I was recently in Brussels attending some meetings with members of International Consumer Research & Testing, a consortium of consumer organizations of which Consumers Union is a member. I planned to spend two days on my own after the meetings, in the medieval town of Bruges, an hour's train trip from Brussels. While on a train platform in north Brussels, I was victimized by a team of robbers who skillfully distracted me and snatched my laptop bag. Among other items, it contained my laptop, cell phone, iPod Touch MP3 player, noise-canceling headphones, and a few USB thumb drives. All gone.
While such an incident could well ruin more than just a trip, some personal practices and quick actions prevented that from happening in my case. Here's what I recommend you do if your personal electronics items are stolen on the road, with notes on what I did:
Change passwords. Fortunately, I had not put my financial files or account data on any of the stolen storage devices. I have no need to carry that info when traveling, so it resides only at home.
But the laptop did have a file from Microsoft Outlook that could conceivably be accessed by someone who was able to crack the password to log into my Windows account. (That's not difficult with hacker tools readily available for free online.) My Outlook file had a few emails and Notes that, with a bit of searching and some guesswork, might reveal login information to my online banking account. So, I went online at my hotel's internet cafe, logged in securely to my bank's website, and changed my bank account password. Just for good measure, I changed my password for my PayPal online payment account as well.
Finally, to keep the thieves from retrieving new messages, I went to my ISP's website and changed my e-mail password. I get to my company email only through a secure "VPN" web page, which scrambles everything transmitted, and doesn't save the password.
Freeze your credit reports. I also went to a credit bureau website and put a 90-day freeze on credit reports, which would presumably stop anyone trying to open an account in my name, armed with any financial info they might find on the laptop. The temporary freeze is extended to all three U.S. credit-reporting agencies.
Back up documents, even on the road. I don't keep any files or documents on my laptop that aren't backed up at home, a hedge against hard drive failure as well as theft. I did lose some meeting notes from my trip, but knew I could re-construct them from the formal minutes taken by another participant. If I had done anything that was original work, I would have emailed it to myself at my company email address, so I would have a safe copy.
Suspend service to a stolen phone. The phone I lost was useless in Europe, being a Verizon phone with only CDMA compatibility. Even so, I temporarily suspended my cell phone service (and billing) while obtaining a new phone. If I had had banking access through the phone, I would have deactivated it. My iPod was synced to iTunes on my home computer, but a new iPod will sync just as well.
The lessons learned? My new laptop will have Windows Vista Ultimate, which includes the optional "Bitlocker" feature that encrypts the entire hard drive, making it impenetrable to anyone but me. Also, I will have LoJack for Laptops, a service that can help locate and retrieve a stolen computer if a thief uses it on the Internet. And, I will split up my gadgets among my luggage. Caveat viator!