The Latest European Heist: German Thieves Steal $20,710 Of Nutella

You may think you’re addicted to Nutella, but would you commit a crime to get some?

This week in central Germany a group of thieves made off with over $20,000 of Nutella. How much is $20,710 of chocolate hazelnut spread? It’s the equivalent of about 5.5 tons. Enough to make at least 11,000 Nutella baguette sandwiches. The Nutella was stolen from a parked trailer, begging the question: what was a trailer doing with 5.5 tons of chocolate spread?

Nutella pirates either know that they can sell the stuff on the black market – the spread is addictive as you know – or they’ll just be content to have a good stock on hand for when they invite their friends over for crepe night.

Either way, you can go ahead and add that to the list of odd global heists.

[Photo credit: Allison.hare]

Top 10 types of travel theft (and how to be safe)

In many large cities of the world, thieves hunt travelers from the shadows. They watch you take pictures at monuments, eat tapas at an outdoor cafe, and if you are unlucky, they will follow your steps with excited eyes as you fall into one of their traps. A few weeks ago while visiting Quito, thieves dumped a bucket of crap on me from a rooftop and then jumped me for my camera. It was horrible.

Fear-mongering aside, travelers are chosen as targets because they are not completely in tune to their surroundings. Maybe you are jet lagged, or you just ate a dangerous meal that has left you weak with intestinal anxiety, or you are lost in an uncomfortable part of Paris – these are all circumstances where you are in a vulnerable state and therefore a target of thieves. Like hyenas hunting for weakened game, thieves seek out confused tourists and map clenchers with wayward eyes.

These crooked opportunists have many breeds: child gangs in Italy looking for sincere mid-westerners, Vietnamese on scooters scoping for a wallet in an extended hand, and fake European police officers searching for rubes to shake down. While your trip will likely pass without incident, it is ideal to be prepared. If you know what to look for, then you can watch for danger signs and situations to avoid. Being a safe traveler is being a smart traveler. Here are ten common hustles to watch out for.

10. Monkey thieves in Bali
If you have ever been to Bali, then you have no doubt seen the clans of macaques congregating in various locales. Inventive locals have trained the monkeys to steal from travelers, and the macaques exchange the loot for monkey rewards. For example, they will snatch a pair of sunglasses off your head and only return them for some Indonesian Rupiah. Presumably, the monkeys later exchange the cash for snacks with their monkey trader. The thought of a monkey exchanging money for food is no doubt hilariously endearing, but no one wants to get their sunglasses nicked on holiday. This heist typically takes place around the cliffs of Ulu Watu and in the Monkey Forest of Ubud, both items on my list of things to do in Bali.

To prevent being robbed by monkey thieves, keep a safe distance, and be careful with your sunglasses.

9. Fake Police officers
This is a horrible scam that preys on your inability to distinguish the appropriate regional police uniform or badge. There are many deviations of this type of scam, but essentially, a faux copper approaches you demanding some sort of assistance. Either the officer is looking for counterfeit money, or needs to check your ID, or something that involves handing your wallet to him. He may just thumb through your wallet and sneakily take a few bills off the top. In some cases though, the fake officer will take off at full gait with your entire wallet.

Another form of fake police extortion happens frequently at train stations. They approach you and ask for your train pass. Nodding their fake cop heads in a discouraged manner they explain that you purchased the wrong pass for the route that you just completed. They give you an impromptu fine, and you hand them a fistful of euros, dong, or rupiahs, because you know no better. While now you do, never hand over your wallet and do not hand over money to police officers. If cops could collect their own fines, then the world would be too crooked to be spin.

8. Bus robberies

One of the most simple heists plays to our sense of humanity and ideological view that we will travel to foreign lands and strangers will be caring and helpful. Sometimes, this is undoubtedly the case, but be wary of helpful men with crooked smiles on public buses. This scam is a classic, happening everywhere from Boston to Bogota to Berlin. One person will assist you with stowing your bag above your seat while another pickpockets you or slashes your backpack. In another variation to this theft, the good Samaritan helping you stow your luggage takes off with your bag or hands it off to a runner near the front of the bus. One of the most notorious buses in the world for thieves is Bus 64 in Rome.

Another variation of the bus robbery involves a small child and a sharp object. While you sit on the bus, reflecting on your spiritual journey or perhaps gazing out the window at the splendid countryside, a small child with a knife or razor sneaks under your seat and slashes the bag at your feet, quietly emptying its contents.

