Bank Card Safety Tips for Travelers

Woman getting cash at ATM
ATMs are the best way to get cash in Europe — just be on guard against the most common scams.
By Rick Steves

While you're not at any more risk for bank fraud when on the road than at home, the potential hassle involved is much greater. Here are some tips for protecting your debit and credit cards on the road.

Bring fewer cards and keep tabs on them. Take to Europe only the credit and debit cards that you expect to use, plus a backup, and keep them protected from pickpockets in your moneybelt. Upon returning home, verify the balance and charges on your debit and credit cards. Some travelers monitor balances as they travel, though it's important to be careful when accessing a financial account online.

Don't use a debit card for purchases. 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, and it will stay gone until the fraudulent use is investigated by your bank. For that reason, I limit my debit card use to cash-machine withdrawals. To make purchases, I pay with cash or a credit card.

Act quickly if your card is lost or stolen. Report it immediately by making a collect call to your credit-card company, as your liability can be linked to timely reporting (Visa: 303/967-1096, MasterCard: 636/722-7111, American Express: 336/393-1111). You'll likely be on the hook for only $50, but you should still act quickly.

At Cash Machines

Be vigilant, and look out for various ATM scams.

Safeguard your PIN code. Memorize your PIN; you'd be surprised how many people foolishly write it on their card. (If you don't trust your memory, you can keep a clue to your code in your moneybelt and/or your phone — just be sure that your reminder is utterly inscrutable to a thief.) "Shoulder surfing" — a thief watching you as you type your PIN into a keypad — is worth being aware of. When entering your PIN, block other people's view of the keypad by covering it with your free hand.

Inspect the ATM for card skimmers. Before inserting your card into a cash machine, inspect the front (especially if it's not inside a bank). If anything looks crooked, loose, or damaged — or if the entry to the card slot bulges out dramatically — it could be a sign of a card-skimming device (which captures your keystrokes as you enter your PIN).

Beware of stuck cards. Keep an eye out for anything in the card slot that could trap your card (or in the cash dispenser that could trap the cash). If your debit card gets stuck in an ATM, don't re-enter your PIN. Thieves have been known to insert a thin loop of tape cleverly designed to trap your card in the slot, then promptly arrive on the scene posing as a Good Samaritan. They'll either tell you that you can retrieve it by retyping your PIN, or point to a sign recommending that you enter your PIN twice if there's trouble. Either way, someone is nearby watching you enter your code. Once you give up on getting your card to eject and leave the scene, the criminals collect it and use it.

If your card or cash does get stuck, try to avoid leaving the machine. If you're traveling with a partner, have one person go inside the bank while the other one stands by the machine — if your card or cash has indeed been trapped, the thieves won't wait long to retrieve it.

Don't trust "helpful" strangers. Honest strangers willing to lend a hand abound in Europe, as they do here at home — but when it comes to troubles with your bank card, politely decline any offers of help.

Also, pay attention to strangers loitering near a cash machine, especially if they're in pairs (most commonly, the first one distracts you; the second one grabs your cash). Remember that you're most vulnerable just after you have entered your PIN and the withdrawal amount. Be savvy about the many clever ruses used to distract ATM-goers. The scammer may pretend to sell you a newspaper, place a €5 bill at your feet and tell you that you dropped some money, or ask you for a charitable donation. Sometimes the scammers are children.