Planning to use your credit card in Asia? Here are tips on being smart with your card while on holiday.

Some travellers feel iffy about the subject because you can fall victim to any variant of credit card fraud. Depending on how you use it, you can get entangled in phishing attacks (when perpetrators gain access to your credit card info by tricking you into divulging details via a spoofed website or e-mail), skimming (when a counterfeit card reader is used to harvest the data on your card’s pin stripe) stolen pin number or social engineering (when people are unsuspectingly manipulated into giving personal details). The pain doubles if the incident happens while you’re on holiday.

Manila-based banker, Tonette Ramirez, admits that credit cards are not infallible. “Technology has its lapses,” she says. “But the difference between cash and a credit card is that stolen cash is lost forever. Meanwhile a good bank will cancel any unauthorized transactions.”

Take the case of Sydney-based writer and photographer Michael Gebicki. He relates on how he almost lost USD 500 after using his Citibank Visa in Singapore. Gebicki used his card in a bar at the Marina Bay Sands and two merchants at the Singapore airport. Fraudulent transactions popped up in his account weeks later, hinting that his card was either skimmed, or the PIN number stolen. Citibank subsequently gave him a refund after Gebicki filed his complaint.

Other travelers have more mundane issues over their cards. Malaysia-based Delisha Sofia Mohammad, who went to Japan for her honeymoon, feels that a credit card turns out to be more expensive in the end. Some Japanese merchants advised them to pay in cash, saying they’d be spending more on charges incurred per transaction.

Despite the risks, people use it anyway to get rewards. Singapore-based English teacher Jem Si, who frequently uses her credit card while traveling, agrees. “We don’t just get the rewards and the miles, but we also get to manage our money better through zero interest, delayed payment schemes.” The trick is, she says, to reserve the card solely for hotel bookings, plane tickets and high-end establishments.

This practice of isolating the card for transport and accommodation seem to be common among Asian travellers. Aries Contaoi, a Filipino solo backpacker based in Dubai, admits he doesn’t use the card for every little thing. “I use the card for bus and plane tickets. I use cash when I go out.” In Thailand for instance, he kept his budget down to a certain amount. “Let’s say I decided on 500 baht a day. When that was used up, I don’t spend any more.” Putting everything on a credit card means your finances will be at the mercy of your credit limit and the extent of your self-control, he says.

Then there’s emergencies. No one ever thinks of sickness and accidents while on holiday, but it does happen. Contaoi’s emergency had a slight twist to it.

“After having a meal at a restaurant abroad, the waiter told me they had a non-cash policy,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a card on me so I had to fight for my right to pay cash up front.” Though the incident happened in Amsterdam, the chances of this scenario happening at a point of sales in Asia isn’t too far behind.

Reports show that while many Asian merchants still use the magnetic stripe, the Asian banking sector is taking rapid measures to be more EMV chip compliant – the new standard created by Europay, Mastercard and Visa. The standard features a microprocessor chip that hinders card skimmers, and makes it possible to use the card without making physical contact with the merchant. However, some EMV cards retain the magnetic stripe to be compatible with older payment systems. When you swipe your EMV card, you benefit from none of the card’s upgraded security features. But the new developments are enough to do away with most forms of fraud. Contaoi says, “When you have to use a unique verification code from your credit card issuer for every transaction made, it’s almost impossible for fraudulent transactions to take place.” The worst thing you can do now is to not read your credit card statements to check for any irregularities. The key then to safe credit card use is understanding the technology your credit card is based on and how that plays out among Asian merchants.

In Malaysia and Singapore, where chip cards have been in use for some time, this contactless system is expanding to other handheld smart devices, like smart phones.

But the risks remain. One possibility is that you end up paying for other people’s purchases within the perimeter. To keep that from happening, use an RFID blocking sleeve, a wallet that makes use of a layer of aluminium foil to block out electromagnetic signals. Sandy Dayao, a Malaysian project engineer, got an RFID blocking sleeve and was surprised by how it worked. “My cards are in my wallet. I tap my wallet to have my ID read and it didn’t work that one time. I realized it was the card sleeve that was blocking the signal. It really does work.”

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