PICKPOCKETS, THIEVES, CREDIT CARDS, ATMs, the INTERNET and COMPUTERS
This is a huge problem everywhere in the world. Identity theft, hacking accounts, stealing credit card and debit card numbers, theft, and pickpockets are everywhere. And they want your money. As a naïve traveler, it is sometimes hard to understand how they do it.
Where the level of poverty is high, many people make their living from robbing visitors. With light hair and skin, we stick out and make an easy target. If I did not know where your next meal was coming from, I might resort to stealing from rich tourists too. Travellers appear to be and usually are wealthy compared to the citizens of most third world countries. But all these things happen even in the most affluent places. You can never let your guard down.
I have included all the issues I have had during my nine years of travel.
SECURITY: THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS
1. Power of Attorney.
This is someone you trust implicitly at home who is legally appointed to manage your affairs – usually a family member. Anything can happen when traveling and it can be onerous to sort them out in many countries around the world. Simply getting documents faxed or emailed to you, getting them printed and then couriered back home can be a nightmare. Let someone at home do it for you. What will take them a few minutes may take you days and a lot of headaches. (refer to my horror show with PayPal for how bad things can be).
It is a formal legal document most cheaply organized through a notary public in North America or much more expensively with a lawyer.
2. Get a VPN.
Internet fraud can happen anywhere. Account numbers, passwords and all sorts of identity theft can occur over unsecure internet lines and it can be impossible to access the security of those internet access points. Internet cafes are the most unsecure places on your travels. A VPN routes your Internet through external servers using encryption software that is difficult to hack. Free VPNs available as Google Chrome extensions are very efficient. There are hundreds of pay-for VPNs (including Hidemyass and ExpressVPN) that cost ~US$6-7/month if purchased for six months. That small $40 investment can save you thousands.
VPNs, beside security, offers many other services like using the paid streaming from home that is blocked in foreign countries, and bypassing blocked websites (like Gmail, Google, Facebook and YouTube) in countries like China. Refer to both the info in this post and the post specifically about VPNs on the Travel page.
3. Use PayPal with Caution
PayPal when first registering, requests you to link bank accounts and credit cards to their system. They also ask you to produce security questions but these are never used because the company believes it is too much hassle to take 15 seconds to ensure the security of your account. Once your PayPal account gets hacked, PayPal is completely useless in helping correct the problem other than being able to freeze activity on the hacked account. It is possible for hackers to change your email address without your permission and your account simply disappears. The hacker cannot change your password unless they also hack your email account. In a nutshell, PayPal’s security sucks.
If you must use PayPal because there is no other way to pay for something, link the paying source only long enough to perform that one function, then remove it. Refer to the incident below that was an absolute nightmare to solve.
4. Get a Smartphone.
I never travel with a phone but will start. There are simply too many uses a phone can serve when traveling: receiving SMS passwords for security, maps, translation, and hundreds of other uses including as a phone. If you use Gmail, it is impossible to use off your personal computer or phone as you cannot verify your account without the ability to receive an SMS. Refer to my post on Travel Phones on the Travel page.
Pickpockets are the one thing most likely to upset your travel plans. Thousands of tourists are victims of pickpockets each year — and no one wants to spend their hard-earned vacation cancelling and replacing credit and debit cards, getting a new passport, and finding alternative means to access money. Crowded subways, buses or streets where contact with other people is common are favorite places for pickpockets. But nowhere is exempt. It is a universal problem. And they are very good – virtual Houdini’s. With practice, they are able to relieve you of anything.
Protect Your Cash. Cash is what I use most while traveling internationally because it’s accepted everywhere and credit cards aren’t. But the problem with cash is that it’s not traceable, so if it’s stolen you’ll never see it again. Taking proper precautions when carrying cash is a must. It gets tiring always checking your pockets and being vigilant.
Luckily there are many things you can do to deter yourself from becoming a pickpocketing victim.
Popular Cities For Pickpockets
While pickpockets can be found in nearly any city, the biggest concentration are in cities that attract the most tourists (no surprise there). Europe is known for its pickpockets and the pickpocket hotspots in Europe are: Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Athens, Prague, Czech Republic, Lisbon, Portugal, Florence, London and Amsterdam. But don’t think that pickpocketing only occurs in big cities, even the small town in Switzerland can be risk.
Who Are The Pickpockets?
Most people assume pickpockets are sketchy looking men, but a large number of pickpockets are actually young girls and boys — usually around 10-16-years old. Most tourists don’t suspect that a young child would steal from them, so they’re less defensive around them. Additionally, Police can’t really arrest minors and most don’t travel with any identification, so even if they’re caught the police usually have to let them go. Other times pickpockets are well-dressed and you’d never expect them to be thieves.
Pickpockets almost always work in groups with accomplices. One or two people will do something to distract you while another member tries to take your stuff. Once the theft has occurred, the thief who stole the item will often hand it off to someone else and they’ll all run in separate directions. Even when you realize immediately that you have been robbed and who did it, the actual thief may no longer have your stuff. This makes it very hard to track the culprit.
Gypsies are notorious pickpockets and thieves. They start at a young age and are common throughout Europe.
