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Ask the Traveler: How can I protect my data while traveling?

You’re smart to be concerned. When I came across the recent FBI warning that ne’er-do-wells could potentially steal personal data from travelers using USB charging stations in airports and other public locales, it was a bit of a wake-up call.

I’m used to safeguarding my IRL possessions while on vacation: No camera of mine is going to sit unattended in a café. But protecting passwords and emails from invisible thieves? That easily falls into “out of sight, out of mind” territory.

While worries about data bandits at USB charging stations have so far proved hypothetical—at press time, no actual data thefts had been reported—travelers are frequent targets for hackers. And in the wrong hands, personal data is more valuable than a camera.

The good news, according to Randy Rose, senior director of operations at the Center for Internet Security, is that there’s no reason to panic. “A few simple steps make it much easier to travel with peace of mind,” he says.

Before you leave, Rose says, update your devices’ operating systems and anti-virus software to ensure you have the latest security patches. Disable any settings that auto-connect to open Wi-Fi networks. And be sure to back up and/or transfer important files and photos to a storage device that is not going to be traveling with you.

When we’re on vacation, our data is most vulnerable when we connect gadgets to the outside world. That’s particularly true, Rose says, when it comes to phones and laptops on open Wi-Fi networks like those found in hotel lobbies and airport terminals, and at major tourist destinations. 

In those scenarios, avoid sensitive transactions like making online purchases or checking bank balances. Or use a virtual private network (VPN) for such transactions. 

Personally, I avoid Wi-Fi altogether when traveling and instead choose a cell plan that gives me generous data coverage in international destinations.  

Other threats to data include phishing attempts sent via text messages, known as “smishing.” Sidestepping that one is easy: Don’t click on links in texts from strangers, Rose advises.

And just to be safe, you might as well use your own cords and charging blocks to juice up your phone on your next layover. Nobody wants to be the first victim at the airport charging station.

Writer Jessica Fender is based in New Orleans. She’s a frequent contributor to AAA publications.

What’s a VPN?

Opt for a virtual private network (VPN) if you travel frequently. VPNs protect your internet traffic and identity by routing online activity through an encrypted server. Just be aware that the network might slow your browsing experience. Popular services like NordVPN and ExpressVPN start at less than $10 per month.

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