On your way to becoming a smarter and safer traveller - Part 2
Alternative Options Security Group (AOSG) focuses on providing training services to educate people on how to mitigate some of the risks they may encounter when travelling to faraway places with the goal of making their journeys a safer and more fulfilling experience.
AOSG’s travel awareness courses are designed to develop a traveller’s knowledge in skills to take them from being an ‘accidental tourist’ and turning them into a more experienced and safer traveller who understands risks, how to identify them, how to avoid or mitigate unnecessary risks and how to travel as safely as possible in environments that are deemed potentially hostile.
In my previous article “On your way to becoming a smarter and safer traveller - Part 1” I talked a little bit about risk, risk mitigation and situational awareness. This article focuses on important lists to write before you travel and what to look out for at airports as well as some helpful tips about transport for when you arrive at your destination.
Before you travel, make a list of the emergency contact details of your family or friends which you can take with you on your trip. If you are staying in hotels with a safe, consider leaving the list in there. If you are injured or worse, then emergency personnel can access the hotel safe on your behalf and contact your family to let them know where you are. If you are travelling with others and there is no safe, then swap your list with theirs so you have some form of redundancy. Keep the list hidden and secure as best you can as you would your passport and identification. Money belts are still a great way of keeping possessions close at hand and safe.
Are hotel safes actually safe?
Not really. If there is a safe that is kept at reception or with a manager then if possible, store your valuable items and travel documents in that safe. Access to that safe will hopefully be controlled and limited to only those that need it, though there is never a 100% guarantee.
Room safes are accessible to more people and are not as secure as we would like to think. The idea of storing the list in a secure location like a safe as opposed to being hidden in the pipe of a bathroom sink or similar is because, if something happens to you and your effects are collected by an authorised person, they will at least have access to your family contacts to advise them of your situation. They won’t easily find this information if it is secreted under the bathroom sink!
Everyone has access to email these days so upload copies of your travel documents (passport, itineraries, bookings, emergency contact lists) to your email account before you travel. If you have a trusted travelling companion with a different account, email them a copy of your documents and get them to email you a copy of theirs. If you are on a work assignment, make sure your office has a copy of the contact list as well. This information is for the benefit of the everyday traveller. If you are potentially a high-profile target or a company executive who requires personal or extra security, then there are other security measures that need to be considered, especially with the storage of personal and sensitive information. We talk about this in more detail throughout our Advanced security for travellers courses.
Emergency Services Numbers
As an experienced traveller heading overseas, you will of course plan for all contingencies, or at least the most important one like – What do I do in the event of an emergency?
Step 1. Type in the Google search engine “Emergency Services Numbers for (Destination)”
Step 2. Make a list of the emergency numbers and addresses for Fire, Police, Ambulance services and the closest hospitals / medical centres to where you are staying.
Step 3. Store the phone numbers and addresses in your phone as well as keep a copy with your safely secured travel documents. Leave a copy of the list with your friends and family and employer if travelling for work purposes.
What you are doing now is building up your safety response net and becoming more acquainted with your surroundings as you start your research into your travel destinations.
Viruses and other Contagions
Over the last 20 years, the world has seen the outbreak of four notable contagions. Ebola Virus, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome and more recently COVID-19 (Coronavirus). These have all been labelled pandemic outbreaks and have spread across the world in a very short amount of time.
When travelling anywhere, always make sure you wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser gel, to clean your hands before you touch your face, eyes, open sores or food. Following this basic hygiene measure will, for most cases, prevent you from catching flu-like viruses and perhaps even the common cold. Avoid crowds where you can and if someone is sneezing or coughing, stand at least 1.5 metres away from them. Also avoid eating food from street markets because you do not know how the food has been stored and whether
it has been cooked sufficiently to kill bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.
For more up to date travel information relating to disease and health warnings visit the World Health Organisations (WHO) website - http://www.who.int/en
Important documents checklist
Before you travel to a country, check the visa requirements and length of stay options. Some countries may require a specific work visa which is different to a holiday visa even if you are going over for a short business trip with the intention to return in a few days. If you do require a visa, ensure the length of time suits your purpose. You do not want to spend time in a foreign immigration detention centre if you can avoid it!
I have written a simple example of a check list of the most important documents and items you should take with you. This list is not exhaustive, and some items may apply to you and some may not.
