Travel Tips for Geeks: Preventing Theft
This is the first in a set of blog posts based on my experiences traveling in various places around the world. This particular safety-related post is about theft, not scams, which I may cover in another article.
For this first article, I'm hoping this gets on various technical RSS feeds. I'm doing this because many of the readers of such feeds attend conferences and are strangers in far and distant places.
Thieves (or pick pockets) are everywhere. I've seen extremely suspicious activity in Portland, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Barcelona, Florence, Pisa, and Krakow. Years ago in Washington DC I had stuff stolen from me twice so I've been observant and careful ever since. Anywhere there are non-residents distracted by looking at new vistas while suffering from travel fatigue is where most thieves can be found. I've learned a lot by observation and doing research but I don't claim to be an expert. All I claim to be is someone who doesn't want to be ripped off far from home.
The Basics: Any place with tourists is risky
While it can be said that thieves can be anywhere, the truth is that they focus on where the tourists go. We carry money and expensive things, are tired, distracted, and don't know our way around. For a thief, A moment of risk can yield hundreds or thousands of dollars of profit from a traveler.
"I've never had any problems there"
I've heard this several times from local residents or travelers, often about places with statistically high crime rates. You'll hear it too.
All that means is that they've either been lucky or unobservant. It's better to avoid a miserable trip by being a least a little careful with your identity, money, and electronics.
Listen to warnings before you go places
In Barcelona our host warned us about La Rambla, a tourist-heavy street that's notoriously thick with thieves. While we're always careful, we were especially observant there, and enjoyed the very lovely and friendly downtown Barcelona without incident.
Conversely, don't pay attention to warnings at locations. Public notices about thieves are a nasty trap. When you see them you check your most expensive things, giving away the location of money, jewelry, watches, and cell phones.
Watch how local residents protect themselves
In suspicious places you'll notice local men with their hands in their pockets. Why? It's because they are literally keeping their hands on the money.
In the same places, local women will take a shirt, sweater, or even a newspaper and have it on top of their purse with their arm on top of that. Where "man-purses" are acceptable wear, men will do the same.
Good thieves Look like tourists or non-criminals
Some people or articles warn you about this or that ethnicity or how people dress. That's not just racist and shallow, it's stupid and inaccurate.
Thieves simply don't want to be noticed, and if noticed they want escape to be as easy as possible. Which means the more active and successful ones dress and act like everyone around you. Which means, for example, in Europe the better thieves are of Caucasian descent and dress like American visitors.
Do note that criminals from a non-majority ethnicity do exist, but they aren't likely to be thieves. This is because being an ethnic minority makes them easier to spot and track down. Also, the all-too-human justice system is harsher on them. Instead, they are often the ones preying on tourists by selling cheap, overpriced trinkets on the sidewalks to tourists who often don't realize they are breaking local laws by purchasing from them.
Underage thieves are fearless
Underage thieves have the benefit of that they don't have to worry about the justice system. In many places the police can't arrest children under a certain age and have to let them go. Also, if they are caught, if they are in a gang, an older family member" will come up, rebuke them publicly, and most people will let it go.
An ounce of preperation...
It's a good idea to spend a little time and money getting a few things before you travel. Why? Cause here are the easiest targets in rough order of ease for thieves (1 is super-easy, 7 is merely easy):
- Backbacks without locks worn on the back. Warning: Don't put passports in your backback!
- Fanny pack or wallet in the back pocket.
- Grocery or store-purchase bag
- Any outside-pocket cellphone holder.
- Wallet in the front pocket.
Don't be stupid
At least one travel writer advocates putting your stuff in a local grocery or store bag. That way you "fit in", thieves ignore you, and you can confidently enjoy your visit.
This is mind-bogglingly stupid.
- Confidence means you allow yourself to be distracted.
- Unless you live somewhere, you stand out.
- Grocery or store bags are not designed to carry things for hours on end. They break.
- Grocery or store bags are one of the easiest target for thieves. They either don't close adequately or are the perfect target for razor armed thieves.
Take your ID out and only keep a very small amount of money in your wallet, which should be in your front pocket. Take the credit cards out and put them in secret stashes. If you really want a credit card in your wallet, get one linked to a bank account with just enough money for the day in it. Add more money to it as you need.
