Travel tech security tips

Whether you like holidaying with your gadgets or you're required to travel for work, there's going to come a time when you have to consider the safety of your gear, or the data it holds.

Prevention, a dose of common sense and a good response plan are your first lines of defence against device or data loss, but a few good tools and some safety gear won't go astray.

Read on to hear about some of the dangers you may come across when you travel, and for tips on how to protect yourself and your gear from loss, theft, and damage.

Dangers to be aware of

Losing or breaking something, or worse, having it stolen while on your trip is easier than you think. It can happen faster than you can say "airport."

In the past few years, travellers have seen luggage theft rise by as much as 50 percent — and that's if your cargo even makes it to the carousel. According to a recent report, up to 200 bags are being rifled through each day in the belly of the plane by staff at JFK airport!

Phones, tablets, laptops, cameras, and other portable devices are at the most risk. They're small and easily lifted from a bag or person, they usually return quick cash for an enterprising thief, and, of most concern, they carry information that's private or sensitive.

For instance, smartphones are likely to have apps, such as your email or notes apps, that contain details of other services, passwords, or even blatant log-in information — depending on how cautious you are. If someone were to gain access to this information and your credit card simultaneously, there could be trouble. Or the thieves could be after enough information to be able to steal your identity.

aeroplane sign
(Beware sign 2 image by Kriss Szkurlatowski, royalty free)

Imagine turning up to a country for a holiday, only to be barred from entering, or worse, getting arrested because of a crime committed using your identity.

The ease with which your identity can be stolen and used to incur outrageous debts is disturbing. It might not be information stolen from a device; it could be a keystroke reader on a public computer, insecure Wi-Fi in a cafe, or a fake booking site. There are a number of ways that thieves can whisk away your details.

Unfortunately, it's not only hardened criminals that you need to protect your data from. Many governments use the limbo status of international airports to stretch the limits of their stop-and-search powers to breaking point. You may be politically outspoken, or work for an organisation that has entrusted you to carry some very sensitive information. Whichever scenario fits your situation, it's fair to say that you want to keep your private data just that: private.

Of course, device loss doesn't have to be malicious. Globally, 25.8 million bags were "mishandled" (lost or misdirected) in 2011 — that's nearly one in every 100 travellers.

Before you go

Booking

Booking accommodation online has always been a risky business. The advent of review sites like TripAdvisor make it easier to determine if accommodation is real, and if it's up to scratch, but it's still difficult to know whether the site you're using is a legitimate booking service.

In recent years, Australians have also fallen victim to fake flight-booking websites that expertly imitate the real deal. This scam has been known to go so far as to issue a fake e-ticket without ever booking a seat.

Minimise your exposure to fake websites by sticking to the official websites of known hotels or booking services, or those that you, your friends, and family have used before.

However, never simply assume that you're using the official website. It's worth checking the "Contact Us" or "About Us" pages to find a direct contact number to call; you'll soon realise whether you're dealing with a booking agent.

A lack of any contact details should trigger alarm bells. Take a look over their terms of service to glean some details about who truly owns the site. Even if a site is a legitimate booking service, it may charge fees that would be absent from a direct booking, so you may be paying more.

credit card and laptop
(No copyright issues! image by Miguel Ugalde, royalty free)

If you don't have the luxury of using a known, trustworthy site, then stay savvy. Search for reviews on the website you're visiting to see if you can dig up any dirt, and compare deals with sites that you know are legitimate to see whether the deal is outrageously cheap. Always consider that age-old adage: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Where possible, use pay-protected payments instead of cash, and avoid handing over credit card information if feasible; instead, use a service such as PayPal, which hides your information.

Check SCAMwatch for updated information on known or current scams, especially around popular holiday times.

Warranties and insurance

The good news is that the majority of claims over damage, loss, and theft are regularly paid by Australian insurers, but make sure you get a policy that fits your needs.

It goes without saying that you should always read the fine details of your insurance policy, no matter how painful that sounds. Take particular note of the amounts covered for each scenario.