Where Pickpockets Hang Out
1. Tourists Attractions. Weather it be the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Trevi Fountain in Rome, or the Charles Bridge in Prague, it isn’t a surprise that pickpockets hang out in busy tourist spots. Naturally, tourists are more concerned about viewing the sights and taking photos than being attentive to their surroundings.
2. Public Transportation. Subways and city buses are prime spots for pickpockets. Public transportation is a great place for a pickpocket because it is often very crowded and it is easy for thieves to create confusion. Pickpockets normally target large metro/subway stations where many transit lines converge because it gives them plenty of places to exit if they’re being chased.
Trains stations are large, crowded, and full of confused tourists with their hands full of cumbersome luggage — which is exactly the kind of environment pickpockets love.
3. Museums. During the summer Europe’s most popular museums swell to maximum capacity and there are bound to be a few pickpockets among the lot. While the admission price deters most pickpockets, it doesn’t stop all of them from preying on unsuspecting visitors who are simply enjoying the art. In fact, in 2013 the workers at the Louvre in Paris went on strike because the pickpockets were getting so bad.
4. Restaurants, Cafes And Bars. Many people let their guard down when they’re enjoying a meal or a drink so it is easy for a crook to sneakily snatch a purse from the back of a chair or a mobile phone from the top of a table.
4. Beach. Pay attention to your stuff when you’re at the beach. Don’t leave your bag unattended or out of sight because there is a good chance someone might snatch them up.
5. Retail Stores and Malls. Clothing and departments stores can get extremely crowded — especially around the holidays. It is an easy place for a pickpocket to target tourists that are usually carrying a lot of money.
Tricks Pickpockets Use To Take Your Stuff
Distraction is the one tactic that all pickpockets use. They want to distract your attention just long enough to take your stuff. The following methods are well-known ways that pickpockets and thieves steal from tourists. Groups of little kids are also used as distractions
1. “Charity” Worker With Clipboards. This scam is very popular in Paris. It nearly always involves a group of young girls with clipboards. They’ll approach you and point to a clipboard while signaling that they’re deaf and mute. They want you to sign a petition for charity. If you sign they’ll ask for a donation to the charity. Of course the “charity” is fake — in fact, the money often goes to these girls’ “boss” (ie human traffickers). While the tourist is signing/reading the petition there is often an accomplice trying to pickpocket the victim.
2. Crowd The Metro. The metro (subway) trains can get very crowded. A common tactic is for a group of 4-6 kids to push on a crowded train shortly before the doors shut and crowd their target. They’ll swipe what they’re trying to steal and then they all hop off right as the doors begin to close. By the time the victim realizes what happened, it is too late and the train has already left the station.
Always be wary when a group of people crowd onto an already busy metro car. Also be wary of anyone who is standing very close to you on a train that isn’t crowded, as they might be up to no good.
3. Metro Smartphone Grab. People tend to zone out while they’re talking or texting on their phone. Be very careful about using your phone if you’re standing near the door of a subway car. Thieves will reach in and snatch your phone right as the doors close.
4. Help With Your Bag. Some metro stations have lots of stairs so “good Samaritans” will grab hold of your suitcase to help you carry it up the stairs. This usually takes people off guard a little and this is when their friend reaches into your purse or pocket. There are actually a lot of nice people who will offer to help carry a heavy suitcase, but they’ll ask you before grabbing onto your bag.
5. Bump And Lift. When you’re surrounded by crowds it isn’t uncommon to accidentally bump into other people. However, this is a common move performed by pickpockets, so if someone bumps into you, it might be smart to take a quick inventory of your belongings.
6. Escalator Backup. Escalators are another area that pickpockets target because it is easy to created chaos. With this scam there will be one or two people in front of the target and a few behind the target. Someone near the top of the escalator will stop right when they get off and this will create a huge backup of people trying to get off. As the backup occurs, the people behind the target will reach into the target’s bag/pocket and hand off the goods to one of his buddies behind him. I’ve also seen it where they’ve handed off the goods to someone on opposite escalator, so it’s almost impossible to chase them.
7. Newspaper/Map Distraction. A common pickpocket tactic involves using a large map or a newspaper to cover the targets line of sight in order to take things out of their bag. They’ll often shove the map in your face, point to a part of the map, and then their friend will reach under the paper so you can’t see what they’re taking. This is a very common way people steal mobile phones from tables.
8. The Helpful Tourist. Don’t let pickpockets take advantage of your good nature. In this scam one of the scammers will drop something in front of you and while you’re helping them pick up the mess the other pickpocket will swoop in and lift something from you bag. That does’t mean you can’t help your fellow-man, but just be careful about your own stuff while doing it.
9. Slashed Bag. Some pickpockets don’t even bother trying to open your bag and they will simply slash it open with a knife. Pacsafe makes a range of slash-proof bags for extra security.
10. Turnstile Stall. Busy turnstiles are a common area for pickpockets to strike. As you’re approaching a turnstile, one person will cut in front of you and then proceed to stop (they might pretend that the machine isn’t working) and their partner will come up behind you — essentially trapping you between the two of them. The person in the back will lift something from your bag or pocket while his partner in the front is fumbling with the turnstile.