Shorten the Straps
Keep the straps of your stuff short and in your hands. When walking next to a street, keep bags on the far side from the road. Moped thieves will will snatch and pull you until the straps break.
Use secret stashes on your person
Most sporting good stores sell money belts and underclothes pouches. Use the money belt to store cash. Use an underclothes pouch to store your passport and at least one credit card. For underclothes pouches I recommend you open packages and feel the material against your skin.
Consider buying anti-theft backpacks / laptop bags
We prefer PacSafe brand gear because the clasps are hidden and require a trick to open. Their stuff also has steel wire woven into their straps and fabric, meaning they can't get cut by a razor. PacSafe stuff isn't cheap but the peace of mind has been definitely worth the price. We've relied on the PacSafe laptop bag and shoulder bag for about 18 months now and they've been awesome.
My laptop bag
Audrey's shoulder bag
Identifying Thief Tactics
Being a successful thief requires the same skills as a magician. Observation, distraction, misdirection, staged audience members, and timing are how they do it.
Here are some common techniques they use:
The Big Local Attraction
While you are gazing at the masterpiece of architecture, hungrily peering at the door menu, or the incredible street performance, your focus is off your stuff.
Solution: Train yourself so when you start to feel distracted to put your arm or hand on your most expensive stuff.
For reference, this is literally the same sort of sleight-of-hand that magicians use.
Pickpockets often have a newspaper, expensive jacket, or nice sweater in one hand to block what they are doing. While they engage you in friendly conversation they use the prop to block your like of sight from their other hand, which is busy. Especially good thieves don't even bother with the props and just rely on the width of their arm to block lines of observation.
Solution: If someone you don't know shows something up close to you, back off. In fact, just apologize and keep your distance. It's perfectly okay to not follow "local custom".
If anyone throws anything at you, or if something is spilled on you, the thief helps you clean up, their accomplice is going through your stuff.
Solution: Back up and start screaming "Help, Thief" because it means you've been targeted and are under active scam. Cover your stuff with your arms and hands.
This one is hard to deal with, especially for me.
If a person falls or stumbles around you, don't help them, regardless of their age or apparent infirmity. While you help them their accomplice is taking from you.
Solution: Unless there is obvious injury, back off and let the locals take care of it, or find the police.
This year the new trick is for someone to ask you if you want them to take pictures of you using your camera or cell phone. You hand them your camera and they start running. You've literally 'gifted' them your camera!
Solution: Look for someone to take your picture, never the other way around.
While staying at a hotel/hostel/BnB you go out for the day in a place without a safe. When you come back your valuables are gone.
Solution: No safe? Carry your valuables!
If you catch a thief
You've caught them in the act. Maybe you've grabbed them or maybe they started running. Follow these steps to avoid injury and even death.
DON'T CHASE THIEVES
Whatever you do, don't chase thieves. Thieves of all ages are usually in gangs or have friends nearby. Their 'backup' carry weapons ranging from sticks to knives to guns. People die from chasing thieves every year in every country. Nothing you are carrying is worth your life.
Call for help
Learn how to yell "Help, Thief!" in the local language. Often the locals may deal with it as they hate thieves since crime damages their businesses and local reputation. In fact sometimes the response is overwhelmingly violent. There are stories of would-be victims in Africa, India, and Europe intervening to save the life of a would-be thief's life.
It's pretty universal police who deal with street crime wear uniforms. Work with them and if they ask you if you want to press charges, do so. Otherwise in many places they have to let the person go.
DANGER: The 'undercover' police
Anyone not wearing a uniform and claiming to be 'undercover' is an accomplice, scam artist, or worse. If they 'come to help':
- Don't give up any identification.
- Demand that uniformed police be summoned by radio or phone to this location immediately. If the 'undercover' police refuse, then they are a scam or worse.
- Don't leave the spot! If 'undercover' police try to get you to come with them, refuse loudly. If they try to force you away, start yelling as if your life is in danger, because it is.
Theft is real. Go to Youtube and spent 10 minutes searching on "thief" or "pickpocket" for proof. Most of the videos are surveillance videos, but when magicians talk about theft it's pretty fun to watch.
In any case, it's easy to dramatically decrease your chances of being a victim of this kind of crime by being prepared and vigilant.