(BPT) - Bags packed? Check! Tickets in hand? Check! Perfect! You're all set to embark on your dream vacation. Before you head out the door, you should know that scammers, identity thieves and fraudsters rarely take vacations. Instead, they wait for you to take yours.
'When people plan vacations, they let their guard down,' says David Barnhardt, payments product line leader at Early Warning, an Arizona-based fraud prevention company. 'Fraudsters know this, and they have a whole bag of tricks created specifically for people in a vacation frame of mind.'
Enjoy your vacation, he says, but exercise good judgment. That suggestion syncs perfectly with similar advice offered by both the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Their websites each devote pages of precautions about potential travel scams - some of which can happen long before you pack your suitcase.
Many pre-vacation scams, the FTC warns, can begin with unsolicited vacation e-mails announcing amazing travel deals. The agency says if an offer sounds too-good-to-be-true, be wary.
Barnhardt, who also worked in law enforcement for eight years, agrees. 'If you get an e-mail announcing you have won a 'free' vacation, be careful,' he says. 'Chances are before long you will be asked to provide someone with a credit card number to confirm your reservation. You would be surprised how many people fall for that scam.'
Credit card numbers are the gold-standard for many fraudsters, he says. And one way to protect your card, Barnhardt advises, is to place a travel flag on your credit and debit cards. Those flags can help card issuers quickly identify suspicious charges.
'If charges are swiped outside of your vacation dates, it can signal a compromised card,' he says.
Barnhardt also recommends travelers use credit cards instead of debit cards.
'Simply put, credit cards draw on credit lines, whereas a debit card hack means your money is actually withdrawn from your account,' he says. 'That can cause an overdraft, which means overdraft charges. You may get your money back, but it often means you may need to file a police report, which can be a huge headache, especially if you're overseas. Plus you may have to explain to your creditors why your payments were returned and work with your institution to get penalty fees reversed as well.'
Credit cards are also the safer method of payment when you're asked to put a deposit on a vacation rental.
'If a website advertises a gorgeous house or condo and the property owner asks that you wire a deposit, a red flag should immediately go up,' says Barnhardt. 'Don't do it. Money wired is money gone. Unlike a credit card deposit, once you wire money, you cannot get it back.'
And - after you have arrived at your destination - it pays to stay alert. 'Hotels and motels can be breeding grounds for fraud,' says Barnhardt.
One prevalent travel scam that the FTC warns about involves a late-night phone call to your room allegedly from the front desk at a hotel, motel or resort. The caller claims there is a problem with the credit card and asks the guest to read the number over the phone. The obvious solution: make a trip to the front desk to speak with someone in person.
Barnhardt also warns of another lodging-related credit card scam currently in vogue: fliers slid under hotel-room doors offering pizza delivered right to your room.
'This sounds great to a hungry traveler, but if you call and they ask for your credit card number, it's better to hang up the phone and ask the front desk to recommend local eateries,' he says.
Exercise caution when logging onto the hotel's free Wi-Fi network, says Barnhardt.
'Just about every hotel and motel provides free Wi-Fi,' he says. 'But fraudsters have perfected the art of mimicking legitimate networks. Logging onto a fake Wi-Fi network can put all the data stored in your tablet or phone in jeopardy.'
Once again, he says, the best solution is to ask before acting.
'Check with the front desk,' he says. 'Make sure you are using the hotel's authorized network and they've supplied you with a secure Wi-Fi password. A bogus Wi-Fi can be outsmarted just by being cautious. Vacation time is about relaxing, but don't relax your common sense.'
In other words, follow the FTC's advice to vacationers: 'When it comes to a travel deal, exercise doubt and check it out.