11. Street Performances. There are many street performances that gather large crowds of tourists. These large groups of tourists draw pickpockets too, so beware.
12. Fake Fight. A large group of men might start a “fight” around a tourist, and in all the commotion one of the men will attempt to pickpocket the target.
13. Obnoxious Stuff Thrown on You. One common method is to have something thrown on you – mustard, ketchup, odorous oily liquids, or flour. Immediately more than one person comes to your assistance offering to help you clean up. You then get pickpocketed and relieved of most of your possessions. These people are very insistent and won’t go away. You must keep them away at all costs – even to the point of getting violent. Be careful when you go to a bathroom to clean up if they offer to help.
Who Do Pickpockets Target?
Anyone can be a potential target of a pickpocket, but they do tend to target certain types of people. Pickpockets will always look for the easiest target because they don’t want a confrontation.
1. Tourists. Tourist = money, in the mind of a pickpocket. If you look like a tourist, you’re automatically going to be singled out. Young travellers tend to carry around a lot of expensive (and easy to steal) electronics, so you’re a prime target. It is really easy to get your money/camera/passport/iPod stolen in an instant.
2. People With A Lot Of Luggage. If you are pulling along two suitcases and have a backpack you’re going to be a prime target. You won’t be able to watch over all your things since you have so much stuff.
3. Asians. Asians (specifically the Chinese) are a top choice for pickpockets because many of the Chinese who travel are very wealthy. Additionally, a large number of Chinese citizens don’t have as easy access to credit and debit cards, so they often carry large amounts of cash, and thieves know this. So even if you’re not Chinese, but have Asian heritage you might want to be more cautions.
4. People Who Flash Valuables. Walking alone at night while using your iPhone or SLR camera? Don’t be surprised if someone takes it away from you.
5. Trusting People. From all my travels I’ve rarely met a more friendly bunch than the Australians. I’ve also rarely met another group of people who’ve been victims of pickpockets than Australians. I think the people who think everyone else around them is nice and helpful are the ones who get taken advantage of most often.
How To Protect Yourself From Pickpockets
If you’ve made it this far you might be thinking that there are thousands of pickpockets trying to rob every tourist everywhere. But that really isn’t the case and you’ll rarely have any problems if you take a few extra precautions. It is also important to remember that actual violent crime is really pretty low everywhere, so as long as you’re vigilant you’ll be perfectly safe.
• While Sleeping on a train, bus, crowded hostel room, or any other public place, always keep your money, passport, credit cards and camera memory cards on your person. Preferably in a money belt or secret pocket. Most likely you will wake up if somebody tries reaches down your pants while you are sleeping.
• Always keep your valuables (ie. camera, laptop, or anything else you don’t want stolen) with you. Don’t put them under the bus or in the trunk of the taxi. Always keep you bag on you lap and use a couple different stashes of money and credit cards – most of my cash and cards on me and the other half somewhere hidden in my bag — that way I won’t be stuck with zero money if something happens. The only exception to this rule is when I’m sleeping in a public place (in this case, I keep everything in my money belt).
How to prevent being a victim:
1. Limit What You Carry. Pickpockets can’t steal what you don’t have — pretty simple. That is why I prefer to carry very little while I’m sightseeing. You don’t need credit and debit cards or your passport at night. Only take enough money for the evening putting the majority in an inside pocket or under the sole of your shoe (but I wear flip-flops almost 12 months of the year so that is usually not available to me as a place to stash money). Keep a few small bills and change in one to appease any thief. Leave your wallet and passport in a safe location in your hotel or hostel. Use lockers that can be locked or the front desk of the accommodation may have a safe (always get a receipt for the valuables you leave). Carry only as much cash as you think you will need and spread it around several pockets. An inside pocket is handy for big bills.
Develop a routine that you never vary. Always put your money, wallet, passport, and phone in the same places. I especially recommend not carrying a lot of cash.
2. Money Belts. A money belt is one of the most secure ways to carry valuables like extra money and your passport. However, many tourists make the mistake of thinking that they should use their money belt like a wallet — but it isn’t intended for that. Ideally, you should keep the money and debit/credit cards that you’re going to need for the day in your wallet and then keep all extra cash and maybe a backup credit card in the money belt. The money belt should be worn under your clothes and should be fairly inconvenient to access (to deter thieves). Honestly, I hate money belts. They are annoying, hot, bulky and uncomfortable. I wore mine for about 5 minutes before taking it off. But, many people swear by them. Wear one if it makes you feel safe. Make sure it’s waterproof because travelling can often be sweaty/perspiring work. There a multiple styles of money belts available:
• Around the Waist — This is the traditional style of money belt. You wear it under your shirt or around your waist. But they are not very comfortable.
• Around the Neck — Money belts that hang around your neck are another good option. These are a lot easier to access (especially if you wear it under a button-up shirt).
• Hidden Pocket — These hidden pocket money belts are nice because they tuck into your pant leg and I think they’re more comfortable than one that goes around your waist.
• Belt with Pocket — If you just want to stash some cash you can use a belt with a hidden pocket built-in.
3. Sewn Inside Pockets in your pants. This is my personal favourite. They are comfortable and absolutely secure. For a few dollars, this is easy to do. It is much cheaper than buying expensive travel pants that already have an inside pocket.
