

"You only need to make one phone call should it be lost or stolen," she said. "If there are any problems, you can dispute it much more quickly."

You'll have an easier time keeping an eye on your card if you're only tracking one.

Nicole Plescher, spokeswoman for Consumer Education Services Inc., a debt management company, had a credit card stolen while she was on her honeymoon in Las Vegas. By the time she realized it was gone, someone had racked up $2,400 in charges.

"I had six cards on me for no reason," she said. "If I put my hand in my wallet, it felt like everything was there. If you only have one or two cards, you'll know if something is missing."

Carrying one card is also good for your budget. "It keeps you focused on your spending," said Williams. It could also mean you'll rack up credit card rewards points all on one card.

2. Watch your card
Never let your card out of your sight. Don't leave purses or bags slung over bar stools or left on beach chairs. Watch your card when you give it to someone else, too.

Credit card skimmers are small devices that can take all your credit card information in seconds. In seconds, a thief can swipe your card, steal the data and hand the card back to you.

Paying for dinner? Watch where the server goes with your card. It's not practitcal to watch your card every second, so if the card leaves your sight, elevate your account-monitoring efforts.

3. Don't debit
Stick with your credit card for purchases because debit cards don't offer you the same protections.

The protections under are greater for credit cards, although card issuers often enact policies to boost their debit card protections.

If your credit card is stolen, you're liable for $50 max.

If your debit card is stolen, and you catch the fraud within two days, you're responsible for the same amount. After two days, you're liable for $500. After 60 days, you could be on the hook for everything.

Even if you report the fraud immediately, you're still putting the money you use to pay the bills at risk.

"Someone could easily clone your debit card and wipe out your entire checking account," says Williams. While you will get your money back if you report the fraud immediately, you could be without cash until it's resolved.

Williams suggests avoiding stand-alone ATMs in bars and convenience stores. Not only will you pay high transaction fees, but they could be involved in the same kinds of skimming scams we warned you about in tip No. 2.

4. Check your card activity
This is a must. It's the only way to know whether someone else is making charges. Do this even if you haven't lost a card, in case your card was skimmed.

You can check your debit balance and credit card activity online. If you're wary about hooking into the hotel's public Wi-Fi system, ask to use a hotel computer. Make sure you log out when you're done.

You can also check your balance over the phone: Call the 800 number on the back of your card. You'll be able to hear a list of recent charges, too.

5. Text yourself
After her card was stolen, Plescher activated text alerts on all her credit cards. Any time anything is posted to her credit card account, she gets a text message on her phone. If your travel plans take you abroad, check to see if your cell phone will work in your destination country so you'll  receive these texts.  

6. Lock it up
If you're not carrying a credit or debit card that day, lock it in your hotel room safe. Your room doesn't have one? Ask for it to be locked in the hotel's safe.

See related: Have card, will travel: A guide to traveling with a credit card, Tips for using a debit card for travel, Top credit card issuers' foreign transaction fees, 4 keys to credit, debit card zero-liability policies

Published: June 10, 2010


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Updated: 12-09-2016


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