Tips, services and devices to keep you, your stuff and your privacy safe while you’re on the road
Frequent travellers know that having a routine can take a lot of the stress out of leaving home. Keeping all of your must-have documents in the same place, using the same roll-on suitcase, and packing a toiletries kit that doesn’t require raiding your daily-use items can all save you from those 3 a.m.-the-night-before-you-leave panic attacks.
What’s a lot less common is a safety routine: a set of habits to get into and, a few items to carry with you, that will lessen your anxiety around keeping yourself and your stuff safe while you’re away. Here’s a quick round-up of some of our top safety-dos.
Who’s minding the store?
First things first – there’s nothing more anxiety-inducing than worrying about what’s going at your place when you’re not there. Consider investing in one of the many home monitoring cameras that are now on the market. You can pick a simple solution like the Nest Cam ($279, all figures in Canadian dollars unless otherwise indicated), which will keep an HD record of everything it sees for a week ($10 a month) or up to a month ($30 a month), on Nest’s servers. You can watch the video at any time, from any device, and you can also stream it live too. More sophisticated options like Canadian-designed Piper ($279) can act as an all-in-one security system with a built-in 105 dB siren (that’s loud) and two-way voice communication (you know, to scold your adorable puppy remotely in case he’s up to some not-so-adorable behaviour). If you already have a home security provider that’s professionally monitored, give it a call – they likely have similar products that you can add to your account for an additional monthly fee.
You may have read stories about RFID skimming; it’s a way for criminals to steal the data from your credit or debit cards wirelessly, over distances up to a few feet away. There’s very little published information about the real risk this activity poses, especially since the technique would only give thieves to the small amount of money allowed for contactless transactions. Nevertheless, you may not be able to count on your bank or credit-card issuer to insure you against these types of losses, so why not play it safe? Consider buying an RFID wallet that can block these signals from getting to your cards until you’re ready to use them. Alternatively, some experts suggest that even the low-tech technique of wrapping them in tinfoil can, ahem, foil attempts to skim their data.
Caught carrying the bag?
If you often find yourself far from your hotel safe (or you just don’t trust those things) and wanting to keep some small valuables secure for short periods of time – perhaps on a tour bus while you’re out on an excursion – there’s an entire category of products known as travel safes. A popular (albeit not cheap) choice is the US$89 Pacsafe, which looks to the untrained eye like little more than a drawstring bag. The combination of steel cable closure, combination lock and a woven steel mesh inner lining, however, makes this bag the perfect place to store items like cameras, phones and wallet – you’d need a bolt cutter or similarly powerful tool to gain access.
Be wary of WiFi
Yes, it’s true, free WiFi is to a traveller what water is to desert dweller, and it’s tempting to grab that open signal and start working, but be cautious, dangers lurk inside those invisible airwaves. For starters, that WiFi signal that’s labelled “Airport WiFi” might be legit, or it might be a trap. It’s not hard for a savvy thief to fake a website to look exactly like the one you’d see on the real Airport WiFi – after all, if you can sign on and see it, so can they. Once you start using it, not only can they watch all of the data you send, they can also attempt to gather the data on your laptop too.
Meanwhile, even if the WiFi is legit, it’s possible for someone sitting nearby to intercept your transmissions and capture email addresses, passwords and more.
The solution to both scenarios is a Virtual Private Network or VPN. If your company provides one, great – make sure you always use it, even if it’s for non-business activities (but remember your company VPN is no different than being at the office, so use your judgement). If you don’t have one, there are many free and paid options depending on your needs. A VPN will seal all of your communication inside an encrypted wrapper, so even if someone got their hands on it, it would be worthless to them. It’s not a perfect solution in the case of a fake WiFi hotspot, though, so make sure your laptop’s firewall is turned on and its settings are based on the “public” network option in Windows. Mac users should be fine with the default settings.
Secure your phone
Phone passwords or PINs are a pain in the ass, but they’re also an essential safety measure when travelling. Yes, bad things can happen anytime you leave your phone unattended, but the risks are higher for travellers, so don’t let a little laziness be your undoing. Always use a PIN or password on your phone (or if you absolutely hate this, buy a phone with a fingerprint reader) and make sure it’s set to lock your screen after a short interval of inactivity – say, one minute (or whenever you turn off the screen). This won’t stop the theft of your phone, but it will make getting to your personal data much, much harder for the average criminal.
At the same time, make sure you’ve enabled the “find my phone” and remote wiping options, which exist for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. The only thing worse than having your device taking a walk without you, is having no recourse whatsoever. Find my phone may not get you your phone back, but it could help the authorities catch the bad guys, while the remote wipe will at least keep them from what really matters: your data.