These bus robberies can be completely avoided by never letting strangers handle your bags and keeping close watch of your belongings, especially on public transportation. Since buses are generally very low cost, the barriers to entry are low enough for thieves to thrive. When traveling in big cities on travel days, it is wise to avoid public buses. Nothing signals theft opportunity like a wheeled bag or a massive Osprey pack.

7. Train station distraction
You board a train and the day is young with possibilities. Maybe you are traveling from Prague to Berlin, or Rome to Florence. You are in full observer mode, sensitive to all types of stimuli. You put up your bags and sit in the train on the departure platform. Someone official looking taps on the window and motions for you. As you approach the window, or worse, de-board the train, his or her partner in crime quietly makes off with your stowed luggage. Both take off at a full sprint.

The best way to avoid this distraction heist is to never let your bags out of your sight on trains, and keep your most valuable possessions as close to you as possible. Ignore those outside of the train as well. If a conductor needs to communicate with you, then he/she will most certainly come to your seat.

6. Counterfeit money given at restaurant
This scam is very common in Europe, typically within the countries located on the Iberian peninsula. After you eat a delicious meal of fresh paella at a whimsical restaurant along the Costa del Sol, the restaurateur returns with your bill and bad news. The 50 Euro note that you tendered is a fake. With apologetic sympathy, the man will tenderly ask for a different type of payment. The problem? You gave him a real 50 Euro note and he returned with a counterfeit one.

This is easy to avoid. Minimize your risk by only breaking large bills at banks or other reputable establishments. However, if you find yourself mid scam, call the police and hope for the best. For the meticulous, you can write down the serial numbers of your big notes for insurance.

5. Stop and slash (or pickpocket)
This is a derivation on the classic pickpocket, except it is designed to make you a stationary target. You are walking along and someone stops in front of you. A lady maybe drops her bag, or a couple gets in an argument, or maybe someone just stops abruptly, directly in front of you. While you stop for the distraction, a pick pocket or slasher will come up behind you and relieve you of some of your belongings. It is perhaps the most common type of travel theft.

Slashers are very common and they use a sharp razor blade or knife to cut open a bag, empty a pocket, or slice a strap of a bag or camera. This is an increasingly popular method for the steady handed thieves. Defenses include using slash proof bag straps with reinforced metal wiring as well as stowing money and other valuables in a fashionably null money belt. Hiding your valuables creatively also inhibits the possibility of theft. Personally, I wear a slightly dorky but effective wrist wallet to hold my credit cards and walking around cash.

4. Luggage scanner heist
After you hear about this sneaky maneuver, you will loathe tossing your valuables through a x-ray scanner machine. The process goes like this: two thieves get in front of you in line at a scanning device and metal detector. Keep in mind it need not be an airport, many hotels and sporting arenas have x-ray scanners as well. (In fact, I think this sort of operation would be almost impossible at most airports in developed countries.) The first guy goes through slowly and waits on the other side of the metal detector. The second guy, the one you are directly behind, causes all sorts of problems with the metal detector. He forgets to take out his keys, belt, and whatever else causes the machine to beep. By this point, your bag has traveled to the other side of the x-ray scanner and the first guy has made off with it.

Prevention for this heist is fairly simple – just hold on to your bag until you are ready to pass through the metal detector.

3. The mustard/vinegar/pigeon poop/human feces heist
This is the product of years of thievery evolution. Since you are at your worst when you are shocked or short-sighted, thieves have taken this in mind and formulated a way to really get you to focus in on the moment at hand by blurring the big picture. The scam goes like this: you are walking along, and someone sprinkles bird poop on the back of your backpack, squeezes a mustard packet on your shirt pocket, or maybe, in an extreme case, dumps approximately ten ounces of shit from several floors above. Regardless of travel IQ, you are shocked by this disgusting invasion of space.

In many instances, a stranger will approach with tissues, attempting to assist you with the mess. Ignore this person. He will get you to focus on the situation while his partners steal from you. Also, do not take your backpack or camera off of your body. When I was robbed, I removed my camera strap to inspect my diarrhea flecked DSLR, and it was manhandled away from me by two Ecuadorians with wild eyes and stained pants.

To avoid being suckered into this scam, always be aware of your surroundings. If a foreign substance somehow makes it onto your shirt or bag, chances are someone is about to rob you. Keep walking and look for a police officer. Do not stop and chat, and especially, do not de-strap any of your bags.

2. The nail trick
This is perhaps the most damning heist of all. It is simple, effective, and almost impossible to defend against. It goes like this: you park your car, and while you sight-see or have lunch, an enterprising thief hammers a nail into your tire. Hours later, while driving down a quiet road, you get a flat tire. You pull over and a group of “good Samaritans” also pull over to assist you with your unfortunate situation. Except they don’t help you. They steal all your stuff, and in some cases, your car.