Australian Embassy/High Commissions contact for each country
Travel insurance documents
Hotel booking confirmations
Rental vehicle booking
Driver company contact details
Medical alerts or doctor/dental reports and letters for current conditions
Family emergency contact list
Overseas emergency contact list
Bank account details
Bank numbers to report lost/stolen credit and debit cards
Copies of personal identification
If you are renting a vehicle you may not know the registration/licence plate number or make and model until you are given the vehicle. Once you these details, send them to your home / office emergency contact person and store them on your email. Also take photographs of any damage you see to the vehicle when you are inspecting it with the rental car agency staff member and email it to yourself that day, so it is date and time stamped. This may assist if there are any disputes about ‘new’ damage when you return the vehicle.
Please note for corporate VIP’s or potentially high value target personnel, there will be variations to the above list as well as who might have possession or copies of your documents including whether you leave a copy in a hotel safe. For example, VIP travel itineraries will be more safely guarded, and access will be restricted to vetted and sanctioned personnel to prevent it falling into the “wrong hands”. For the regular traveller, restrictions of personal travel itineraries might not be as critical.
Arrange to make regular contact by agreeing on a time in advance when you will contact your ‘support crew’. Consider using some sort of phrase that can mean all is ok and a different phrase for when things are not ok.
Consider taking a spare phone as a backup that is to be used only in emergencies. Make sure your security network (support crew) knows your back up SIM card number for the spare phone, so they will be immediately aware that if you are contacting them from that number then, things might not be ok.
Prearranged airport collection
If you are considering making prearranged plans to have someone collect you from an airport who you don’t know, for example if you have contacted a third party driver service, request an image of the driver so you can identify them at the pickup location. Don’t have someone standing at the airport with your name on a sign because it may alert others who might be waiting for you with less friendly intentions. Consider coming up with a specific phrase to identify yourself to the driver and a response for them to identify you.
Airport Luggage Services
When you go to major airports these days, you will notice there are wrapping services for your luggage. Take advantage of these services because they reduce the chances of someone tampering or going through your bag while it is with the airline luggage services in non-custom controlled areas.
AOSG investigates frequent complaints of thefts from luggage by baggage handling services. By wrapping your luggage, you also reduce the chance of anyone secreting contraband into your bag. Consider taking a permanent marking pen that won’t rub off on plastic and making an indiscrete mark on the contours of the wrapping at the base of the bag. Take a photograph on your phone of the mark so it can be viewed in context with the rest of your bag. When you collect your luggage check the marking is still present. This can act as an early warning sign if your bag has been accessed and then re-wrapped afterwards. Also don’t forget to purchase a padlock or a coded lock. Small cheap locks are not effective, so spend the extra money for a decent lock.
It is better to spend a little money securing your bags, than to spend time in some foreign jail because your bags was used to transport drugs to a different country without your knowing!
Taxis and Ubers
Taxis are everywhere at the airport and it is commonly known that taxi drivers in some countries will take the opportunity to steal your belongings if given the opportunity. Be very careful when putting your luggage into a taxi, because a taxi driver might just drive off with your possessions, leaving you stranded at the side of the road.
AOSG investigates numerous cases of taxi drive offs in Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, The Middle East and Sub-Continent where the insured puts their bags in the boot / trunk and the driver drives off before they can get in. This process can also happen as you get out of the taxi.
When getting into a taxi, get the driver to assist you to put your bags in the boot/trunk and get into the taxi before the driver, or at least have your travelling companion get into the taxi before the driver. If their intention is only to steal your belongings and not kidnap you, then having someone in the taxi before the driver gets in will complicate the theft for them and may discourage them from driving off with your belongings.
Immediately check the driver has the meter running. You will find in places like Fiji and Indonesia and many other developing countries, the drivers will not use the meter and will charge you more than what it should have legitimately cost. Also remember that some of these drivers earn very little in the way of income, so sometimes the prices can be negotiated before you start moving. A little extra money to a driver can go a long way to obtaining a more reliable and personalised service for the remainder of your stay and you may also be doing a good deed by helping the driver to support his or her family a little bit more too.
Remember to keep most of your cash hidden in your money belt and only keep a small amount of travelling cash in small denominations in your wallet and/or pocket.
Make sure you do not put your most valuable items in the boot/trunk of the taxi. Always keep them with you. When you get out of the taxi, have your travelling companion sit in the taxi while you take the luggage out of the boot/trunk. Your travelling companion can then perform a final check to make sure you have all your possessions before getting out of the taxi and only pay the driver once you have confirmed you have all your luggage with you.
