Before I visited Berlin in March, I read quite a few stories of bloggers who had been victims of pickpocketing or muggings while staying in the city. I won’t lie – I was a little bit concerned to see how frequently this happens there, so I decided to be hyper vigilant and took a few precautions. For example, when I was out and about, I didn’t carry a lot of cash or my cards with me (unless I needed to use the ATM), I only took my camera, Kindle or laptop out if I knew I’d definitely be using them, and I made sure my handbag was zipped up and close to me at all times. Thankfully, my month in Berlin came to a close without any incidents.
Or so I thought.
The day after I arrived back home in the UK, I went to buy something from H&M. I decided to use my debit card, however, the machine rejected it – twice. Luckily I had some cash on me, and I just assumed it was a technical problem at the cashier.
I was wrong.
The next day I signed into the Internet banking that’s linked to the account in question and saw four different ATM transactions had been made in a place called Candi Kuning in Bali. I’ve been to Bali but a) that was a year ago and b) I didn’t go anywhere near Candi Kuning. The worst part was that the buggers had taken more than £200.
Huh?! I kept saying to myself over and over again, as if the answer was going to magically come to me from thin air.
Slowly I realised what had happened – my debit card details had been stolen somehow and used to create a duplicate card. As I barely used the debit card in question while I was in Cyprus the only answer was that the details were stolen when I used ATMs in Berlin.
A little research revealed how easy it is for identity thieves to add tiny devices to ATM machines that capture your card details. Scarier still, some are so sophisticated that they also add cameras or overlay keypads that record your PIN number.
Needless to say this whole incident has taught me to be even more careful with where and how I use my bank cards; had I still been in Berlin when this had happened, I would have been stuck without access to my money for almost two weeks, as that’s how long it took me to sort everything out with the bank. Not an ideal situation, especially as a solo female traveller.
Having no access to my money absolutely sucked, so I decided to put together a list of things you can do to keep your cash safe while you travel.
Use credit cards instead of debit cards as much as possible (especially online)
The problem with debit cards is that if your details are stolen, the thieves have access to whatever money you have in your account. I mitigate this risk by keeping my money in different accounts and only leaving whatever I intend to withdraw in the account that’s linked to my debit card – it’s thanks to this that those pesky fools could only rob me of £200.
Most money experts recommend using your credit card for all purchases – as long as you’re paying off the full balance every month, this is the ideal solution. Plus, credit cards are better protected than debit cards, so if you’re hit by fraudulent activity, most banks will refund your money straight away. This isn’t the case with debit cards and you’re often faced with a long and convoluted process to get your money back.
Carry spare credit or debit cards
Things happen – wallets get lost or stolen, debit cards get accidentally snapped while you’r closing your wallet, purses fall down toilets (some of these may or may not have happened to me). The last thing you want is to be stranded without access to your cash, so try and have a spare debit or credit card hidden somewhere just in case. Some bank accounts allow you to have two debit cards with a single account, so check with your bank to see what your options are.
Keep some cash separately for emergencies
Sometimes the backup plan also fails. Make sure you have enough cash on you to keep you going for at least a week should the worst happen. I’d recommend stashing at least £150 in local currency somewhere safe in your room or apartment just in case.
Only access online banking from a secure device
It may be tempting to log onto to your online banking account through the hostel’s public computer, but in doing so you may be setting yourself up for a major security breach. These computers are often teeming with unknown software, and more often than not have little to no security or virus software updates done on them. It’s also easy for those in the know to install software that will capture things that you type – that means your passwords are all up for grabs.
So, avoid using public computers, especially when you’re doing anything related to online banking. It’s important to also note that when you use public Wi-Fi you’re also at risk. Read this article over on Nomadic Matt’s site to see what you can do to mitigate the chances of getting hacked.
Always have Skype credit for emergency calls to your bank
When my card was blocked by my bank, I had just arrived in the UK so I had no SIM card. Thankfully, I was with my brothers at this point, so I could use one of their phones should I have needed to, but if I wasn’t home and had no credit on my Skype account I wouldn’t have been able to call the bank to arrange for a replacement card.
I try to always ensure I have at least £20 on my Skype account in order to make any necessary phone calls in these circumstances, no matter where I am in the world.
Use ATMs that are located inside a bank or building that has security
Although I don’t know for sure, I highly suspect that my card details were skimmed at an ATM. It’s hard to completely prevent the risk of this, but you can start by avoiding ATMs that are located on the street. Your best bet are ones that are located inside a bank, as more often than not they’re under 24-hour surveillance and locked at night.
Although it’s not always possible to identify a machine that’s been tampered with, there are a few things you can look out for, which are detailed in this article here.
Any sign of suspicious activity, call your bank immediately
The minute I saw the dodgy transactions on my account I called the bank. Thankfully they had already flagged it up and blocked the card, which is why it wasn’t working in H&M that day. If you don’t report the transactions, you may not get your money back. The sooner you report it, the better.
Have more than one bank account
This is especially important if you don’t have a credit card. If you have all your money in one account and your debit card is linked to that account, you could end up being cleared out and stranded without any money.
Have two accounts – preferably with the same bank to avoid transfer fees – and only keep a minimum amount in the account that is linked to your debit card.
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