In the summer of 2009, I spent six weeks in Fiji working with a nonprofit organization. Between working in villages during the week and frequenting beaches over the weekend, I had the time of my life.
But all the excitement of the trip disappeared when I came home to a nasty surprise: a collection notice. As it turned out, I let a friend borrow my video rental store membership card to rent a game before I left, and he never returned it.
Fortunately, I was able to pay off the debt without hurting my credit, but the process took weeks and involved several discussions with the movie rental store and the collection company. And I wouldn’t expect that to happen every time.
If you’re heading overseas for a while, it’s important to know how to protect your credit while you’re gone.
How to protect your credit while you’re abroad
Roughly 15.4 million Americans fell victim to identity theft in 2016, according to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research. And if you’re planning a long trip abroad, your absence can put you at risk.
“When a person is traveling, they may not be getting regular delivery of their mail or phone calls that might alert them to a compromised identity,” said Robert Siciliano, personal security and identity theft expert. “This means that bill collectors via phone or email may not be able to contact them.”
Here are five ways to make sure you don’t come back home to a credit emergency.
1. Alert your bank and creditors
Your first line of defense is making sure your current accounts don’t get compromised. Call your bank and creditors and let them know you’re going to be away and for how long. Some banks and lenders also allow you to set up a travel alert through your online account.
If you plan to use a debit or credit card while you’re away, let the issuer know where you’ll be. That way, your purchases in the country you’re visiting won’t be flagged as fraud.
2. Set up a fraud alert or freeze on your credit report
Monitoring credit isn’t my idea of a good time, and it definitely isn’t something I want to do while I’m visiting another country. To keep identity thieves from creating new accounts in your name, you have two options: You can set up a fraud alert or place a freeze on your credit report.
An initial fraud alert — which is used if you’re not already a fraud victim — lasts for 90 days. If you’re being deployed with the military, you can even request an active-duty alert, which lasts for one year.
When you or someone else tries to open a credit account, a fraud alert requires that the creditor verifies your identity before approving the application.
Generally, that process involves contacting you at the phone number you provided when you requested the alert. The creditor then runs through a series of identity verification questions, which can include asking about past phone numbers and addresses, an existing monthly payment on another account, or a past or current employer.
Fraud alerts are free, and you have to request one with only one of the bureaus. Once the bureau receives it, the bureau will forward it to the other two.
Credit freezes are more secure, according to Siciliano.
“[A freeze] locks down your credit from new account fraud,” he said. So, it might be a better option if you’re planning to be gone for months at a time.
The main drawback to freezing your credit is that it might not be free, especially if you’re not already a victim of identity theft. What’s more, some states allow the credit bureaus to charge a fee to temporarily lift or permanently remove the freeze.
Check the fees for your state to determine if a freeze is worth it.
3. Set your monthly payments on autopay
It can be hard to remember to make all your monthly payments while you’re away. Missing one will not only result in a late payment fee, but it can also damage your credit if it’s more than 30 days late. That’s when the credit bureaus consider a payment late, even if the lender charged you a late fee on the first day.
To avoid this problem, make a list of your recurring monthly payments and set up autopay. And don’t forget recurring charges that happen less frequently, such as car insurance and annual memberships.
4. Protect your mail from fraudsters
Allowing your mail to continue to come can leave it vulnerable to identity thieves. On average, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service arrests around 10,000 suspects per year for mail theft. There are three things you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to you:
- Hold it: The United States Postal Service (USPS) allows you to hold your mail for up to 30 days at a time. Once the hold is over, you can choose to receive the held mail at once or pick it up from your local post office.
- Forward it: If you’re going to be gone for longer than 30 days, you can request — online or in person — that your mail be forwarded to a family member or friend. Forwarding times range from 15 days to one year, and the service costs $1.
- Ask for help: If you don’t want to hold or forward your mail, you can ask a family member or friend to pick it up every day and hold it for you until you get back.
Regardless of which option you choose, protecting your mail keeps potentially sensitive information safe.
5. Keep an eye on your accounts
The fastest way to spot account fraud as it’s happening is to check your accounts frequently. “Review your credit card statements monthly and look for unexpected charges,” said Siciliano.
Alternatively, you can ask to receive transaction alerts by email or text. That way, you can keep track of purchases on your account and verify there aren’t any unauthorized ones.
For example, you can set the transaction threshold to $0.00 so every transaction comes through, allowing you to keep track of even small fraudulent purchases.
If you do see something unauthorized, you can quickly call the bank or credit card issuer to report the fraudulent activity.
Preparation brings peace of mind
If you’re preparing for an extended trip abroad, you likely already have a long to-do list. Don’t forget to add figuring out how to protect your credit to that list. If you neglect to do so and become a victim of fraud, it can ruin the trip and cause credit problems that take weeks or months to resolve.
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