Uber and similar services that order transport from a mobile application that arranges the payment from a pre-arranged credit card is often a better solution than a taxi, because the driver is registered with the company and you are provided their vehicle registration/licence number, name and contact which is stored on your phone and your account. This provides another level of safety because your transaction is registered and can be accessed if there are any issues. Before you travel overseas, make sure someone else you trust back home has your account details and can access your account information on your behalf as a contingency if your mobile phone is stolen.
Protection of sensitive information do’s and don’ts
Using airport chargers
A lot of airports now provide free charging services. Do not use them. Take your own charger and suitable adapters for the countries you are travelling to. With today’s technology, USB charges can be used to install malware on devices while you are using them as they charge. Portable USB charges can also act as video devices so be careful if they are ‘supplied’ as part of your accommodation stay.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Wallets
I would strongly suggest investing a few dollars in a RFID wallet to reduce the chance of having all your credit cards skimmed while you are out and about. Make sure you use your wallet in conjunction with a money belt. Keep the majority of your cash and your major credit cards in your money belt and only keep a small quantity of travel money and your everyday card in your RFID wallet. Splitting your documents and financial options between suitcases, bags, your wallet and money belt reduces the likelihood of losing all your valuables at the same time.
Automatic Teller Machines (ATM)
Most people will be aware of the media reports of the portable skimming devices that can be attached to an ATM. When you go to use an ATM, look around to see if anyone is paying particular attention to you. Before you insert your card, tug firmly at the cover of the card insert device to ensure it is secure and not portable. When you enter your numbers, place your other hand over the keypad to stop anyone one or any camera device that may be hidden that records keypad entries from recording your pin number.
Giving out your Personal Information
Do not give out your personal information to anyone you do not know well or unless they have the authority to demand it. In some countries, it is known that people will wear uniforms and pretend to be persons of authority. If someone approaches you in uniform or shows you some form of identification or badge, then asks you personal details about yourself for no apparent reason, move to a public area and a well-lit area if possible and ask them where they are from, read their identification carefully and contact the local police immediately. Acting like a wary traveller as opposed to an easy target, may scare them off if they are not legitimate.
Virus, Malware Protection and Public Wi-Fi Networks
Before leaving home, run a complete virus and malware scan on your laptop and install the latest updates and definitions for virus signatures. Do not take any information on your laptop or mobile phone that could harm you or your business in anyway should your laptop or phone be compromised.
Make sure you have a firewall installed on the laptop and refrain from using public Wi-Fi networks where possible because they can be monitored and hacked more easily than your own personal hotspot.
For some information on ‘War Diving’ (the process of monitoring and exploiting unsecured networks and tracking devices) visit Wikipedia’s page on the subject
Consider installing VPN (Virtual Private Network) software like CyberGhost or NordVPN. Some countries have strict censorship and block internet traffic. A VPN can help you stay online in these areas as well as protect you from hacking attempts if you are connected to a public Wi-Fi service.
Password Protection and Encryption Solutions
One of the first steps to securing your devices it to use a strong password that only you know. Be creative with your passwords and use at least six characters with a mix of capitals, numbers and symbols (found above the numbers on the keyboard). The password should not contain family names, pets, birthdays or the word password. If your laptop is used for work purposes and may contain sensitive information, change your password regularly, and especially when you suspect your laptop may have been compromised.
If you suspect your laptop has been compromised, cease using it overseas and if it is possible wipe the laptop and reinstall the operating system. Most laptops today come with an image of the operating system installed that can be reinstalled from a ‘Boot’ or ‘System Install’ menu.
If you have the ability before you travel, consider installing encryption software on the drives of your laptop that make it almost impossible for thieves to break into. This adds another layer of security to your data. There are free products as well as paid encryption products on the market. Two examples of well tested products are VeraCrypt and BitLocker. Before purchasing or installing any program, ensure you download it from the manufacturers source page and not a third party company and research the product well before installing/purchasing to make sure it performs the way you want it to.
Google and other programs store passwords which can be synchronised across multiple registered devices. For sensitive sites like cloud sites, make sure their passwords are not stored in Google or other search engine browsers for quick access. If the laptop is compromised, then a hacker or thief can go to all the sites that require a password and possibly access your information.
For Google the password lists can be found by:
Opening your Google web browser
Click on the three vertical dots at the very top right of the web page to the right of your profile logo
In the search bar field type in the word Passwords and all the stored password sites can be seen. Although the thief or hacker will need your Google password to access the hidden passwords, all the site names you visit that require passwords are readable and can provide excellent intelligence on your ‘surfing’ habits and business interests