Every year, thousands of travelers fall prey to the quick and clever tactics of pickpockets and thieves. What may take thieves a moment to "lift" from your pockets (passports, credit cards, airline tickets) may take weeks to replace, turning your pleasant vacation into a nightmare.
It is difficult to recognize thieves - sometimes the well-dressed businessman standing next to you who just dropped some coins, at other times the "friendly" group of young children with newspapers approaching you in a city subway.
A thief may be hard to recognize, but their time-tested tactics are not. Travelers can prevent the majority of common thefts by arming themselves with the knowledge of typical scams, following some basic travel safety tips and using security products.
The Trio: A typical three person team of thieves includes the "stall" (who positions himself in front of you and draws your attention), the "dip" (who acts upon your moment of distraction to pick your pocket or purse), and a third person who receives your valuables and casually and quietly disappears into the crowd.
Some rely upon your kindness by dropping something on the chance you'll help them pick it up, asking for directions, or even faking an accident that somehow seems to be your fault or beg for your involvement. Thieves put their faith in your good character to the extreme, as in the case of a tourist sitting on a Caribbean beach who went into the water to save a 'drowning swimmer' only to return to find his valuables stolen.
Others "accidentally" bump into you and another "kind" person catches you from falling. In reality, you have just fallen into their trap. Pickpockets have been known to soil your clothes with toothpaste, ash, or ice cream. A second member of the team points out the spill to you, pointing skyward to the potential culprit and offers to help you clean up. This is the perfect set up for a theft, or even a mugging.
In some African countries, the "stall" approaches the traveler with arms outstretched, and a friendly smile on his face. While he embraces you, another thief strikes you on the back, creating enough distraction to lift your valuables.
Children as thieves: Schooling for thieves starts very early. A traveler was seated on a crowded bus in Rome on her way to the Vatican. She glanced down at her lap to find a tiny hand reaching into her now unzipped fanny pack. The child could not have been more than six years old.
Groups of children have been known to gang up on unsuspecting travelers as well. One common scenario is the newspaper trick. A group of children approach the unsuspecting tourist and ask for money or try to sell you knick knacks as they jab at you with newspapers or cardboard. The papers effectively block your view of little hands fast at work, opening pockets, slashing belts, and cleaning out your travel funds. If you do catch on, usually the shock of being robbed by children delays your reaction a moment more, making for a successful robbery.
- Know how they work: Familiarize yourself with the typical scams thieves use to rob travelers. You will then recognize situations to avoid, and keep your attention focused on your valuables, not on their intentional distractions.
- Research the area: Find out where the bad parts of the city or countryside are by reading up on the country before you get there, and ask the hotel staff for more specific information once you arrive. Tourist offices and other areas promoting travel to a specific region may be inclined to play down any negative aspects of the area. Rely on newspapers, magazines and official agencies to give you more unbiased information.
- Read consular travel warnings: The U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings is an invaluable source for large-scale safety warnings regarding travel.
- Do not draw attention to yourself with expensive clothing or jewelry. You are setting yourself up as a target.
- Divide up your funds so that if your wallet is taken, you have a back up supply (in your socks or elsewhere) to get you back on track.
- Don't show your money. Pickpockets observe travelers when shopping, and then later know exactly where to lift your wallet.
- If you must use a wallet, carry it in the front pocket, and put a rubber band around it, or use a chain to attach it to your clothing.
- Don't accept food or drinks from strangers. They may contain drugs that will knock you out, creating opportunity for a thorough robbery or worse.
Magellan's offers a host of travel safety products to protect you and your possessions. We recommend keeping your valuables out of sight, and close to your body, using a money belt, neck wallet, waist wallet, or hidden travel wallet. If you prefer a daybag, consider using a bag with steel belted straps to prevent cut and run theft. These steel cabled straps foil most knife blades, and keep your fanny pack, purse or day bag from disappearing into the crowd.