If you're planning a Spring Break getaway with friends or family, know that fraudsters may be an uninvited companion.
Since you're likely packing some tech on the trip – a smartphone for navigating a road trip, a tablet for swiping through TV shows on an airplane, or a laptop for logging onto social media in a hotel room – be sure to also pack some cybersecurity smarts for your devices.
In fact, because your online activity and device use will likely increase in less-than-secure locations while you're on the go, your cyber risks are also increased. This includes scams, malicious software and ATM skimmers, to name just a few threats.
With the number of Spring Break travelers expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels, says the TSA, it's a good time to highlight a few ways to safeguard your devices and data.
Spot travel scams ahead of time
The threats start even before you leave for the trip, cautions Michael Lemberger, senior vice president of North American Risk at Visa.
"Take a moment to vet travel companies, rental properties and tour operators, maybe adding the word 'scam' or 'complaint' to see what pops up in your research," suggests Lemberger.
"Extra precautions should be taken with paying with wire transfers, gift cards or crypto, as these methods do not carry the same safety and security as a network-backed transaction, like a credit or debit card," adds Lemberger.
The Federal Trade Commission has listed travel-related scams to watch out for while prepping for your trip.
How can you protect yourself when using public WiFi?
Be wary of free Wi-Fi networks, especially if they don't require a password to enter, as you may be joining a hacker's hotspot that could compromise the data on your laptop, tablet or phone.
Instead, verify the login details with an employee of that hotel, coffee shop or airport.
"As an extra layer of protection, also use a Virtual Private Network, because a VPN protects your privacy and encrypts your data," says Ashley Colette, communications manager for Verizon Consumer Group.
There are many VPN solutions available, including the Verizon Safe Wi-Fi app ($3.99/month after 30-day trial) that safeguards your connection using 256-bit AES encryption, for up to 10 devices.
"Better yet," Collete adds, "use your cellular connection to get online, which is more secure than Wi-Fi hotspots," which temporarily turns your phone into a "personal hotspot" for your laptop or other devices. Data rates will apply, and roaming fees if outside of the U.S.
How to safely use hotel computer
Didn't bring your laptop?
If you can avoid it, it's not ideal to use a communal PC in a hotel's business center or airport lounge, as cybercriminals can secretly install "keystroking" software to capture your typed words (including passwords).
But if you must use these, refrain from any financial transactions, like online banking. And remember to log out of your online activity (like webmail service or social media account) before you step away from the computer – and restart the machine, too.
On a related note, don't use public printers at a hotel's business center, especially if you are printing sensitive financial or work documents, as those could be hacked, too. And what about that print job you thought was canceled? It might spit out those papers after you've left.
Change your passwords
If you use the same password for all your online activity, you're putting yourself at risk if just one of those accounts is breached.
Instead, create new and unique passwords before your trip, and opt for "multifactor authentication," which means you not only need to type in your password to access, say, your banking app or website, but you'll also need to type in a one-time code sent to your device to prove it's you.
"Remembering strong passwords for all your websites and apps can be very challenging, and so password managers are a popular solution," says Gary Orenstein, chief customer officer at Bitwarden, a leading company in this space. "Strong passwords can be generated for you, too, so you don't need to come up with them, plus they're synchronized between all your devices and will automatically log you into your accounts."
Bitwarden's core functionality is free, but there is a premium version with additional features ($10/year) and a family plan option ($40/year) for up to six users.
Protect your phone
Remember to have a PIN or passcode to lock your phone so no one can access your information in case your phone is misplaced, lost or stolen.
Most smartphones offer convenient "biometrics authentication," too, which lets you use a part of your body, like a fingerprint or facial scan, to securely identify you.
Since you'll likely use your phone often while traveling, it might be more likely to be dropped, too.
According to Consumer Reports' 2022 smartphone survey, damage from a drop or similar mishap is one of the most common reasons for a phone repair, second only to the need to replace the battery.
Remember to have a fitted case on your phone, and perhaps a screen protector, to reduce scratches and cracks.
"Also, consider services such as phone insurance that keep you protected so you can enjoy that fun in the sun without worry," suggests Colette. "Phone insurance can protect you from accidental damage, theft or loss of your device and, in some cases, provide safe Wi-Fi access and even digital security."
Finally, be sure to set up the "Find My Phone" service on iPhone or Android, to see a missing device on a map (on another device), but never attempt to retrieve a stolen phone on your own as it may put you in harm's way. Instead, share the device's location with the authorities.
Follow Marc on Twitter for his “Tech Tip of the Day” posts: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Spring break tips: How to keep you data, devices safe during travel