1. ATM scams
It is no shocker that thieves like to convene around automatic teller machines. It is a watering hole for wayward opportunists and droopy eyed bandits with swift hands. There are really two main scams that take place around money machines. The first involves a sticky or plastic slip being stuck in the card reader before your arrival. This will ensure that your card gets stuck in the slot. In many cases, a local will assist you in your troubles, attempting to witness your fingers glide across your pin number. If he finds you especially gullible, the thief may also casually ask you for your pin. Obviously, do not ever tell anyone your pin.

A variation on this scheme involves a fake customer service number being stuck on the ATM. After your card gets stuck, you phone the fake number for assistance, and they ask for your pin. Later, they take all of your money and you feel especially stupid and vulnerable while you wait for a money transfer in a depressing office.

The best way to avoid ATM scams is to only patronize machines inside banks or other structures. Also, if you see a little plastic sleeve hanging out of the card slot, pull that sleeve out of there and stamp it on the ground while glancing menacingly at the environs around you. The sticky fingered peasants will know to leave you alone.

Always carry insurance during your travels, especially internationally. I routinely carry a vanilla World Nomads policy for international health insurance that comes with decent theft coverage as well. I also carry a personal property policy with USAA for my more expensive photography equipment.

SkyMall Monday: Fake TV Burglar Deterrent

Going on vacation should be a stress relief. Putting your job, chores and responsibilities aside for a break from your everyday routine is just what everyone needs. However, leaving your home unattended can be a worrisome endeavor. Sure, you could get a housesitter, but that requires you to trust someone not to rummage through your things, steal your valuables and seduce your cat. Whenever I go away, I worry that someone will break into the SkyMall Monday headquarters and steal all of my favorite gadgets. That fear leads to sleepless nights on the road. So, how can we protect our homes and deter would-be thieves? Thankfully, SkyMall understands our concerns and has just the thing to put our minds at ease and keep our homes safe when we’re traveling. The next time you leave home for a vacation or business trip, you can rest easy thanks to the Fake TV Burglar Deterrent.When I was a kid, my parents would typically leave various lights on in our house when we went away. This would give the appearance that we were home at all times (and that we never slept). As technology advanced, we put the lights on timers, so that it did appear as if the humans in the house were alive and keeping some sort of normal schedule. However, any criminal casing the neighborhood could probably tell that no one was actually home. Since Home Security Decoys were not an option, leaving lights on was the only viable way to deter criminals. The Fake TV Burglar Deterrent takes that strategy to the next level by simulating the flickering light of a television, thus giving your home that “lived in” feel.

Think that a home security system is more than enough to keep your house safe? Believe that no criminal worth his salt will fall for a decoy? Well, while you’re filling out a police report, we’ll be reading the product description:

Using super bright LEDs, the Fake TV Burglar Deterrent Device simulates the light and flickering of a real 27″ HDTV while consuming up to 50 times less power. From outside your home, this fake tv gives the illusion that someone’s inside, so burglars will go elsewhere…make sure the fake TV is not visible from outside.

Burglars will think that you’re home and not wealthy enough to afford a very large television. Most thieves want at least a 32″ TV screen. And, of course, leaving the decoy out of plain sight is probably a solid idea.

Sure, home security systems can keep your home safe, but they aren’t your only option. I’d much rather trust my home to a flickering light than a sophisticated monitoring system. Especially since someone could always just kick in your door.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Jesse James’ greatest escape

Jesse James was riding high. After the end of the Civil War he had rocketed to fame by committing a string of daring robberies in Missouri and neighboring states. In a region where ex-Confederates still felt bitter over losing the war, this former Confederate guerrilla earned sympathy and support. One of their own was striking back at the Yankees, and it didn’t matter that some people got hurt in the process.

The James gang is an early example of political spin. Jesse James wrote angry letters to the press, claiming he had been persecuted by the government and forced into a life of crime, while at the same time insisting he was innocent. He was helped by newspaperman John Newman Edwards, a former Confederate officer who wrote laudatory articles about the James boys and their friends.

So as the James gang robbed trains, banks, and stagecoaches, part of the population cheered. Soon dime novel writers began to write books about them, describing exploits that never occurred, and their fame grew even higher. But in 1876 Jesse James finally went too far.

He had a bold plan. The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, was supposed to have a lot of money, but even more important was that it held the savings of Adelbert Ames, a former Union officer and Northern politician who had tried (and failed) to give blacks equal rights in Mississippi during Reconstruction. Ames was the kind of Yankee Jesse and his friends hated.

