How to Avoid Identity Theft in Asia

Tips for Protecting Yourself While Traveling

Hacker hands on a laptop keyboard

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The problem of identity theft in Asia is on the rise — and it doesn’t only target travelers. Residents in many Asian countries listed identity theft as one of their top fears, even higher on the list of concerns than terrorism.

There’s never a good time to become a victim. But travelers have much more difficulty sorting out compromised credit cards or stolen identities while away from home. Making international calls and recovering compromised accounts is stress you don't need on a trip. Minimizing your risk exposure is the key to prevention.

Although completely eliminating the risk of identity theft in Asia would require traveling in very inconvenient ways (e.g., carrying all cash, not using the internet, etc), a little vigilance goes a long way toward increasing protection.

Top Ways Identity Theft in Asia Occurs

  • A malicious staff member records your credit card information as you are paying in a store or restaurant
  • ATMs are modified with a card-skimming device that secretly records the account number as your card passes through to the machine
  • Phony free Wi-Fi hotspots are set up as a man-in-the-middle way to capture data
  • Network "sniffers" capture packets on unsecured, unencrypted public Wi-Fi
  • A compromised local website steals your credit card information as you book buses, flights, etc.
  • Public computers in internet cafes and hotel business centers have keylogging software installed that captures your credentials

Notify Banks of Your Travel Plans

You’ll need to notify the banks of any cards that you’ll be carrying, otherwise, they’ll see mysterious charges pop up in Asia and deactivate your card for potential fraud!

Ideally, there will be a way to provide the exact dates you’ll be in each country; if not, notify banks upon your return and cancel any existing travel notifications.

Setting Up "Home" and "Travel" Cards

The best setup is to have a “home only” ATM/debit card and a separate ATM/debit card used for travel. The travel card would ideally be linked to a different account without overdraft protection turned on. If that travel card is compromised, at least your automatic monthly payments at home won’t fail. The other accounts won't be affected. You can transfer money into the travel account only as needed. Thieves will only have access to the small sum you transfer.

Tip: Ensure that overdraft protection doesn’t allow your travel card to pull money out of other accounts. Visa and Mastercard are the most accepted card types in Asia.

After returning home, keep an eye on your accounts for a few weeks afterward to ensure that no new charges follow in your wake.

Beware of Rogue ATMs

Without a doubt, the biggest threat for identity theft while traveling in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia, is falling for a rigged-ATM scam. ATMs are typically the best way to get local currency, so you'll probably be using them frequently.

A surprising number of ATMs — especially ones in popular traveler areas — have card “skimmers” installed over the actual card slot. As you insert or swipe your card, your account information is also read by the thieves’ device and stored. They come later to retrieve the micro-SD memory card. Some of these devices even have a tiny camera directed at the keypad to record your PIN as you type it. Another method employs a membrane device that sits on top the keyboard and records your PIN numbers.

In an effort to stop card skimming, banks modify ATMs with flashing and odd-shaped card slots to make them more elaborate, but thieves up the game with more intelligent devices. Some skimmers are custom made and are nearly discernible from the real machine hardware.

There are just a few ways you can reduce the risk of encountering rigged ATMs:

  • Stick to using well-lit ATMs that are located in secure places such as bank branches and airports.
  • Try wiggling the ATM slot to ensure that it feels like a “real” part of the machine. Check the keypad for tampering.
  • Cover the keypad with your other hand as you enter your PIN in case a small camera is recording your button presses.

Secure Your Passport

Your passport is your most important possession while on the road and should be treated as such. Although a passport can be replaced with cost and effort while traveling, you certainly don’t want to deal with emergency bureaucracy while on a trip. Even passports that have been reported stolen could lead to potential identity theft years later.

