Dawn Thornton has done plenty of traveling over the years, including visits to Argentina, Spain and Russia, just to name a few places. Before embarking on a trip, however, the Alamo resident always takes measures to protect her identity from being stolen and to ensure that her home is not a beacon to burglars while she's traveling.

"There's nothing magical or special or unique about it," said Thornton, a 53-year-old retired Apple employee, before outlining the basic steps she follows: Put a hold on newspapers and mail delivery; notify her home security company; bring two credit cards along; let the card issuers know in advance your itinerary; and take copies of your passport and the credit cards.

In the days before the Internet, when people sent postcards instead of e-mail, such tips were among the common sense procedures to follow when traveling. That advice still stands. Now, experts also urge travelers not to broadcast their plans — either before or during their time away from home — on social networking sites.

That is one thing Thornton doesn't have to worry about, since she doesn't belong to any social networking sites.

Posting vacation plans and activities on a social networking site such as Facebook or Twitter "is the equivalent of having a dark house with mail piling up. It's really announcing to the world that you are not home. It's a beacon that says 'rob me,' " said Jason Alderman, senior director of financial education at Visa USA.

"If you want to brag about where you've been and share photos and stories of what you've done, do it afterwards," said Cheryl Pollino, manager of Danville Travel.

Some clients of hers who went on a three-week European vacation posted updates on a social networking site of what they were doing while traveling and ended up returning to a burglarized home, she said.

Many travel tips related to security matters come down to common sense, she added.

In addition to suspending mail and newspaper delivery, travelers should have timed lights go on at night, preferably set up so they go on at random intervals, Pollino said. Also, have a trusted neighbor or friend keep an eye on your place.

The words "travel light" applies to more than just packing a suitcase.

Before you leave, slim down your wallet to bring only the credit cards and identification you will need while on vacation, said Alderman, adding that those documents should include proof of heath insurance.

"Your vacation wallet should be different from your day-to-day wallet. You do not need your library card," he said.

Having only the cards that you will be using helps reduce the potential for identity theft in the event your wallet is stolen, experts say. And never have your Social Security card on you, a rule of thumb that applies to all times, not just when you're on vacation.

Going abroad? You will need to bring your passport. But don't forget to bring a copy of it, which makes it easier and faster to get a replacement in case the original is stolen, Pollino said.

"You should have (the copy) separate, either packed in your luggage or somewhere secure. If your passport is in your purse, don't put the copy in your purse in case your purse is stolen," she said.

When using a credit or debit card while traveling, keep an eye on that plastic at all times. Many times people will walk away from a restaurant table after signing a bill and leave the merchant's copy on the table. Anyone could pick up that receipt and use it to access your fraudulently access an account, Alderman said.

"That's taking a risk that you don't need to take," he said.

Taking along a second credit card is recommended in case there is problem with the first card. "Things can happen. A card can get demagnetized. It might have a fraud hold put on it," Alderman said.

The latter happened to Thornton while on one of her trips. A couple days after she departed from a Florida airport, her credit card company informed her that someone had stolen her account number and had fraudulently used her card in Florida. She ended up having to use the second credit card because the first card had to be canceled.

Debit and credit cards can both be used while traveling, but a privacy advocacy group strongly recommends that consumers choose credit cards over debit cards because they offer more consumer protections and are easier to obtain reimbursement from when a card is misused.

"We recommend against debit cards actually in any case, but particularly when your traveling," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at www.privacyrights.org.

"If (a debit card was stolen or account information was illegally skimmed by a card reader), your checking account could basically be wiped out and then you would not have access to cash or ATM machines, any checks that were outstanding could bounce, and you would incur a lot of fees."

However, if you do want to use a debit card to only withdraw cash from an ATM, ask your bank to issue what's known as a "plain-old vanilla ATM card," Stephens said. Such cards, which do not have a Visa or MasterCard logo, always require entry of a PIN number by the user and work only at ATMs.

"That's a protection that you as a consumer are going to want to have," he said.

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-952-2690.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME:
  • Clean out your wallet. Remove unnecessary credit cards, your Social Security card and other unneeded documents that could compromise your identity if lost or stolen while on vacation. If you have a Medicare card, make a photocopy without the last four digits of your Social Security number.
  • Do not leave your wallet or any documents containing personal information unattended in your hotel room. They are not the most secure places. Many people have access to hotel rooms. Use a hotel safe when available.
  • Call your bank and credit card companies to let them know when and where you will be traveling. Their fraud departments then can monitor your accounts for unauthorized transactions during this time,
  • Ask your Post Office or a trusted neighbor to hold your mail for you. Mail that is left in an unlocked mailbox is a gold mine for identity thieves. It also sends a signal to potential burglars that your house is vacant.
  • It is best to use ATMs found at banks or credit unions that are in well-lit areas. Be sure to examine the machine carefully for signs of tampering. Be on the lookout for anything that looks suspicious.
  • If you are bringing your laptop with you, be careful when using it to access online banking or other password-protected services from Wi-Fi networks. Be sure to use Wi-Fi hotspots that are secure.
  • If you are using cybercafes, hotel business centers or other public access Internet facilities, be aware that key loggers (software that can track your keystrokes) may be tracking you. Public access facilities may use servers that are not encrypted. Therefore, never access any sensitive information from a public computer.
    Source: www.privacyrights.org