Have one 5×7 inch cotton pocket with a velcro closure sewn, attach with baby safety pins and move around your various pants and shorts.
4. Stashitware Hidden Pocket Underwear. Available in many styles (boxers, briefs, thongs, bikini briefs, hipster briefs) for both men and women, these have deep pockets built into them to store your valuables. Made of cotton, so they are comfortable, they are also relatively inexpensive. These are a great solution for women especially. At present time, can only be purchased on Amazon.
5. Bra Stash. There are several models but they all have problems. They are awkward – where do they go? between your breasts? on the side under your arm? Ability to use depends on breast size. Most are small (4×3″) and only able to hold up to 3 credit cards and small amounts of cash, not a passport or large volumes. Most women find them more comfortable under their panties on the side. But expensive for what you get when it would cost little to make a small silk or velour money stash.
6. Secure Your Bag/Backpack. Your bag or backpack is probably the most vulnerable area that pickpockets love to target. Backpacks are especially vulnerable because you can’t see if someone is trying to get into it. Here are some tops for securing your bag.
• Wear it Backwards — When you’re on crowded public transportation a lot of people will wear their bag backwards because this allows them to keep on eye on it.
• Lock The Zippers — At a minimum you’ll want to lock your zippers. You don’t need anything fancy — a simple luggage lock will work well. You can also use twist-ties.
• Sling Backpack — Sling backpacks are nice because they stay close to your body and they can be slung over your chest easily if needed. They do tend to be small, so you’ll have trouble if you plan on carrying a lot of stuff with you. There are many styles available.
• Secure it to an Immovable Object — When you’re at a restaurant loop your bag’s strap around your leg or the leg of your chair so someone can’t come by and swipe the bag. Similarly, it is smart to secure your bag to a chair or luggage rack while you’re on a train — especially on overnight trains. A retractable cable lock will provide enough protection to deter most thieves.
7. Pickpocket Proof Bags. If you want to be extra safe you can get yourself a specially designed “pickpocket proof” backpack, bag, or purse. The most popular anti-theft bags are made by Pacsafe. Their bags have tamper-proof zippers, cut-proof straps, anchored straps, and a slash-proof metal mesh sewn into the bag. Pacsafe has a large variety of styles and sizes of handbags, backpacks, and travel accessories. Travelon is another company that makes anti-theft bags.
8. Zippered Purse. Make sure your purse has a zipper and don’t forget to actually zip it up. Keep valuables in internal zipped compartments if possible.
9. Wallet In Front Pocket. A lot of guys keep their wallet in their back pocket, but this is an extremely easy target for a pickpocket. To avoid being pickpocketed, keep your wallet in your front pocket, especially a pocket that can be buttoned or zippered up. Most women’s clothing have few secure pockets. Even zippered pockets may not deter them so best of all, use the inside pocket of your jacket or have a pocket sewn on the inside of all your pants and shorts. I highly recommend getting a super thin wallet because a bulky wallet feels very strange in your front pocket — and it looks kind of dumb. The Big Skinny Multi-Pocket Bifold Wallet gets a lot of great reviews for having a low profile. Wrapping a rubber band around your wallet makes it much harder to slip out of your pocket without being noticed. Some people do the opposite and use big bulky wallets that are hard to remove from a pocket but this seems cumbersome to me.
10. Keep Your Phones Off The Table. Smartphones are a super popular item for pickpockets to target. Many people will simply leave it on the table while they’re eating and someone can come up and snatch it
11. Split-Up Your Valuables. Develop a routine that you never vary. Always put your money, wallet, passport, and phone in the same places. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket so if you are pickpocketed you’ll limit the amount you’ll lose. You know how you keep all your bank cards in your wallet/purse when you’re at home? Well, don’t do this while you’re traveling. If you lose all your cards on the road it is very difficult to get replacements, and being without money in Timbuktu can be kind of unfun. Keep at least one in a different place, preferably not on your person. If going out at night, leave your wallet and cards in a safe place in your room or security at the front desk. Only take enough money for the evening putting the majority in an inside pocket or under the insole of your shoe. Have some spare change in a pocket to give to the thief.
It’s also wise to hide a stash of emergency cash in your luggage somewhere. My favorite places include: dirty socks, toiletry kits, under shoe inserts, sewn behind a patch (attached to your bag).
11. Fanny Packs. I’d advise against the bum bag/fanny pack varieties. There is no better way to advertise the fact that you have valuables on you…and, of course, they were never ever cool.
My Personal Experiences
Barcelona, Spain is the pickpocket capital of the world. It is one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe and the world. And thieves have migrated there to make a good living off naïve tourists.
I was pickpocketed in Barcelona and relieved of my new iPhone even though it was in a front pocket. I had been sitting on a park bench using the phone then went for a walk on La Ramba, the busy tourist street in Barcelona. I didn’t even realize I had lost the phone until I got back to my hotel but remember being jostled in a crowded area.
On my first day in Beijing, I carelessly put my wallet in my back pocket. I believed that Chinese were “honest”. The subway from the airport was very crowded and my wallet was pickpocketed. This was a foolish error on my part and after 8 years of travel, knew better.