One thing you'll find in almost every policy is a differentiation between the total cover of lost or stolen items and the per-item cover. For instance, you may be covered for AU$15,000 worth of lost or stolen items, but only up to AU$800 per item. That doesn't bode well for your AU$2,000 camera, does it? In this situation, you should consider a more expensive policy, or pay a little extra to insure individual items for greater amounts.

It's also important to consider the conditions under which your claim will be valid. The most common example of this is the requirement that you make a police report within 24 hours of the crime. No insurer will validate a claim for a stolen camera, for example, without an accompanying police report from a local police station. You should also take the details of any other organisations, like tour operators, hotel, or bus companies associated with the theft or loss. Your insurer may expect you to seek damages from them before they're willing to cough up any cash.

If your device is under warranty, check to see whether it's an international warranty. If not, your device's manufacturer probably offers one for an additional fee. An international warranty will most often allow you to walk into a store and have the product fixed almost anywhere in the world. Without it, you may be on your own.

Prevention, however, is the best defence, so be prepared before you set off.

Packing

Consider your electronics as you would your other belongings: if you don't need it, don't take it. Aside from the weight issue, you're just inviting unnecessary damage.

  • Backups

    data storage
    (Data storage 1 image by Svilen Milev, royalty free)

    Back-up all of your data so there's at least a second copy, and try to leave one copy at home. If you're taking files with you that are imperative for your trip, consider keeping a backup on a second, portable hard drive, and store that separately to your laptop. If one gets lost or stolen, the other may yet survive.

    Additionally, or alternatively, consider using a cloud data service. There's a range of free services now available, including offerings from names you'll already know and trust, such as Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and Dropbox. Cloud services may not be ideal for your company's highly sensitive data, but they are great for storing everyday documents, presentations, and images that can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection.

  • Damage prevention

    Most electronic devices are averse to sharp knocks, moisture, and extreme temperatures.

    If you're a business traveller, then it's worthwhile ensuring that you are provided with, or purchase, equipment specifically designed for business users. Business laptops, for example, offer better in-built safety measures, such as hard-drive "roll cages", spill trays, motion sensors, and tough screen housing.

    If you're carrying your personal gear, it's even more important to buy protective casing; consumer technology is often built for style and not endurance.

    Although it's generally safe to subject your gadgets to the cold, unpressurised air of the plane's cargo hold, some consideration should be taken for any specialised or sensitive equipment. Be sure you know the limitations of your own equipment, because transport luggage handlers won't.

    That goes for any extreme conditions that you may encounter at your destination, too. Although most consumer electronics will function in conditions that are more demanding than you can handle, they may not function quite as well. Battery life, for example, is greatly impacted by cooler temperatures.

    It may be necessary to keep your spare camera battery tucked somewhere warm (even up against your body will do) in order to keep on taking snaps in extreme wintry cold.

    Most electronic devices suffer in excessive heat, including camera CCDs, laptop CPUs, and more. Avoiding heat damage can be as simple as turning your device off for a while or getting it into the shade, away from direct sunlight.

  • Theft

    If you're worried about damages, you can invest in the usual collection of tablet screen guards, phone cases, camera UV filters, and cushy laptop bags, but if you're worried about theft, or you're travelling through regions that are known for their crime, then you may want to get a little bit more James Bond-like.

    There are a number of manufacturers that sell smartphone and tablet cases with slash-proof material and wire straps — which is great for tethering your camera. Thieves have been known to simply disembowel a backpack while it's still on your back, but some basic wire netting from an airport gift shop could save you the concern. It's certainly better to be prepared than to realise too late that you should have invested in one, so add these to your shopping list before you set off.

    And remember, one of the best things you can do is be discreet. Advertising your wealth in a poor country is asking for your goods to be stolen, and you may find yourself in more trouble than your insurance can protect you from.

At the airport

airport
(Airport image by Ryan Smart, royalty free)

Airports aren't as sterile and safe as you may think. While gun-toting security guards wander the halls in search of Al-Qaeda types, there are conniving thieves operating in relative anonymity. The most unfortunate news is that plenty of theft goes on behind the scenes, where you have no control. The best you can do is try to keep irreplaceable items with you and always travel with insurance.

