A Comprehensive Guide to Cell Phone Security While Traveling Internationally

Cell phone security is becoming an increasingly hot topic as horror stories of hackings have increased exponentially in the news. Unfortunately, short of not owning a cellphone – or at least a smartphone – there is nothing that can protect you 100%. There are, however, certain fundamental steps that you can take that will greatly decrease the likelihood that you become a victim of security breach on your phone. First and foremost, if you cannot read the rest of this article, is to never let it out of your site or set it down on a table, for example, while eating.

Some countries, such Russia, Turkey and especially China, are commonly known for cyber fraud and security breach. Other countries, ones that you would probably not expect, such as Italy and Hungary, are also on the list of top ten destinations where you are most likely to suffer security breach.

Most people are concerned about protecting their privacy not only when they are actually in the country where they are traveling to but also through customs – both outside and inside the United States.

Let’s start with Customs and Border Protection. First off, and without sounding paranoid, what is the worst possible scenario if someone at customs got hold of your phone? If someone got hold of your phone, in a few minutes, they can use a forensic software that can copy everything in your phone – pictures, emails, passwords and more. There is an astounding amount of information about you on your phone. Your phone is a footprint of who you are, who you know, where you have been and what you may have purchased.

They can see your browsing history and hold you on any grounds pertaining to that if they want to. As explained below, they do not need much of a reason to detain you if they wanted to. Say you logged on to the Home Depot to buy paint. Since Home Depot sells supplies that theoretically could be used to build explosives, they could hold you up with that pretense in the name of homeland security.

What about all the people that you have emailed or on Facebook? If any of those people has committed a crime, they could associate you with that person and, in the future, this could be brought out as evidence against you in court.

In the United States, we have fourth amendment rights that protect us against unreasonable search and seizure. However, technically, when you are going through customs, you are not in the United States and therefore this amendment does not protect you. Therefore, if a TSA officer asks you to cough up your phone, you can protest as much as you want and if anything, this will only delay your trip and give them even more of a reason to go through your phone.

Customs is not the only place you should be concerned. You obviously should also be careful when you reach your destinations. Certain countries, like China, are not only renown for targeting travelers mobile devices and security experts go as far as to say that many attacks actually encouraged and even assisted by the Chinese government. While China is currently high on everyone’s radar as being a risky country for cyber attacks, why not reduce your risk when traveling anywhere if you can avoid doing so by taking a few extra precautions?

Now, the safest, most sure fire way of preventing breach is to travel without a phone. You obviously cannot hand over a phone if you don’t have one to hand over. Even better, you can just stay home and watch a Steve Ricks documentary from the comfort of your living room. Kidding aside, Border Protection knows that virtually everyone who travels internationally has a smartphone and they may actually detain you for that and, we all want and need our phones when traveling.

There are a number of steps that you can and should take to significantly limit your exposure to getting hacked and/or giving customs’ officials access to all your information.

Never leave your phone out of your sight.

While an obvious suggestion, you cannot imagine how many people get their phones lifted when traveling internationally. Most Americans have different sensibilities and even customs pertaining to their belongings. Generally speaking, we are much more relaxed with our personal belongings and even tend to leave them lying around a bit compared to other nationalities. Since we rent phones, we have a good idea of what percentage of our phones do not make it back specifically due to theft. At about 2%, this percentage is higher than most would imagine.

Don’t use WiFi, particularly if you are doing online banking.

Through public WiFi is one of the easier ways for hackers to access your cell phone with all of its contents. In fact, there are programs that allow you to track everything that you are doing, including logging into your online banking and see your log in details.

Password protect you phone and your SIM card

Most people have a password protection on their phone but very few have a password on their SIM card. Your SIM card may hold information such as your contacts, your SMS and your contacts. If your SIM card does not have a pin, you can simply swap out the SIM card into another phone and not only use it but access your contacts and messages. While not fool proof, this will at least deter the more rudimentary thief. Just make sure that the pin is a little more complex than a simple 1234.

Don’t assume that your hotel’s safe will ensure that nobody will get their hands on your phone if it’s in there.

There is always someone at the hotel who has the keys to all the safes in your hotel. That someone is someone you don’t know. So basically, you are giving potential access to not only your phone but whatever else you may place in there. Usually, the cheaper the hotel, the less they have systems in place for potential security breaches.

Save your information to the cloud and then do a factory reset on your phone, and then restore your information once you come back. Then you can reinstall the apps when you arrive but avoid WiFi, particularly in tourist areas or in hotels.

There is some potential of accidentally deleting valuable information and, maybe people do not want to go through the hassle of doing this.

Disable WiFi and Bluetooth

Other devices can access your devices through Bluetooth as well as WiFi. Disabling them both will give you that added level of security.

Don’t connect your phone to a public computer – or even a public charging outlet

You never want to connect your cell phone to a public computer as they may have malicious malware that can infect your phone. This is possible even through a charging port or outlet if someone really wanted to – and people do. Better to just avoid this whenever possible. In addition, if someone really wanted to have access to your phone remotely, they could swap out your charger for their modified charger and literally inject a malware into your phone that would let them have access to all the contents to your phone. For a more complete article, you can read this post

Use a VPN

A VPN offers strong protection from snoopers as well as allowing access to websites that are often blocked in other countries. For example, in China, all things Google are blocked. With a VPN, you can circumvent the restrictions and access whatever site you want as if you were back home.

Use a secondary phone and get a local SIM card

If you have an old phone that is unlocked, you can restore that phone to factory condition by doing a factory reset and put in a local SIM card. In China as well as other destinations, cyberthieves scan cell phone numbers looking for a foreign phone number. If you have a local number, you will not come up on their radar.

Rent a phone

Renting a phone and just keeping your primary phone back home is a great way to help protect your data from being accessed or compromised by both Customs and cyberthieves. A Rental phone will have none of your previous information on it (unless of course you log in with your usual Apple or Android credential, which is unadvisable). You can create a new, temporary account and download any app that you may need for your trip. For an added layer of security coming back through customers, and once you email or save any important messages or photos you may have, you can simply delete all the information on the phone that you wouldn’t want anyone to see. If you delete all the information, this may raise a red flag so you may want to leave some images and emails in order not to give them any excuses to question you.

In summary, while if someone really wanted to access your information, in today’s world, they could go to extreme measures in order to do so. But unless you are a top level government agent, scientist or businessman, usually what a hacker is after is avoidable by following the above precautions so you might as well be safe rather than sorry.

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About Sebastian Harrison

Founder and President of Cellular Abroad and travel writer.
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