I was pickpocketed for the third time in Kojand, Tajikistan. On a very crowded minibus, I had my wallet and passport in a zippered front pocket but the wallet was stolen anyway.
When I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia to see Angkor Wat over Christmas in 2013, pickpockets descended on the city and almost every tourist was a target. I personally wasn’t robbed but I met several tourists who were.
VIOLENT CRIME, MUGGING AND ARMED THEFT
This is relatively rare and only really occurs in Latin America and Africa and then normally at night in large cities. If you are going to get robbed/attacked then there’s little you can do about it and you are very unlucky, but that’s why we have insurance. There are plenty of fools about and you hear only a few stories of something bad happening to someone without them doing something a little stupid or naïve, like walking around randomly at night, being drunk or trying to buy drugs. That said you can go a long way to avoid being mugged by applying the same sort of judgement you might in any large city.
Violent crime is generally minimal, but there are still plenty of cases of muggings. Don’t make yourself an easy target and you shouldn’t have any problems. This sort of lawlessness is pretty much restricted only to certain parts of Africa and South America so don’t get overly concerned – it is obvious bad stories are over weighted as they are the ones that get told the most. The most dangerous areas most travellers encounter are not the remote villages, the big African cities or Islamic Republics, rather the sprawling boundaries of many of the developing worlds cities. Not only are the poorest of the citizens located here, but moreover the young and unemployed whom are neither part of the countryside or the city. These are the areas to avoid.
Don’t Show Your Wealth. If you’re travelling abroad then you’re more than likely to be richer than most of the locals, but advertising this fact by wearing gold jewelry, carrying a $2000 camera around your neck or wearing an external money belt/fanny pack is not advisable. It makes you a target for thieves. And keep your camera in a bag when you’re not using it. The most common items desired are cameras, i-pods, smart phones and computers as these have value on the black market. Even a passport can be of some value on the illegal market, and a credit card can be used without your signature. Leave your jewelry at home or don’t wear expensive jewelry and don’t show off your fancy camera/iPod when you’re not using it.
Night Time. This is always the dodgiest time when most muggings occur. Stick to busy, well-lit streets and use a taxi to get around obvious trouble spots and at night. If you do walk at night (especially when alone) avoid unlit roads, parks and quiet alleys. Leave your credit cards and most money at your hostel or hotel.
It’s pretty sensible to take a taxi to your hotel when you first arrive in any developing world city outside of the centre and daylight hours – wearing a large backpack is like saying ‘hey, I have got loads of valuables on me, rob me’ and in somewhere like Nairobi or Delhi it’s likely somebody might take up the challenge. And it is really asking for trouble if you arrive in a big city after dark, particularly one where the budget accommodation is dispersed and then you go on a walkabout in search of a room around bus/train stations.
ATMS. Be aware when withdrawing money from an ATM.
Walk with Confidence. Muggers want to attack the weak.
Trekking. If you decide to go off trekking anywhere (particularly in Latin America) find out whether there is any risk in the area you are planning to walk and think carefully about what you take. This is cited in particular reference to Guatemala where hikers even in large groups are frequently robbed walking around Lago Atitlán and climbing volcanoes without guides. It always makes sense to ask locals of any recent problems. Remember criminal activity is normally always focused around tourist hot spots or the poor suburbs of developing world large cities. One would imagine in the northern hills of Guatemala you could leave a tent for weeks without anyone even touching it.
Fake, Dummy or Mugger’s Wallet. In particularly risky locations, you can also carry this. It is a cheap 2nd wallet that’s filled with a small amount of money in local currency, an old driver’s license, some receipts, and an expired credit card. It’s used as a decoy, so if you’re ever mugged, you can throw it at the thieves and run away. This is helpful against pickpockets too. The tactic is best used in cities with high crime rates — I’ve carried one before in Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa and Quito.
To take this one step further, use an actually charge-up type credit card with a small amount of money in it, so that if forced to use an ATM, you will not lose much money.
Lock Up Your Stuff. Lock up your valuables in the hostel. Pretty simple.
Daypacks. Do not set your pack down unless you have complete control of it. One of the most common things stolen are small daypacks or handbags. Managing a large backpack, a daypack and often another bag or two produces management problems as one needs to be set down to deal with the other. Again turning your back for one second is all it takes. Leaving a pack under your chair at a restaurant or even in front of your feet become targets. Wrap a shoulder strap around your leg. Carry your daypack on your front as thieves can undo zippers or slash the bag when on your back. One of the advantages of not traveling alone is that there is someone else to keep alert – but both must always be vigilant.
Concerning daypacks, when in major cities such as Cape Town or Rio, or parts of sub-Sahara Africa and South America where daylight muggings do occur, ditch as much luggage as possible (how about all?), especially day sacs and handbags, jewellery and that nice watch. All you need is enough money for that day and an ID [or photocopy of] – nothing else, better not even your ATM card. Don’t walk around at leisure with your pack when you don’t know the area even in the day – a taxi or bus is well worth it.
Don’t Leave Your Belongings Unattended in Public Spaces. This is so obvious that I am embarrassed to mention it, but people do it all the time. Most notably, travellers leave their bags at their feet or hanging from the back of chairs when they’re at cafes or restaurants. Either keep them on your lap or wrap its strap around your leg.