Ironically, it's at the security gates that your expensive gadgets might go missing. Be sure not to place your laptop, phone, and other expensive items on the X-ray machine until you're almost about to pass through the metal detectors. If possible, also keep an eye on your belongings as they go through, and make sure that the person ahead of you doesn't take off with them.

When waiting for your flight to be called, make sure your laptop bag and other belongings are with you at all times. It only takes the briefest of moments for someone to snatch them. Thieves also employ tactics to distract you, while another person takes your bag when you're looking the other way. Loop the bag strap around your leg or arm while you're seated, so you'll feel a tug if someone does attempt to steal it.

Another aspect to be wary of, even if it seems highly unlikely to the average person, is that your laptop may be subjected to an airport security search. Countries like the US allow searches of internationals without warrant. If your data is precious, then it's worth the effort to encrypt and protect it.

On the ground

Laptop security

Your most secret of electronic secrets will likely be kept on your laptop. The bad news is that most off-the-shelf encryption tools can be hacked, given enough time. The good news is that only the most sought-after data will attract that kind of attention.

In reality, inserting a few basic passwords will add enough effort to deter most thieves from investigating too deeply, and hopefully encourage them to simply wipe your hard drive clean before heading down to the local pawn shop. Let's look at some of the passwords you can use.

  1. Windows log-in — the Windows log-in password can be easily circumvented, and should not be your only line of defence. However, having this in place is the first step you should take.

  2. Set a BIOS password — you can make the process of circumventing a Windows password more difficult by adding a BIOS password to your computer as well. A BIOS password will prompt a user before Windows can even start to load. Accessing the BIOS is usually done by pressing the F2 or Delete key when your computer starts to boot up.

    Warning: make sure you consult your motherboard manual before poking around in the BIOS. Incorrect changes to the BIOS can cause irreparable damage to your computer.

  3. secure laptop
    (Tablet PC 2 image by Manu Mohan and Padlock image by Afonso Lima, royalty free)
  4. Use Bitlocker — if you're using one of the high-end versions of Windows (Windows Vista Ultimate or Windows 7 Ultimate), you'll get Bitlocker for free. Bitlocker will encrypt your entire drive, making it very difficult for anyone but the extremely clever or persistent to access your files.

  5. Use the cloud — one way to stop your data from being accessed when a laptop is stolen is to remove it completely from the equation by not storing the data on your device. Secure cloud storage could be a viable option if you're particularly concerned about losing your hardware.

  6. Use hardware encryption — get yourself a hard drive with hardware encryption. These come in both external and internal varieties, and will add an extra layer of protection. However, unless you're carrying around corporate secrets, it's probably not necessary to take things this far.

Phone and tablet security

Mobile operating systems like Google's Android and Apple's iOS offer considerably fewer protective options. However, if you do plan to keep private files on a tablet or phone, you may want to consider some of the following steps.

  1. Set your lock time to immediately lock your device — most tablets and phones have a timer to lock themselves once the screen has been turned off. This allows you to gain quick access without having to constantly enter the PIN. However, if your phone or tablet is snatched, that time could be all that's needed to access your information unhindered. Set your phone or tablet to lock immediately. It's less convenient, but safer.

  2. Lock your SIM card — while you can lock your phone, an additional security measure is to set up a PIN for your SIM card. That way, if thieves can't gain access to your phone, they will also be unable to use your SIM on another device and rack up an expensive phone bill.

  3. Use an alpha-numeric password where possible — alpha-numeric passwords are the hardest to crack; they're harder to read over someone's shoulder than a four-digit PIN, and they don't leave greasy finger marks behind like pattern locks do.

  4. Use a secret folder app — both the Google Play store and Apple's App Store have a variety of apps such as Folder Lock, My Secret Folder, and Vaulty that hide private files.

  5. Subscribe to "Find My iPhone" or an alternative remote service — Find My iPhone is a service that allows you to track and wipe your iPhone remotely. Alternatives are available for other mobile operating systems, such as Where's My Droid for Android.

Public Wi-Fi

https
(Computer therms 2 image by Svilen Milev, royalty free)

Public Wi-Fi is a minefield of dangers, but a few simple steps can minimise your risk.

  1. Assume the worst — that no public Wi-Fi is safe. Never do any online banking or shopping unless you're at home, so that you minimise the chance that anyone will get your credit card or bank details.

