Holiday Cybersecurity

It’s been said more than enough – 2020 is not like any other year.

Nothing has felt normal since February.

In December it will have been a year since my wife and I last visited family out of state. Some of it has been a concern with travel, but mostly we haven’t wanted to bring an unknown quality of danger to at-risk family members. Hopeful that things may calm down enough to safely visit for the holidays, my wife and I have started looking at travel arrangements.

Wow, are there a lot of travel scams out there right now.

Booking Scams

Since we’ll be staying in a hotel, I started there. A ton of ads turned up in the search results, and I found one for a chain I like. Except that when I arrived at the site, the security expert in me glanced at the domain name and something didn’t look quite right. The webpage looked like it belonged to that chain, the colors and logo looked good, but the domain name didn’t match.

Is this paranoia caused by spending so much time talking about phishing emails?

Nope. It took a little digging, but I discovered that the site belonged to a third-party reseller. I bet you’re wondering how much that matters. Well…

One of the top things the website focused on was room cleanliness. It claimed that for guest safety all surfaces in the room were wiped down daily, towels and sheets were completely changed out daily, and the staff is required to wear masks and gloves at all times – at no additional charge. Checking prices in the area, room fees were close enough to what I am used to paying, that it seemed pretty legitimate. But before booking anything, I opened a new browser and went to the company website.

To my surprise, the hotel I was trying to book on the other site had closed. Going back to that website, I decided to see how far it would let me go. Knowing that you can reserve a hotel room with a prepaid card, I went for it and received a room confirmation to stay one night at a hotel…that’s been closed for four months.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received nearly 35,000 reports of travel-related scams in 2019, with almost 60% of them related to reseller websites not honoring what they offer. Just because a website has a familiar logo or comes up on the top of your search results, doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. Scam sites are known to steal branding. Do some research before booking, look for reviews, and never book with a debit card.

Strengthen Your Cybersecurity Before You Go

After some trials and tribulations, we’re legitimately booked for a nice hotel nearby, but security-wise, I’m still on edge from the experience.

Following this rabbit down the hole, I started looking for potential problems.

Financial Accounts. We have specific credit cards for travel, but how long has it been since we updated the passwords. For this one, I have to give a BIG shoutout to my wife on this one. After every trip, she goes through and changes the account passwords for those cards and updates them in our password manager. Ensuring that your financial accounts are secure whether your at home or traveling should be a top priority for everyone. Strong Passwords are essential.

Backups. We both have laptops, tablets, and mobile devices that travel with us. Me because I’m also a writer; my wife because she has a reading obsession (just surpassed 7,500 ebooks) and suffers from a compulsive need to monitor her work email. I’ve decided to find it cute. Since we both use cloud services, having a backup of everything is vital. If you thought using the cloud was backup enough, we should discuss Ransomware. As we’ve discussed before, the cloud is just another term for a computer that belongs to someone else. So if you accidentally upload malware to your cloud drive, you could lose everything. A Backup solution is vital, everyone should always have one, whether you’re planning to travel or not.

Antivirus. When was the last time you updated the antivirus on your travel laptop, tablet, or mobile phone? Wait, do you have antivirus on your tablet or mobile phone? If you don’t, you should. Hackers are smart – they’re creating malware for every type of device out there. Sure a Windows-based virus can’t hurt an iPhone, but that doesn’t mean that your iPhone won’t carry it, waiting for you to plug it in to charge. And just like Typhoid Mary, your iPhone will transmit that virus to every Windows computer it touches. That same is true regardless of the type of device or OS, that is the way the malware is designed. Most antivirus programs now offer mobile versions, and it is certainly something you should use and keep updated, again, whether or not you’re planning to travel.

VPN. Free WiFi is awesome when we travel. Or is it? The problem with free WiFi is that anyone else on it can monitor you. They can see what apps you’re using, watch you access bank information, and steal your passwords. A VPN will protect your online activity and keep prying eyes out of your transactions. And (you know what I’m going to say next) it doesn’t matter if your traveling or not, if you connect to public WiFi, you should absolutely be using a VPN!

Stay Cyber-Secure After You Arrive

One of the best things about traveling is just getting away. That means something different for everyone, but we all just want to enjoy the moment. Taking a break from that daily grind is awesome; taking a break from cybersecurity is not.

Unwind but stay aware.

  • Don’t use free WiFi without a VPN this is true for hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, stores, etc.
  • Disable the auto-connect to wireless networks or BlueTooth devices – always choose whether or not to connect
  • Think twice about social media posts – do you really want people to know you’re not home
  • Avoid entering password information into shared computers – anyone could have installed a keylogger or other malware to steal credentials
  • Always delete mobile connections to rental cars before you turn it back in – rental car companies will not delete it for you

No one wants to have their holidays ruined by hackers. Stay safe, stay secure, and stay aware.

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