September 19, 2011

It’s been more than a decade now since the terror attacks of 9/11, attacks that forever changed air travel worldwide. While much has been done to harden the industry from terrorist threats, more work in the security arena remains.

That assessment came from Raymond Benjamin, Secretary General of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, during a recent four-day security summit in Montreal.

“We first need to sharpen our focus on preventing identity fraud as we maintain our traditional emphasis on document security,” Benjamin told conferees. “Terrorists have had to exploit weaknesses much earlier in the production process of identity documents and that’s where we have to hit next.”

Document security is all too often an easy target, according to Matt Burdette, Chief of Intelligence for FrontierMEDEX, whose security offices are based in Houston, TX.

“When it comes to identity security in business aviation, you’re facing crew members and passengers who fly a great deal and typically make a great number of stops,” Burdette said.

Driven by a tight economy, he said business flights are of longer duration and involve more destinations now than ever before. That means more fatigue and more opportunity to misplace vital documents, he noted.

The opportunities for identity thieves abound under the circumstances. Burdette pointed to statistics compiled by the Federal Trade Commission in 2008 alone:

  • Approximately one-quarter of all FTC complaints in that year involved the theft of identity.
  • Of those complainants, 65-percent never reported the crime to law enforcement.
  • Almost half of ID theft victims failed to discover the crime for up to three months.
  • Amazingly, 20-percent of them didn’t realize they’d been victimized by ID thieves for as long as four years.
  • The average ID theft victim spends more than 300 hours over a period of four to six months trying to repair the damage to their bank or credit accounts, spending several thousand dollars in the process – and that doesn’t account for the money thieves might have drained out of their bank accounts.
  • A flight operator or client firm can spend up to $90,000 trying to rectify the potential damage from the theft of a single laptop computer.

“It’s a difficult situation made worse by the growth of electronics in our personal lives,” Burdette lamented. “You have one domino fall over and it just knocks over a bunch more in all aspects of your life.”

Burdette said he finds it astounding that most people don’t realize they are responsible for securing their own identities.

“It’s a hassle. Let’s face it. Nobody likes to go through a hassle for something they don’t think is going to happen to them,” he said.

There are, however, definitive steps flight crews and passengers can take to avoid identity theft. Among those Burdette offered:

Don’t put your laptop or briefcase on the luggage cart when checking into a hotel. Chances are you’ll lose sight of that cart for at least a short period of time before you’re reunited with your belongings in the hotel room, giving thieves and unscrupulous hotel employees a chance to steal information-laden technology when it’s out of your control.

  • Check your wallet before traveling, especially when flying internationally. Many of us use them to carry several credit cards, our business cards, our spouses’ business cards – all information thieves can use to steal your identity. Pare down the number of credit cards and other identifying information before you depart.
  • Make a copy of vital personal documents (passport, birth certificate, driver’s license) before travel. Keep it in a safe place at home or work – or both – just in case. If your wallet, purse or briefcase is stolen, you can use that information to prove your identity and obtain replacement documents. Burdette cautioned this is especially important prior to international travel.
  • Check your credit reports regularly. You are allowed one free check each year by the three major credit reporting agencies. Take advantage of that to make sure there are no unauthorized transactions that have occurred in your name.

Finally, Burdette said, you should keep up with current events, especially in the areas where you’re traveling.

“It’s worthwhile for folks – especially those who travel overseas a great deal – to make sure they’re checking for updates. Flight crews should treat this like annual training. Protecting your own personal information as well as the company’s information – flight itineraries, baggage claim tickets, bills – is vital. Consider all the places where you might put these things down and then leave them. That provides the bad guys a toe-hold to commit criminal acts that will catch you unaware,” Burdette warned.