Protect Online Data When Traveling Abroad: Lesson Learned!

Last summer, my mom’s high school (for their reunion) sponsored a trip to China. It was an amazing experience for her – she got to see the Great Wall and some of the sites of the 2008 Olympics , she got to learn about other cultures and even picked up a few words in Mandarin, and she also got to find out first-hand about some of the hassles of traveling to a high-risk location!

A lot of people don’t know this but, when you travel to China, it's almost always that the web-enabled device you use will get hacked! Not only that, but any credit cards you use might also be compromised. We discovered it the hard way when we started getting fraud alerts within hours of our mom landing in Beijing - her bank called us five times in a day! Apparently, she had purchased something in the airport gift shop, and that had set the whole thing off.

Once we got in touch with Mom, we told her to cut up the card. We also told her to wipe any data from her smartphone, and made plans to replace it the minute she returned. Then we set about getting some more money to her.

Since time was of the essence, we decided to send her money and use Ria Money Transfer, which a friend of mine recommended after my rather desperate Facebook gripe. I was told she would get the money quickly, and she could even convert it to Yuan, if she needed to. There was a location near her hotel, so she had no trouble picking it up before they set out to go sight-seeing.

After everything was over, I talked to a close friend from Malaysia (he's Chinese), who goes to and from China several times each year, and he told us that data breaches were a common problem there. In fact, there is a whole set of guidelines for people traveling to these high-risk locations!

One day, I hope that all of us (me, my brother, Mom, and Dad) can make the trip to China together. If that ever happens, I'll be sure to follow our friends advice for protecting our data. (I'm posting it here not only for others, but for me when the time comes that I need this list, too!)

  • Leave web-enabled devices at home. There was a time when we didn’t have smartphones and travel meant you were out of communication range until you found a public phone or a hotel. If you can afford to disconnect for long periods, consider leaving any vulnerable devices at home.
  • Take a disposable device. If you can’t disconnect, then this option may work for you. Essentially you would take devices that have no confidential data, and only the barest essential apps that you need for your trip. At the end of the trip you would wipe the devices clean or dispose of them.
  • Use cash or a prepaid credit/ debit card. Not everyone feels comfortable carrying around a wad of cash, and that’s where the prepaid card comes in handy. The prepaid card won’t prevent you from getting hacked, it will just prevent someone from making large charges because they can only charge the amount that’s on the card. Do not use a debit card that is attached your bank. Instead, use the cards you can buy in the gift card aisle, and get more than one so all of your money isn’t on one card.
  • Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks. Public Wi-Fis are known to be risky no matter where you go. The bottom line is that you have the potential to see anything on the network, and anyone else can see you. Even if you think the data on your device is unimportant, someone else may have different ideas.
  • Disable Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and any other connectivity when not in use. Even if you don’t consciously log into a public Wi-Fi, if you have it enabled, then your device might connect automatically. The same goes for Bluetooth. If it’s on and you don’t have a device paired, something else can easily pair with it. Your best bet is to disable everything but voice and text until needed and turn your device off when you aren’t using it.

Although my mom had a bad experience with China, I mean to send no ill-will towards the country! My mom told us it's a beautiful country with amazing people and she enjoyed her short stay there (hacking aside, of course).

The truth is, you could end up a victim of data theft no matter where you go, even in Sacramento or Stockholm. When thinking about planning a trip, having one (or more) plan B is key. There are so many things that can derail an entire trip so we can't afford to be unprepared! 


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