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Travelers Beware: This Network is Unsecured

By Dave Colby

I was 20 at the time, and mostly fearless. But at that particular moment, I was sick with apprehension.

We were traveling in Chile. A military coup had erupted outside in the night streets of Santiago, and foreigners without credentials were being arrested.

Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Carrera, I couldn't find my passport. Panic slid a chair next to me and stared...

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Losing a passport while outside the United States can be a real hassle. Precious vacation time is lost while securing new identity papers, and for the rest of your life, you're sent to the front of your firewall to stand guard over all your highly personal data.

But these days, a stolen or lost passport is almost low-tech stuff.

Times have changed.

Increasingly, threats targeting international travelers' identities come from the high-tech devices we've come to love, can't do without, and carry with us everywhere we go.

There are ways to ensure that our Smartphones, tablets and laptops connect and surf through cyberspace with relative security while visiting other countries. But a person has to be vigilant. Here are some tips for using our high-tech gear safely no matter where we go:

PUBLIC WI-FI

Chances are you'll look for a Wi-Fi hotspot not long after you arrive at your destination. They're everywhere these days - in hotels, airports, and cafés - and a great place to connect. But beware. That Wi-Fi café in Paris may be free, but logging in may be costly. Any information you send while on their network might be seen by thieves. What can you do?

*Ask an employee within the hotspot-offering business for the actual name of its network before you log in. Scammers will create false networks, and if you choose the wrong one, you could find yourself in a bad place very quickly. Marriott 1 and Marriott 2 may seem identical as network sources to your searching device, but one of them might be a scam, operated out of that lightless building you observed next to the hotel.

*Use the network login key/password given to you by the business.

*Never send personal or financial information on public Wi-Fi. If you must, however, be sure the site you connect with is an https:// site: the 's' - for secure - is essential for knowing whether a site is considered safe, as opposed to an http:// site.

*Specific to your tablet, use one of your browsers like Safari or Firefox when visiting a business site, rather than an app you might have for the same business. The use of a browser allows you to see what Internet locations you've actually landed on in your address bar.

*Consider purchasing and using a VPN, or virtual private network. VPNs claim to encrypt your sent information so criminals can't see it. You can search for VPNs online to find a product that meets your expectations and budget: one service for mobile devices costs about $3.00 per month.

SMARTPHONES

The device that has changed our lives so dramatically seems the perfect traveling companion. It takes great pictures, lets us make calls and check our email, and provides compelling local information, all in a 3-inch unit that fits in our pocket. But owner beware. Here's some advice from the Department of Homeland Security:

*Turn off the Bluetooth feature on your phone unless you're using it. Otherwise, thieves may be able to connect to the phone and gather your data.

*Don't show off the phone in public places; keep it close to your body. It may seem everyone has a Smartphone here in the United States, but it's not true in poorer areas of the world, where owning a device can be considered more valuable than having bars of gold under the mattress.

*Turn off the geo-tagging functions within the phone. Why give local, at-home thieves information on your out-of-town location every time you post a travel photo online?

*Make sure to use a password or PIN to access your phone, and enable your internal settings so you can remotely erase your personal data if the phone is stolen. Cell carriers and some apps provide this service.

LAPTOPS

Though less common these days with the proliferation of smaller devices, laptops still carry many of the same cautions for users as Smartphones and tablets. Be wary of unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots, turn off your Bluetooth, and use a strong password. The Federal Trade Commission also recommends:

*Keep a close eye on laptops, especially in the commotion that occurs while going through airport security during peak flying times.

*Store the laptop in your room's safe, if it has one.

*If that's not an option, attach your laptop to a security cable in your room, and consider hanging the "do not disturb" sign outside your door.

*Consider carrying the laptop in a non-computer case, like a backpack or padded briefcase.

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Ultimately, I found my passport while in Chile, and was allowed to leave the country. But these days, safeguarding against identity theft involves a lot more than protecting your passport in a belt purse hidden under your jacket.

Following a few of these steps should help.

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