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The Basics

It is no surprise that the same basic guidelines for protecting personal information at home also apply when traveling: use strong passwords, don't open funny attachments, and don't reveal sensitive information such as PIN numbers to anyone. The third guideline applies even more when traveling, as some places around the world boast police that will ask for your credit card and PIN number for 'record keeping purposes' when responding to an incident.

The basic guidelines for safe travel also apply to protecting your identity: carry a money belt (people may laugh when you reach into your pants for money, but it is a whole lot better than having them laugh when a car and plane tickets are purchased with your credit card!), carry a photocopy of your passport, and be extra cautious when changing money or accessing ATMs. Above all, it is a good idea to treat every computer that is not your own with extra suspicion. Not all of them will be Pandora's boxes of identity-stealing nightmares, but a little bit of paranoia can go a long way.

The BasicsTIP: More travel tips for preventing identity theft outside of the digital realm can be found in the Identity Theft Resource Center's handy consumer guide on travel identity theft.

Internet Café Dangers

One of the more interesting vectors of identity theft is the Internet café. Over the past several years, more and more viruses and worms have appeared that target the end user's computer automatically (such as the Sasser and Blaster worm families). This, coupled with the loosely-controlled nature of Internet café machines (which could potentially hide a keylogger, a rootkit, or worse), the difficulties in patching a large number of computers, and the lack of incentives for many café operators to patch their machines, make Internet cafes a gamble when it comes to personal information.

Certainly it is always a possibility to take the time to run anti-virus and -spyware utilities and install all of the latest patches and critical updates in an attempt to sanitize a café machine. But as I learned from an experience at an Internet café in Laos, doing this is quite time-consuming and can eat through your time at the Internet café. Not to mention the fact that patching and updating is a horrible way to spend your vacation.

The solution to this situation mainly relies on finding a reputable Internet café. Oftentimes these may prove to be more costly than other Internet cafes, but this cost is still far less than the cost of recovering from a stolen identity. Sometimes a reputable Internet café cannot be found. In this case, it is a good idea to bring along a copy of a Linux LiveCD such as Knoppix in order to provide a safe desktop environment (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Startup screen for the Knoppix LiveCD (Click to enlarge)

Figure 1: Startup screen for the Knoppix LiveCD (Click to enlarge)

These CDs allow you to run a distribution of Linux directly from the CD, without modifying the contents of the hard drive at all. This will allow you to safely and securely browse the Internet, check your email, and do everything that you would normally do at an Internet café, without worrying about your activities being recorded by that computer or worrying about leaving anything behind that could damage the machine.

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