Give It Up. There is a simple rule that people find hard to follow: if you are mugged, give over your wallet, watch etc. This shouldn’t be a problem if you have insurance and you’ve left all your irreplaceable stuff at home. Just do it, and walk away uninjured.
Buses and Public Transport. Bus depots require special vigilance as thieves commonly hang out there looking for gullible tourists. On a bus, never use the overhead bins and do not stuff your pack or bag far under your seat. Thieves can slash the bag and steal its contents. Keep it on your lap or directly under or in front of your feet and wrap a strap around a leg. You become a potential victim anytime you fall asleep on the bus. Generally the large storage compartments under the bus are safe. The best bus lines give a receipt that must match your luggage when it is claimed at the end of a trip. Do keep an eye out for theft out of windows, chiefly on trains (normally at night).
Sometimes you hear about a backpacker being drugged on public transport and awakening without his valuables. This is not a big problem or something you should really be concerned about but, especially if you are alone, be aware of accepting food, drink or cigarettes from over friendly strangers. In fact it is worth always being aware of overly friendly strangers – whatever the situation.
The reality is this is a particularly hard problem to prevent if you are targeted and can lead to paranoia. It’s only principally important to be on real guard in Colombia and to a lesser extent Thailand, Cuba and the Kenyan coast. However, it is the case that any small bag you take onto a bus or into a bus station is a prime target – especially in Latin America.
If your bag does not have your full attention a strap around your leg or a simple and quick wire-lock will give you peace of mind and possibly save your trip from being seriously tarnished. Liken this to putting a seat belt on at slow speeds. If you have never been in an accident, it seems pretty pointless. Nonetheless, with hindsight it seems more than sensible even when you don’t feel like it or feel the situation fits. In regions like Latin America and Africa it is more than good sense.
Always remember a daypack (and especially a handbag) is a prime target almost everywhere. Especially in Latin America, be super aware in bus stations.
Scan Your Travel Documents (passport, debit and credit cards, travel insurance, drivers license, diving licenses) and email them to yourself. It was traditional to photocopy them and keep them in a separate part of your luggage. But that’s old school. These days, digital is best – that way your documents won’t go missing even if your bags do.
Get Travel Insurance. This is mainly for health costs and evacuation back home if necessary. But most plans also cover loss or theft. There are usually small limits on electronic gear so it may be necessary to purchase extra if traveling with expensive cameras and lenses, computers and smart phones. Police reports are usually necessary to complete a claim. Trip cancellation and coverage for risky activities like diving can be valuable. You can tailor the plan to suit your needs. Insurance is worth it. Look at my long post on travel insurance.
Back Everything Up. When your laptop computer gets stolen, having most of you important documents and photos backed up will save your ass. Keep both digital and physical copies of your passport, visas, driver’s license, birth certificate, health insurance card, serial numbers, and important phone numbers ready to go in case of an emergency. Backup your files & photos on an external hard drive as well as online with software like Backblaze.
When in Old Town, Quito, Ecuador, I was walking around with a woman from Venezuela I had met in my hotel. I was using her SLR camera as she was a beginning photographer and thought I could take better photos. We wandered about 50m outside the “boundaries” of Old Town. Within minutes, two young men came up behind us, one grabbed the camera strap at my neck, the other grabbed the body of the camera, and despite having the strap under my arm, there was no way I could prevent its theft. They ran away and there was no way we could (or wanted to) catch them. We reported the theft to the police but they were of no help.
Quito (and other cities in Ecuador) is notoriously the worst city in South America for personal theft. Everyone I talked to who walked around New Town, Quito at night had been robbed. One guy was robbed twice in one night.
A traveler was sitting in a hotel lobby with his big pack a few feet away, was suddenly surrounded by a few people obscuring his vision, and lost everything he had.
Stash Extra Cash. Cash is king around the world. To cover your ass in an emergency, make sure to stash some in a few different places. I recommend at least a couple hundred dollars worth in US funds. If you lose your wallet, your card stops working, or the ATMs run out of money, you’ll be glad you did. Some of the best stash spots include socks, under shoe inserts, a toiletry bag, around the frame of a backpack, even sewn behind a patch on your bag. That last one’s for you, Canadians.
Duplicate Cards. Travelers need duplicate debit and credit cards stored in a different place in your backpack. I have not found a bank in Canada that offers duplicates so I have two different banks. I lose a card or two every year and losing access to money sucks. Some people carry old invalid cards to appease thieves. I arrange for a small one-day withdrawal limit, usually not over $500 to prevent your account from being drained quickly.
Check Your Bank Accounts and Credit Cards regularly. Unauthorized withdrawals will be the first indication of identity theft and fraudulent use of your cards.
Multiple Sources of Redundancy – Use 3 Accounts For Safety.
International financial fraud is on the rise, and plenty of travel horror stories involve drained bank accounts. Planning for worst-case scenarios is a smart thing to do. That’s why I always recommend using 3 different bank accounts while you travel.
#1: Personal Checking Account. This account is used for personal reasons, like paying bills, and anything not travel related. It can also be used as an emergency backup should your Travel Checking Account get compromised on the road. This ATM card is locked in a hostel/hotel safe or hidden within my backpack at all times.
