FTC Warns of Vacation Scams – traditional or online
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a bulletin advising to help travelers to avoid vacation scams. With the summer travel season just about to begin, people are busy booking hotel rooms, finding vacations rentals, and making travel arrangements. When shopping online and corresponding with unfamiliar businesses, there is always a chance for identity theft or for a hacker to intercept your credit card information or other personal data.
The FTC bulletin advises that people get recommendations from family and friends on reputable vacation rental services. Review sites can provide insights about whether a property owner is responsive to issues. Beware of all-inclusive vacation packages which may contain hidden costs or exclude taxes. Like many destinations, Las Vegas is famous for its resort fees which tack on at least another $35 per night. Some hotels may charge a fee for use of bicycles, beach towels, gyms, and other amenities whether you use them or not.
Tips to Avoid Vacation Scams
Not all vacation scams occur because of unscrupulous property owners or municipalities looking to soak vacationers for more money. Online scams are also a big problem. Vacationers can fall victim to credit card scams and identity theft if they do not safeguard their information.
Avoid Public WiFi Hacks
Any login to a social media account, email address, or financial account can open up an opportunity for a hacker who is sniffing unsecured internet traffic. Vacationers, business travelers, and anyone in a retail location using a shared public WiFi connection are vulnerable to hackers. Someone sitting next to you in a coffee shop or waiting at the gate in an airport can be a hacker who is monitoring airport internet traffic for login credentials and credit cards numbers. Purchase a secure WiFi connection and use a virtual private network (VPN) to protect your data.
Social media usernames and passwords should be protected too. While it may not seem like a big problem, social media accounts can lead to more serious cyber security crime. Common password rest questions are frequently the type of information you share on social media – hometown, pet’s names, the street you grew up on, mother’s maiden name, etc.… These can all be the first step to be hacked by a patient scammer who is quietly gathering your personal data.
The majority of Advanced Persistent Threat malware attacks involve social engineering attacks and phishing scams. In social engineering, hackers use personal information gleaned from corporate websites, social media accounts, and hacked emails.
Credit Card Scams
If you are booking a hotel or vacation package in another currency, sometimes it may be easier to use a travel website and prepay everything while you are home. You have the befit of knowing the total cost and you know are on using secure WiFi for your credit cards. This was the case when I was traveling to London for a conference. The hotel’s booking website would only give me a price for the deposit and I had no guarantee on an exchange rate for the balance of the week. I would be paying whatever the US Dollar was worth against the British Pound each day. But this is a hotel, so they are never going to give me the fair exchange rate. In addition, my credit card was also not committed to a certain exchange rate. I have quality travel cards, but multiple calls to understand the exchange policy did not clear things up to my liking. So, I used a hotel booking website and prepaid the hotel room. Airfare was booked through the airline. This way I knew what the total charges would be in USD and did not have to use my credit card at the check-in desk.
The FTC advises using a credit card while traveling. That way you will be able to dispute erroneous charges and any identity theft. Many credit cards offer travel insurance and rental car insurance so you can save on those fees too.
If you are unfortunate and become the victim of identity theft, report it to the FTC at https://www.identitytheft.gov/ Note, At the time of this writing, the FTC’s own website contained the wrong link to report a vacation scam. We left them a note.
Avoid Airport Charging Kiosks
Airports present a big opportunity for hackers to steal your identity and any login credentials. Travelers want to notify their loved ones that they have arrived safely, arrange for transportation or reconnect with their workplace. Airports, restaurants, and retail vendors offer free public internet connections to supply customers with apps.
Hotel Room Scams
When in a hotel use an electrical outlet to charge devices, not a USB charging port. Hotel rooms present a way for skilled hackers to steal data from your device or laptop. This applies to any location. USB charging ports do indeed charge devices, albeit slower than an actual electrical outlet. However, they can be used to read your devices identity. Charging kiosks almost always record your device’s identity, known as a MAC address. USB charging ports can also be loaded with malware that is downloaded to a device while it is plugged it into the port. They can also be used to read data from your device while it is attached.
Credit Card Scams
Once when I was walking with a friend on the Las Vegas strip, her credit card numbers were skimmed obviously by someone who had passed within a meter of us. A hacker used a cheap device that can be purchased online and skimmed her numbers from a credit card she was carrying. While we were still out walking, two charges were made to a card she always had in her possession.
Later that year my credit card numbers were skimmed from a card I used to buy NYC transit tickets. It hard to say if the numbers were read while the card was in my bag or if I swiped the card through a skimmer attached to the ticket dispensing kiosk. Nonetheless, skimmers can read steal your numbers without contact. They are also used on unattended gas pumps and cash machines.
For these reasons, I keep all my credit cards in an RFID blocking wallet all the times. I also download and use all the travel apps I can to avoid having to present or use my card at payment kiosks. Hackers use credit card skimmers easily read the numbers from your cards. Hackers either sell the credentials on the deep web or make another physical card with your numbers on them to rack up charges on your account.
Michelle writes about cyber security, data privacy focusing on social media privacy as well as how to protect your IoT devices. She has worked in internet technology for over 20 years and owns METRONY, LLC. Michelle earned a B.S. in Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Michelle published a guide to Cyber Security for Business Travelers