Con Watch: Securing Your Phone and Laptop on Vacation

A few simple steps can give you peace of mind when travelling with your devices.

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

Many of us look forward to a break from work over the summer, but we rarely take a break from our cell phones and laptops. These devices are always a target of identity thieves and scammers, but you are particularly vulnerable on vacation unless you take the proper precautions. These tips will help keep your electronics safe.

Before You Leave on Vacation

  1. Before you even leave on your trip, make sure that all of the software on your laptop or cellphone is updated with the latest versions. This assures that any known security vulnerabilities are patched. It’s also a good time to consider whether you really need all of those apps on your phone. Get rid of the ones you don’t use. Many apps gather information about you that, in the wrong hands, can be used against you for purposes of identity theft.
  2. Surprisingly, about a third of all cellphone users don’t use a password to secure their phone. Make sure that you have a strong password and when available, enable biometric identification systems that use your fingerprint or an iris scanner in order to provide added security.
  3. Backup all of the data on your cellphone or laptop before you leave home. Stuff happens. Even if you are not a victim of a hacker electronically stealing your data, it is not uncommon for cellphones or laptops to be physically stolen, lost, or damaged. Unless you have backed up your data, it may be lost forever.
  4. While it is great to share photos of your vacation on social media while you are away, do you really want everyone including your friendly neighborhood burglar to know where you are, and where you aren’t? Turn off location sharing on your cell phone. Also, this is a good time to check the privacy settings on all of your social media accounts. And while many apps collect location information to improve the services of the app, you should turn off the location tracking on apps you don’t really need.
  5. Install the Find My iPhone app if you have an iPhone or the Find My Device app if you have an Android phone. These will enable you to locate your cellphone if it is lost or stolen and also allow you to send a command to erase everything in your cellphone even if the phone has been turned off. Of course, nothing is foolproof. Sophisticated cellphone thieves will turn on Airplane Mode on your phone, which will eliminate incoming signals and negate the phone location systems.
  6. Make sure that the data stored on your phone is encrypted. Devices that have been updated with the latest versions of Android are encrypted by default. Bitlocker can be used to provide encryption for Windows. If you are using a Mac, it can be protected through Apple’s FileVault with a password. If you have an iPhone, your data is encrypted automatically whenever the phone is locked with either a passcode or Touch ID.

While on Vacation

Your software is updated, your data is backed up, and you’ve managed your privacy and location settings. Now that you’re relaxing on that beach or checking out that museum, there are just a few other precautions you should take.

Beware Public Wifi

Using public Wi-Fi to avoid roaming charges may be tempting. However, public Wi-Fi in coffee shops, airports, hotels, restaurants, and other places poses two significant problems. First, you can’t be sure that you are actually using public Wi-Fi and not that of a hacker sitting near you who is stealing your information through a Wi-Fi system he or she has set up. Second, even if you are using a legitimate Wi-Fi system, that system may well have been hacked, enabling an identity thief to get access to your phone or laptop. The following tips can help protect you:

  • Make sure your device is equipped with the most up-to-date security software.
  • Turn off your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections when you are not using them. When turned on these services are always looking for nearby networks to connect to without your even being aware of it.  In addition, turning off your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections will prolong your battery life.
  • Use encryption software so that your communications are encoded.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which enables you to send communications through a separate and secure private network even when you are on a public network.

Keep Your Phone and Laptop Safe

Your back pocket is the worst place to carry your phone, although many people do so. Keep your phone in a zippered pocket in your purse or in your front pocket.  Don’t leave your phone or laptop in your hotel room unattended.  Lock it up.  Don’t leave your phone in plain view in your car even if your car is locked.  If you leave it in your car, lock it in your trunk.  Don’t leave your phone in front of you at a restaurant table.  It is both rude and an invitation to a thief with grabbing hands.

How to Deal with Stolen Cellphones and Laptops

If your cellphone or laptop is stolen, the data on your device may be accessed by the thief and used to make you a victim of identity theft. If you followed the steps from part 1 of this article, and your device is locked with a password and the storage unit is encrypted, the thief will have a harder time gaining access to your data.

If your phone is lost or stolen, you should immediately contact your wireless provider to have them disable the SIM card in your phone so that your phone cannot be used by someone else. As I wrote in last month’s column, you should have already set up a PIN with your cell phone service carrier to use when you change your SIM card  to protect yourself from SIM swapping. You can also try to remotely wipe your data using the Find My iPhone or Find My Device app mentioned above. File a report with the local police. This is particularly important if you have insurance coverage on your phone that will pay for a replacement phone.

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