#2: Travel Checking Account. This account is used for travel expenses, including withdrawing money out of ATMs. I never keep more than about $1000 in this account at any one time. Limit the daily withdrawal limit to $500. If your ATM card details are stolen, or you happen to be the victim of an Express Kidnapping, it shouldn’t completely halt your travels. The thieves may get some money, but losses will be minimized, and you’ll get all your money back from the bank in a few days anyway.
#3: Travel Savings Account. An ING Direct Orange Savings Account is where the bulk of my travel money resides. There are no ATM cards to steal, and my account balance earns interest. When my Travel Checking Account gets low, I can easily go online and replenish it. This account is also linked to my Personal Checking Account, should I need to transfer funds if my Travel Account is compromised or I’m waiting for a replacement ATM card. ING Direct has the best interest rates around, and it’s very easy to link the account to other banks.
The redundancy built into this system keeps me prepared for many different scenarios while traveling — including bank fraud and lost or malfunctioning ATM cards.
Credit/Debit Card Skimming. It is extremely easy to “clone” a credit card and this crime is becoming huge. All the thief needs to do is swipe your card through a tiny machine that records all the info from your card’s magnetic strip. The devices are cheap and easy to buy online. In fact, skimming is the biggest problem in bank fraud today. Most often this crime is committed by waiters and shopkeepers. Sometimes they’ll make charges right away but they’ll often wait months before they make a charge. Keep your eyes on your credit card. When paying by credit card overseas (especially at restaurants & bars), never lose sight of it. Don’t let anyone “take it out back” to swipe the card. If the machine is not near you, ask to accompany the cashier. Card skimming scams are often accomplished this way.
Always use your credit card (or cash) when making purchases at a place of business. It is much easier to contest fraudulent charges with a credit card. It can be a huge nightmare if your debit card gets cloned because it takes much longer to get your money back.
Stolen Cards. It is pretty common sense that you should report your stolen cards ASAP.
Using Credit Cards in Pay Phones. Never use your credit card in a payphone. You’ll get charged a ton. This isn’t illegal, but it is still a scam. I know someone who paid well over $100 for a 2 minute call.
Be Wary of Using Your Credit Card at an Internet Café. Internet cafes’ computers may have key logger software or hardware that records your key strokes, so unscrupulous characters (not necessarily the owners of the cafe) can see the username and password to your online accounts (banking, email etc) or grab your credit card details. A good trick to make this more challenging for them: open a couple of other browser windows (for the website you are using) and half way through entering your passwords or credit card information type incorrect information into these windows.
sing credit cards for cash advances incurs a service charge and immediate interest charges. Before leaving the country, notify your credit and debit card banks that you will be traveling out of country listing your potential itinerary. Arrange for complete automatic payment from your bank account of any credit card balance. The total balance is paid out on the last billing date so interest charges are zero and you get the use of their money for the month. Chip cards are not used in the US and South America (except Brazil) and security can be an issue. If for some reason you want to cancel your credit card in a hurry, for example identity theft, and can’t access a phone, simply go to an ATM and enter incorrect PIN numbers three times and voila. You still need to phone and can get replacement cards by courier.
My Personal Experiences
I used my credit card in an internet café in Vietnam. When I checked my credit card statement a few days later, I had a Western Union cash withdrawal of $1,600 from my card into an account in Toronto. My credit card was cancelled and because it was fraud, the transaction was removed from my card.
Debit cards are your main source of cash everywhere. But they can also be another way to get scammed. Thieves have all sorts to ways to rip you off. Only use a four digit PIN with no letters as no machines take longer numbers or letters. It only takes 3 attempts to enter a number that doesn´t work to invalidate your card. Be wary of using ATMs that are outside or in dodgy neighbourhoods.
Hide Your PIN. Make sure no one is looking over your shoulder. Some thieves have been known or rig up a small camera pointed to the number pad, so always use your other hand to cover up the number. Then they’ll follow you around for a chance to steal your card.
Tape In The Card Slot. A common scam is to put clear tape in the card slot so your card gets stuck when it is inserted. After you leave someone comes by with tweezers and gets your card.
Report “Eaten” Cards. Sometimes cards just get eaten but some are victims of fraud. Cancel the card if you can’t get it back.
ATM W/Skimming Device. This is pretty rare but some thieves outfit ATMs with a cloning device (like mentioned above) and steal hundreds of credit numbers. This is a pretty advanced technique and it can be difficult to detect. If the ATM looks a little funny I suggest finding another one.
ATM Confusion. Always be careful when using the ATM — especially when you’re alone. While you’re in the process of withdrawing money, a group of beggars will approach you from behind to try to get your attention. They might pull on your arm or shove a peace of paper in front of the screen. If you turn toward one of the thieves, another one will slip in from the other side and press the button for the max amount of cash. Then they’ll swipe the money and run off.
Also be sure to cover up your pin code when you enter it. Some thieves will try to see your code (some even use hidden cameras) and
I used an outside ATM next to the ferry terminal in Ila Grande in Brazil and must have had my account information read on a card reader. Four withdrawals of $500 (my maximum daily withdrawal limit) were made over the next four days. I notified my bank, had my debit card cancelled, explained the situation my email and received the $2,000 back.
