Bank Card Precautions
By Rick Steves
As with preventing other kinds of theft, the key to averting fraud is to protect your personal information.
Protect your credit and debit cards. Take to Europe only the credit and debit cards that you expect to use, plus a backup, and keep them safely in your money belt. Upon returning home, verify the balance and charges on your debit and credit cards.
Safeguard your PIN code. Memorize your personal identification number; you'd be surprised how many people write it on their card (which is extremely risky). "Shoulder surfing" — a thief watching you as you type your PIN into a keypad — is a common problem. When entering your PIN, carefully block other people's view of the keypad, covering it with your free hand.
Ask your bank about an international travel account. Some banks, such as Wells Fargo, can set up a special travel account that links to your debit card. If a thief steals your card or number while you're traveling, he'll have access only to the funds in this account, and the bank can easily close it; none of your other accounts will be compromised. You'll have to make sure to keep enough funds in the account; if you need to transfer funds, you can do it online from a secure computer. Close the account when you return.
Use your credit card sparingly. Restaurant servers and shop clerks might try to steal your credit-card information, sometimes by swiping it in a special machine that reads the card or by surreptitiously snapping a photo of it with their mobile phone. Most European restaurants have portable card readers that waiters bring to the table; it's more secure since your card never leaves your sight. But in most cases, it's safest to pay with cash.
Use your debit card even more sparingly. Use your debit card to withdraw sizable amounts of local cash from ATMs (and then stow it in your money belt to protect against pickpockets) so you can pay with cash whenever possible. Use your debit card only for cash-machine withdrawals. To make purchases, pay with cash or your credit card. Because a debit card pulls funds directly out of your bank account, potential charges incurred by a thief are scary — it's your money that's gone, not the credit-card company's. If you establish that your card is lost or stolen, report it immediately, as your liability is linked to timely reporting (you'll likely be on the hook for only $50, but it's still worrisome). If you're concerned about this, talk to your bank about setting a daily withdrawal limit for your ATM or debit card; you'll have to weigh the convenience of withdrawing large amounts of euros from your accounts...against the risk of a crook doing the same. Note that this limit applies to cash-machine withdrawals, not purchases.
Watch out for ATM skimming. Thieves can place an illegal card reader over the slot of an ATM and make it look like it's part of the equipment. Some aim tiny cameras at the keypad to record your fingers typing the PIN. Inspect the card slot carefully for signs of tampering. Look for a color difference in the material or a gap where something appears to be glued onto the slot. If the entry to the card slot bulges out dramatically from the surface of the machine, it might be a skimming device. If a bank machine eats your ATM card, see if there's a thin plastic insert with a tongue hanging out that crooks use to extract it. (A similar scam is to put something sticky in the slot.) Try to use ATMs at banks — since a thief has to attach a skimming device, he's less likely to target an ATM near surveillance cameras.
What to do if your card is stolen: If your credit or debit card is stolen, call these 24-hour US numbers collect — Visa: tel. 303/967-1096, MasterCard: tel. 636/722-7111, American Express: tel. 336/393-1111.
Updated for 2012. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.