You think it won’t happen to you, but unfortunately the risk of bank card skimming overseas is all too real.
It can happen if you use an ATM with a card skimming device installed, when you're paying for something on a dodgy website, and your bankcard details can even be skimmed when your cards are inside your wallet.
When I was 10 days in to a two-month overseas trip, I was horrified to discover I’d had thousands of dollars stolen from my bank account in just 24 hours. And I wasn’t the only one – two others in my tour group also lost some of their hard-earned savings from their bank accounts overnight.
On another trip, I found my credit card had been blocked because someone had tried to book a $600 USD flight on it.
We’ve all heard the stories of fraudulent card use, but you always think you’re immune from it – myself included – until it happens to you. While it can also happen at home, travelling overseas puts you at a much higher risk of fraudulent card use by people targeting cashed up tourists, and their need to frequently use foreign ATMs and websites.
I was travelling through Central America when my bank cards got skimmed. I had been very careful with the ATMs I used, and I never even considered getting my cards skimmed in my bag as a genuine risk.
Turns out two of my cards were skimmed while crossing the Nicaraguan border into Costa Rica – while they were in my bag – and so were the cards of two other people. How do I know?
We all had our cards in our wallets and not all the cards skimmed had been used on ATMs. All of us had money fraudulently taken from our account on the same day. My card was cloned and then used to withdraw money from an ATM in the Dominican Republic.
The second time my card got compromised was in South America. I found out that my credit card details had been harvested from a website I used to buy bus tickets in Argentina. My credit card details was then used to buy a flight. Luckily my bank detected this one quickly and blocked my card before the details could be used again.
Fraudulent card use is a common threat when you’re travelling, but there are measures you can take to try and defend yourself against fraud.
Those RFID blocking wallets you’ve probably seen at airports and luggage stores are sold for a reason. Buy one.
RFID or Radio Frequency Identification technology is in your credit cards, passports and even driver’s licences to store personal and card information. Equipment needed to build scanners to read the RFID information on your card can be bought online. People with a reader can just walk close to you and steal the information. You’re unlikely to know it’s happening until it’s too late.
RFID blocking wallets protect the RFID information on your card from being skimmed.
As well as RFID wallets, you can also buy RFID blocking cards or sleeves to store your cards or passport in. I recommend you get at least one of these options to protect your cards and passport. They range from as little as $7 AUD and can be bought in stores such as Kathmandu, Anaconda or luggage stores.
Be on guard when using ATMs. First of all, be careful what ATMs you use. I try to only use ones inside banks. They’re more secure in terms of bank security (many have cameras pointing at the ATMS), limiting the risk of a skimming device being installed, and it’s also a lot less obvious drawing out cash inside a bank than on the street. Take a good look at the ATM before you use it. Are there any signs that it’s been tampered with? Look at the device you slot your card into - and check it can’t be easily removed.
It’s also a good idea to cover the keypad with your hand when you’re entering your PIN, and also put your fingers on all the keys before you go, leaving a heat signature across the whole keypad and not just your PIN keys. This stops anyone using a device to find out your PIN from the heat signature. I also do this when using EFTPOS machines overseas.
This is a hard one as you often need to book things like flights or bus tickets online and submit your credit card details to make a purchase. Unfortunately, sometimes those websites don’t have very good security measures to protect your information. Make sure you are using reputable websites – if in doubt, avoid.
I recommend keeping the monetary value in the account linked to your cards as low as possible. This limits the amount of money that can get skimmed off your card if it is compromised. You can set up an automatic transfer to top your cards up when the bank balance gets below a nominated figure.
You should also consider putting a daily limit on your credit card or getting a notification when a transaction is made on your credit card.
Unfortunately, you can take all these measures, have some bad luck and still experience fraud. While it’s inconvenient, it’s not the end of the world and hopefully won’t put an end to your travel plans. Here’s what to do if it happens to you.
Banks now have very high security measures attached to credit cards and it’s likely they’ll pick up fraudulent use before you do. However, if your debit card is skimmed, it’s likely you will pick it up before the banks do. In my case, I realised my cards had been skimmed with I tried to use an ATM and it said I had insufficient funds. I contacted my bank immediately.
Once your report a fraudulent transaction to your bank, the card will be cancelled, and you’ll have to get it reissued. This can sometimes be difficult if you’re travelling long term.
Luckily, I was going to see a friend in Europe shortly after my credit card was skimmed and had my new card sent there. If possible, get the card sent to a friend that you trust. It potentially may mean you have to change plans to pick up the card.
Once you cancel your card, you’ll also need to fill out a form disputing any transactions that aren’t yours to try and get your money back. Banks are insured against fraud.
Once you’ve reported the suspicious transactions, your bank will investigate. If it’s determined that the money was fraudulently taken, it could take anywhere from 24 hours to a couple of months to get the money back depending on your bank and the circumstances.
The first time I got skimmed, scammers got all the money on both my cash cards so I had no way of getting cash out unless I made a costly cash advance on my credit card. I didn’t want to put my credit card anywhere near an ATM just in case as it was the only source of funds on me that I had left and I could still pay for some things on credit card such as accommodation.
But you can easily get money wired to you. When I got skimmed in Central America, my internet access was limited so I asked a friend to wire me money through Western Union. There are also other similar money transfer chains such as MoneyGram. Most countries seem to at least have some sort of money transfer agency. It took five weeks for my new cards to arrive, so I got by through money transfers in the interim.
The money is usually available immediately after the transfer and all you need is the transaction reference number and to show ID such as a passport and you can get the cash in the local currency. The sender will also have to pay a fee to wire the cash.
With any luck, card fraud won’t happen to you if you take the above precautions. But if it does, my handy tips should help you navigate your way through dealing with the fraudulent use, accessing emergency funds and getting your money back.
Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 80 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer. Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.