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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some of the best tricks don't require deep pockets. Here are a few clever suggestions to try out on the road:
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.
Tape your shiny new camera or laptop with scungy old electrical tape and stickers to make it look old and ratty.
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!
Regularly back up your memory cards to USB drives or DVDs, and mail a copy home.
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.
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.
Buy a cheap watch, rather than pulling your smartphone out to check the time.
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.
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.
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.