Traveling abroad? Leave your smartphone at home

When traveling overseas with a cell phone or smartphone, the concern most often cited is potentially high international roaming fees. But one industry expert says a far greater concern ought to be the phone’s physical and cybersecurity, and he is urging travelers to leave their smartphones at home.

That doesn’t mean people need to be out of touch when they travel. Instead of carrying their own smartphone and all the data they have accumulated and stored in it, the CEO of Cellhire® USA – one of a number of companies that rent phones for overseas travel – recommends that travelers rent what is essentially a sanitized smartphone. Such an approach can reduce or eliminate the possibility of compromising personal data and passwords, either electronically, or physically if their phone is stolen.

“If you take your own device and you have all your contacts loaded on your phone as well as passwords for accounts and applications that you’re already logged in to, it’s a lot easier for someone who might get a hold of your phone to access all of that information,” Greg Kraynak told TheTravelPro during a recent interview. “We provide [travelers] with a rented device that wouldn’t have all of that information preloaded.”

That information varies from one individual to another but frequently includes password settings connected to a variety of apps, photographs, and other personal and/or sensitive information.

“If you were to rent a device and it’s brand new to you, you’re less likely to have all of that information,” Kraynak said. “Certainly, you might load a few contacts and phone numbers before you leave but not the personal information you might gather over the course of years [using the phone] in the U.S.”

Further, smartphone users often use public Wi-Fi networks to access the Internet as a way of avoiding international roaming fees. However, it also creates a potential point of electronic entry.

iPhone 6
“Using public Wi-Fi is a recipe for disaster,” Kraynak said. “When you access personal data, social media, bank accounts, photos, etc., on a public platform then you are basically offering your data to be intercepted by cyber criminals.”

The combination of a “clean” phone with less personal information coupled with the use of the cellular network instead of Wi-Fi will reduce the opportunity for electronic theft of information, but there is also the risk that the information could be obtained physically. Smartphone users often do not lock their phone so leaving the phone unattended, however briefly, creates a window of opportunity for a thief, who can quickly access the setup feature and obtain sensitive information.

Travelers should also be aware that the phones themselves, and not the information they carry, are often the targets.

“A smartphone is as attractive as a fine piece of jewelry overseas because it’s so easy to put a new SIM card in it and use it in another market,” Kraynak said. “If you’re a traveler and you’re not careful, it’s easy for someone to take that phone, very quickly sell it and make a pretty nice little profit.”

The newest generations of smartphones are particularly attractive and can prove quite lucrative, he said, citing a recent report that iPhone 6s were being purchased in the U.S., then resold in China, where they are difficult to obtain otherwise, for the equivalent of US$1,400.

Cellhire offers theft and loss insurance for its rental phones that will cover the cost of a lost or stolen phone, minus a $199 deductible in the case of the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini, its most popular rental phone. For comparison, the iPhone 6 Plus has a suggested retail price of approximately $850, so losing or having stolen an insured, rented phone would cost approximately $650 less than having one’s own phone lost or stolen.

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