After Marriott’s massive data breach, here’s how to protect your personal data when traveling

You don’t have to travel somewhere dangerous to put yourself at risk.

Marriott International

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the world’s largest hotel company, revealed Friday that a data breach in its Starwood reservation system may have given hackers access to 500 million guests’ personal information. The information hackers may have accessed includes names, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and passport numbers.

But it doesn’t take a major data breach for travelers to compromise their identity and data. A whole slew of standard activities while traveling — from accessing the internet to handing over devices for border control examination — can prove extremely risky.

Cybersecurity and travel experts suggest consumers take these proactive measures to protect themselves on their voyages:

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Travel with as little as possible

The surest way to prevent hackers and other nefarious individuals from gaining access to one’s electronic devices is not to travel with them in the first place. In an ideal world, consumers should consider leaving their laptops, tablets and smartphones at home. One alternative, for those who can afford it, is to purchase low-cost devices like burner phones to use while traveling.

Another option is to dig that old computer or smartphone out of storage, said Dave Dean, founder of travel website Too Many Adapters. “There is a middle ground — taking an older phone or laptop with you that you perform a factory reset on before and after your trip, and only store the bare minimum of files and other personal information on when you’re on the road,” he said.

The same thinking goes for credit cards: Those who have multiple cards should only take the most essential ones, said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CompareCards. Another option is to travel with a prepaid debit card that can be refilled online, to prevent pickpockets from stealing and racking up charges on other payment cards.

Delete sensitive information from devices and rely on cloud storage

Traveling light doesn’t just extend to the physical items you carry for the trip. While it’s a good idea to have access to important personal records — i.e. a photocopy of your passport, health insurance cards, etc. — leaving those on a device makes them susceptible to getting stolen by a hacker. Instead, stash them in cloud storage service like Dropbox or Google Drive

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preferably one that is encrypted.

Doing this can be especially important before crossing borders. “As a general rule, I’d advise removing all personal documents from your devices before crossing any border you’re concerned about,” Dean said. “Move them to a cloud storage service instead if you need to access them while you’re away, then remove the cloud storage client app from your device before crossing the border.”

It is not unheard of for border crossing officials to examine electronic devices and install software on them to monitor a tourist’s activity without their knowledge. Therefore, consumers are better off protecting their personal information by not having it available for others to peruse.

Encrypt and password protect all devices

You don’t want to make it easy for a criminal to sift through your personal information if they get their hands on your electronic device. Consumers should set up different passwords for all of their devices and accounts to make matters more difficult for hackers. Password manager services can help to this end.

After that, encryption is key. Encryption software is built into most common desktop and mobile operating systems, Dean said, but it’s not always enabled by default. To activate, consumers can go into their computer’s settings.

Whenever possible, consumers should also set up location tracking services such as Find My iPhone on their devices. That way they can be found or remotely locked if lost or stolen.

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Don’t connect to public Wi-Fi networks or computers

Nearly one-third of consumers admitted to using public Wi-Fi to access the internet, according to a 2017 study from cybersecurity company McAfee. But doing so can have devastating consequences.

It’s extremely simple for hackers and other criminals to set up free Wi-Fi networks and give them similar names to official ones at airports or hotels. If a traveler were to connect to such a network, hackers could easily use the connection to place malware on the person’s device to steal their personal information and track their activity.

Similarly, public computers like the ones found in libraries, internet cafes or hotel business centers may be riddled with viruses and other dangerous software that could compromise a person’s private accounts accessed through that device.

Instead, travelers should rely as much as possible on cellular data when traveling, as it’s pretty much impossible to hack a device through a 4G or LTE connection. To connect to the internet with devices that don’t have cellular data access, consumers can use their smartphones as a mobile hotspot or invest in a mobile hotspot device.

And when surfing the web, vacationers should use virtual private networks, or VPNs. These services encrypt all web traffic and can bypass the firewalls set up by other countries to evade censorship. While free VPNs are available, Dean suggested consumers find a reputable paid provider because they are more secure.

Jacob Passy is a personal-finance reporter for MarketWatch and is based in New York.

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