  2. Stay secure — if you must access accounts that contain important information, ensure that you're on a secured network. Avoid using free Wi-Fi, and confirm the official Wi-Fi network ID with the cafe or Wi-Fi vendor. Thieves will broadcast false networks with names you trust to snag unsuspecting internet goers. Also, if possible, choose networks that have WPA2 and WPA encryption.

  3. Set up a firewall — most modern operating systems ship with an included firewall. Ensure that your firewall is turned on and set to ignore any incoming requests.

  4. Stick to HTTPS — only trust websites using a secure HTTPS connection. You can check whether a website is using HTTPS in the browser's address bar, or by checking that the padlock symbol is showing.

  5. Use a virtual private network (VPN) — if you're particularly paranoid, you can use a VPN. A VPN such as Hotspot Shield will make you invisible while you surf on public Wi-Fi.

Public computers

Public computers are hotbeds of potential fraud. Of most concern is the fact that you can't know what's installed on a public computer, or who has used it before you. Avoid using public computers when sending important information, and follow these steps to help protect you when a public computer is all you've got.

  1. Leave nothing behind — clear the cache and cookies, the browsing history, and, where possible, use private browsing to help erase your tracks. Never save your passwords. Also, when you're done, reboot the PC, as it will clear out the RAM.

  2. Don't type passwords — keyloggers track your keystrokes, and any public computer could easily have a keylogger installed. If you must enter passwords, try using an onscreen keyboard, or register with an online password manager to avoid sending keyboard strokes with log-in information directly to digital aggressors.

  3. Use a portable browser — portable versions of popular browsers like Firefox and Chrome are available and can be installed on a secure USB key that you can take with you. As well as being a more secure way to browse on a public computer, they have the advantage of bringing your shortcuts and favourites along for the ride, too.

  4. Don't forget to log out — it's a very simple thing to forget, so always make a mental note to ensure that you've logged out of everything you signed in to while on the PC.

  5. Avoid online banking or entering your credit card details — there is never a good time to do online banking or use your credit card on a public PC. If you need to transfer money, find out your account balance, or make any other kind of transaction, visit an ATM or bank branch and save yourself any possible heartache from using an unsecure PC. The same applies for entering your credit card details; just leave that online shopping for when you are in a more secure environment.

Oh no! It happened!

If, after all of your preparation, something is stolen, damaged, or lost, stay calm. Take an inventory of all the data you have potentially exposed. If credit card or bank details have been compromised, you should contact your bank immediately. If you can remotely wipe any of your missing devices, then hop online and press the red button — so to speak.

Once you've ensured that no financial or personal information can be accessed, contact the police immediately. You may assume that there's no chance of retrieving your belongings, but that's not always the case. Be sure to note exactly where you were, what was taken, and a description of anyone who you suspect was involved.

Even if you're unlikely to get anything back, making a police report is almost certainly going to be a requirement for insurance claims.

Last but not least, so long as you're sure that no one can access your data, steal your bank details, or cause you any further harm, it's better to accept your loss and move on. We get far too few holidays to ruin them over an iPod.

Top travel scams

Fake police

Con artists operate in every country, and one of the best tricks is a thief who is dressed as a police officer. Since you're a tourist, you may not know what the official uniform and badge look like. They may request to check your passport and search your belongings, and, once they're long gone, you'll realise that your smartphone is missing.

How to avoid: never hand anything over. If you must, then request that it be done at a police station.

Decoys and distractions

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Some examples of distraction techniques are: someone walking past and dropping their wallet, so that you chase after them to hand it back while their accomplice steals the bags you've left behind; and someone grabbing your attention with a shiny trinket while another person bumps into you from behind, lifting your phone out of your pocket or bag.

How to avoid: don't let yourself be distracted. Try to keep your belongings with you at all times, and don't keep valuables in your pockets or leave your bag open so that things can easily be lifted out.

Currency con

Most people would be unfamiliar with foreign currency, so some shop owners, taxi drivers, and so on will short change you.