Keep your passport safe with the following tips:

  • Keep your passport secure (ideally in a concealed money belt) rather than in a purse or backpack.
  • If you decide to leave your passport at the hotel, put it into the room safe or a lockbox at reception. At the very least, hide it well in the room.
  • Keep a couple photocopies of your passport somewhere separate. Having a copy will help expedite getting a replacement should you need one. Also, you can sometimes give copies to people who ask to keep your passport as collateral. Some guesthouses and rental agencies ask to hold a passport at reception.
  • Know the contact information of the nearest embassy in case you need an emergency replacement.
  • The RFID/biometric chip in U.S. passports contains everything that is on your photo page (name, photo, passport number, age, etc). Although the government says that chips can't be read unless someone is holding the passport, some travelers feel safer by purchasing RFID-blocking sleeves or cases for their passport.

Paying by Credit Card in Asia

When paying for large purchases (e.g., scuba diving, hotel stays, etc), using a credit card makes more sense than going to an ATM and getting hit with transaction fees over and over. The ATMs in Thailand charge more than US $6 per transaction on top of whatever foreign transaction fees your bank charges.

The safest policy is to only pay with plastic when you really need to do so. Using cash not only avoids the potential of a disgruntled staff member swiping your number, it may save you money as well. Many businesses in Asia charge an additional fee on credit card purchases to cover commissions.

Beware of Public Wi-Fi Signals

Not all public Wi-Fi hotspots are safe. In fact, many hotspots are set up in busy areas with tantalizing SSIDs such as “Airport Free Public Wi-Fi” or “Starbucks” for the sole purpose of capturing data to parse through later. These man-in-the-middle attacks are on the rise in Asia as more and more travelers mindlessly jump on unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

Although most of time the aim is to capture email addresses and passwords to sell to spammers later, someone could use your compromised email to change passwords for more important accounts.

Tip: Turn off Wi-Fi on your phone when not in use. Not only will you save battery, you’ll avoid unwittingly connecting to open hotspots.

Using unsecured, unencrypted signals is risky; avoid them unless you’re in a serious pinch. Make use of VPN software services; reliable ones charge a monthly fee to mostly anonymize and secure your internet traffic.

Everyone knows to avoid doing online banking on open networks and public computers, but even a quick, innocuous check of email without an SSL connection could cost you. Many websites allow users to reset passwords via a link sent to email accounts. Essentially, if someone malicious gains access to your email, they may be able to reset passwords on more important sites.

Public computers, including those in internet cafes, hotels, and airports are just as insecure — maybe worse. Shared computers can have keyloggers installed that record every keystroke, including your username and passwords. Be wary of booking flights on public computers.

Use Reputable Booking Sites

In places such as India and China, you may be forced to use local sites or portals for booking buses, flights, or other travel needs. There isn’t much you can do if the booking site you’re using has been compromised behind the scenes.

The best way to avoid identity theft from third-party booking sites is to stick to reputable, recognizable names in the industry. Sometimes smaller, local booking sites are set up to capture information and a small commission, then simply redirect you to the official site.

In some countries such as Nepal and Indonesia, small charter airlines don't have a web presence for making bookings. Travel-agent booking portals exist to assist travelers with bookings in English. In these scenarios, you’re better off doing as the locals do: go directly to the airline counter in the airport to book a flight.

Some Other Ways to Avoid Identity Theft in Asia

  • Use a prepaid credit card for your trip then destroy it once you return home. Funds can be added to the card as needed.
  • Keep an unlock pattern or PIN on your smartphone.
  • Consider turning on encryption for external storage (SD) on your smartphone in case it is lost. A tech-savvy thief won’t be able to read your app data files on the card.
  • Use a VPN service when making online transaction. The most legit ones cost a small monthly fee. Free, web-based proxies are slow and hit or miss.
  • Some travelers opt to get RFID-blocking sleeves for passports that have an identity chip installed.
  • Destroy any credit card receipts made from the old, slide carbon-copy machines. Yes, they still exist in some places without easy network access!
  • If you’re forced to use a public computer or unencrypted Wi-Fi, change your passwords as soon as you have a secure connection.
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