Travelers Checks have lost most of their usefulness as they usually must be redeemed in banks and fees are charged for using them.
One way to solve PIN issues is to have at least two 8 symbol passwords – the first 4 are numbers that you find easy to remember (not your birthday or 1234. Old addresses, old phone numbers or memorable years may be easiest to remember), the next two are letters (not your initials) one that is capitalized, and the last two are symbols. Label them somehow (use “a” for the first, “b” for the second, “c” for the third). You then have an unlimited number of passwords (eg. a2b4 – the first 2 numbers of the first one and the first 4 of the second). Each password is listed for every entry on a wallet card in this code form so I never have a problem remembering them. I don`t understand how other people can keep track of all their passwords any other way. This system allows for a small wallet that is easy to store on your person. On each trip I put all my documents and my wallet card on a flash drive and scan them and email them to myself. I then have access to most anything I need.
My wallet card contains absolutely every bit of personal information with PINs in code form printed on two sides and carried in a thin cardboard folder. It allows me to have an infinite variety of PINs that I never lose track of. I use it almost every day and is invaluable.
It’s impossible to go any period of time without using a computer these days. While traveling many people use computers to book future travel plans, check email, and update Facebook. Unfortunately, the computers in internet cafes and hostels can be full of really nasty software designed to steal your passport/credit card numbers and other information. I would assume that every computer you use is going to be infected in some shape or form. There is too much to list when it comes to computer scams. Many European countries don’t use an English keyboards so typing can be a little difficult.
Avoid Public Computers. All over the world you’ll find internet cafes where you can rent a public computer to manage your online banking. It’s relatively easy to install a key logger on these machines, which will track every keystroke you make, giving a hacker all of your login details. These programs record everything you type. So they can easily get into your email/Facebook/IM service. They also record credit card numbers and other personal information. If you must, make sure to use a secure password manager like Last Pass.
Viruses. Many computers are infected with viruses and the virus can do all kinds of harmful things.
Computer Safety Tips
Security Programs. Luckily, it is fairly easy to protect yourself if you have the right tools. The best protection is to download special programs onto a USB flash drive. CafeKlysm is a totally free set of security programs (no advertising or other stuff either) that easily fit onto a flash drive. It includes a portable version of Firefox web browser, a program that allows you to enter sensitive information safely, and a bunch of other good stuff. As long as you use these programs you shouldn’t have any problems with cyber-scams. Also, don’t forget simple stuff like not allowing the browser to “save” your password and signing out when you are finished.
Gmail. Use Gmail for your email because all the information is encrypted
WiFi Is Dangerous. Using a wi-fi connection is never completely safe so you might not want do any banking over wi-fi.
Don’t Use Internet Explorer, IE is very easily infected with viruses. Make sure you use the browser on the USB drive.
Pick Tough Passwords. This is web security 101, but make sure your passwords are complex. It isn’t a bad idea to change your passwords often.
Use VPNs. Regardless of what it is used for, VPNs always work in the same way. A secure connection is created from the local computer system to a remote server that is maintained by the VPN company. From there, connections to the Internet are established. Internet traffic flows through the remote server so that Internet services communicate with it directly and not with the local system. Connect through your VPN service and your IP address will be changed automatically. While there are ways to identify VPN connections, it is difficult if precautions are taken.
Security Benefits. Evade hackers and enjoy complete security, even on public wi-fi connections. VPNs provide encrypted and secure connection from anywhere in the world over any connection. Prevent hackers stealing your personal passwords, bank account and credit card details. And protect your device from malware, phishing and spam sites. With all the identity theft that occurs around the world, I believe this is the most valuable function of a VPN.
When I was in Indonesia, I used my PayPal account to pay for a membership in a mountaineering club I belong to. When I checked my bank account one week later, two withdrawals of $1,000 and $5,000 had been made to PayPal. When I logged in to my PayPal account, both the amounts were there as pending transfers into my PayPal account that is linked to my bank checking account on PayPal. I phoned PayPal and was told they could not transfer the money back to my bank account but that It was necessary to contact my bank branch to have the withdrawals reversed. My bank required a signed document to complete that. I was in a small town on a small island and could not find a fax or scanner to receive the document, sign it and return it. I had no internet access for a few days and when I tried to log into my PayPal account, there was no evidence that I had an account! PayPal was eventually able to find my account using my checking account number and my email address had been changed. The money was still there but had been converted to $US. I eventually received the scanned document by email, signed it, emailed it back and had the transfer reversed.
I had apparently used a unsecure internet server and had my PayPal account hacked. PayPal requires you to have two security questions supplied when you open the account but never use them for normal activity except when you want to change your password. One of the operators thought that would be a real pain to do that every time you used PayPal. My bank account asks a security question every time I log in and it takes only a few seconds.
The message here is: 1. Use PayPal only if absolutely necessary. Their security sucks. 2. Do not link bank accounts on PayPal and if you need to, link the account only when used, then remove the bank account when finished that one transaction. 3. Make sure you only use secure Internet servers by using a VPN. Refer to my post on VPNs. 4. Check your bank accounts regularly.