How to avoid: try to make yourself familiar with the currency, and be aware of how much money you've handed over. If necessary, even say out loud "Here's 50 pounds", so you and the shopkeeper know exactly how much was handed over. You can also make yourself more aware of currency rates or the prices you're paying for goods by using a currency-conversion app like XE Currency.

visa-pocket
(CC in jeans pocket image by Jenny W, royalty free)

Going for a ride

Naturally, you've not visited the country before, and are unfamiliar with the lay of the land, which taxi drivers do take advantage of by taking you on a "scenic tour." Once you get to your destination, you come to realise that a trip that should've only cost AU$20 came to a total of AU$50.

How to avoid: before you get in to the taxi, ask how much it costs to get to your destination, or even pretend that you're not a tourist or have been to that city before. Another way to avoid this is by using the GPS on your phone, and telling the driver which direction he should take.

Good Samaritans

You'll be taking a photo of your friend or partner when someone offers to take a photo of both of you. As you pose for the photo, that person runs off with your camera.

How to avoid: don't give strangers your camera.

Costly car rentals

When returning the car you've hired, some rental places will accept the keys and send you on your way, and it's not until you get home that you realise your credit card has been charged for damages to the vehicle.

How to avoid: check the car over, take photos when you pick it up, and make note of any damages that already exist on the vehicle. When you return the vehicle, take photos of the car again at all angles, showing that there is no damage, and point this out to the dealer so they can write it down. Make sure you request a copy.

Reception desk calls

You've called it a day and have settled into your hotel room when you receive a call from reception asking to verify your credit card details. You read out the details and then go to bed. Unfortunately, that was not the hotel's reception desk, and you'll find out that you've just racked up charges on your credit card for things you haven't purchased.

How to avoid: don't give out your credit card or passport details over the phone; do it in person.

Public Wi-Fi hack

Some thieves offer free Wi-Fi or even set up a network with a similar network ID to a cafe's service, so while you log in to the network, they're watching your every move and stealing any passwords you enter.

How to avoid: check with the cafe owner what the exact network ID is — or, even better, don't use public Wi-Fi.

Top 10 crazy, but useful, tips

wristwatch
(Worker adjusts watch image by 2020VG, royalty free)

Some of the best tricks don't require deep pockets. Here are a few clever suggestions to try out on the road:

  1. If you've got a long camera strap, then hook the camera to your belt. This may protect it from hitting the ground when dropped, and may even stop a snatch attempt.

  2. Tape your shiny new camera or laptop with scungy old electrical tape and stickers to make it look old and ratty.

  3. Plaster your bags with locks. They may be cheap, easily cracked or broken locks, but they'll make the bag next to yours look like a much more attractive target. Sorry, bag next door!

  4. Regularly back up your memory cards to USB drives or DVDs, and mail a copy home.

  5. Remove or cover any brand labels on your carry bags, and rub it with sandpaper and some dirt to make it look old. The less you advertise, the better.

  6. Use a security cable or bicycle lock to tie your locked suitcase or laptop bag down to an immovable piece of furniture in your hotel room for things that won't fit in a hotel safe. Also, if you have to put your laptop bag on the floor when out and about, try to put the strap around your chair or table leg, or even your own leg, to prevent bag snatchers.

  7. Buy a cheap watch, rather than pulling your smartphone out to check the time.

  8. Get a waterproof bag from a dive shop. If your bag takes a dip when moving from jetty to boat or back, at least your essential electronics will survive. Zip-lock bags for your electronic gear are equally helpful, and they come in a range of sizes.

  9. If you're catching a sleeper, dim the lights on your phone, camera, or MP3 player to avoid drawing attention in the dark. Also consider sleeping with your most valuable items in one bag, which you can hug like a childhood teddy bear or even use as a pillow, also placing the strap around your arm.

  10. Scan or take a photo of your passport, travel documents, credit card, insurance policy, and visas, then save it to an encrypted USB drive or other storage device — and even email it to yourself. That way, should you lose any of your documents, you'll have an electronic version as a backup. Just be sure not to keep it in the same place as your passport.

Be safe and vigilant at all times, and remember that you're not on your home turf, and thieves know the lay of the land better than you do. Never leave your belongings lying around, and, to put it simply, don't trust anyone.

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