Jesse and Frank James set out with a group of fellow ex-guerrillas: Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and the Younger brothers Cole, Jim, and Bob. After riding hundreds of miles from Missouri to Minnesota, they scouted the area and on September 7 they struck. Frank, Jesse, and one other entered the bank while the rest guarded the entrance. One robber, probably Jesse, vaulted over the counter and pulled a gun on the three employees.

%Gallery-108420%Then everything went wrong. The bank employees insisted the safe was locked with a time lock and couldn’t be opened. Actually it was unlocked, but the bandits never checked. Instead they rummaged around the counter and found less than thirty dollars.

Meanwhile, the guards outside stopped a citizen from going into the bank, roughing him up in the process. Another man saw this, put two and two together, and started shouting that the bank was being robbed.

Now the James gang’s own fame defeated them. Everyone in those days feared the gang would come to their town and so kept their guns handy. Soon the bank robbers standing guard outside found themselves being sniped at from windows and doorways. Miller and Chadwell fell mortally wounded, and the others got shot as well. They opened up with their six-shooters, but the citizens kept firing. The local sheriff, caught without a weapon, even threw rocks. As a group of drunks fled a nearby saloon, one of the robbers took careful aim and killed one of them.

The fight set off a panic inside the bank. One cashier got shot in the head, and another ran for a side door and got away with only a minor gunshot wound. The robbers ran out to their friends outside and galloped off.

Soon several posses were in hot pursuit. In a running battle that lasted more than a hundred miles and several days, the James gang tried to shake off their pursuers, but the telegraph sent the news all around the countryside and everyone kept watch. Frank and Jesse split off from the rest of the group. The stole a series of horses and at one point had to crawl across a railroad bridge right under the noses of a posse that was guarding it. Eventually they got away, but the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts got cornered in a stand of trees by a large posse. In a furious gunfight Pitts was killed and all the Younger brothers seriously wounded. Half dead and low on ammunition, they gave up. Luckily for them Minnesota didn’t have the death penalty. All received long prison sentences.

Every year, on the weekend after Labor Day, Northfield celebrates The Defeat of Jesse James Days with reenactments, a rodeo, parade, and carnival. The citizens of Northfield are as caught up with Jesse James fever as much as the modern-day rebels of rural Missouri, but in a very different way. They’re proud of their motto, “Jesse James slipped here”.

It was the second-to-last time he slipped.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The assassination of Jesse James!

[Photo courtesy user Elkman via Wikimedia Commons]

Ask Gadling: You’re out of money in a foreign country

Even the most intrepid adventure traveler dreads the thought of running out of money while in a foreign country. The fact that this situation usually occurs under dire circumstances only compounds the anxiety and frustration that result from a depleted bank account.

The only time I’ve ever run completely out of funds was on 9/11. I’d been working at a friend’s London restaurant for a month, and sleeping in her spare room. I took two weeks off to visit Spain and Portugal, before flying back into Heathrow to catch my flight home. I arrived in Lisbon my last day, on the fumes of my savings, relieved to be headed home the following morning. I had just enough money left for a dorm bed in a hostel, a couple of bread rolls, and (possibly) cab fare to the airport.

I was in a cheese shop, having a fractured bilingual conversation with the shopkeeper, when I noticed his employees in a huddle, shooting glances my way. As I departed, I felt the shopkeeper’s hand on my arm, and that’s how I found out the World Trade Center–and life as Americans knew it–was no more. I headed back to the hostel in a daze, and spent the next two hours slumped in front of the television, in shock. It quickly became clear I wasn’t going anywhere, and my lack of funds was going to be a bigger problem than I’d anticipated.

On that darkest of days, I was lucky. A savior in the form of a Dutch backpacker loaned me fifty dollars. Actually, he forced it upon me, because he saw me watching the news and quickly assessed my situation. When I was able to get back to London a couple of days later, I picked up the money my parents had wired to a bank, and spent the next week working at the restaurant and crashing on the futon.

Since most of us can’t rely upon a hot Dutch guy to magically appear with a fistful of Euros (definitely a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence), what is the best course of action if you’re suddenly broke, in a country not your own?How to obtain emergency funds

  • Get a cash advance on your debit card. I called my bank, Wells Fargo, and asked them if I could do this in an emergency. I was told that I should go into the nearest bank and request a cash advance, but that it’s entirely up to that institution, as well as your personal bank, as to whether receiving funds is possible. Still, this is the easiest, most obvious first step, assuming your card hasn’t been stolen. On a separate, but related, note, always inform your bank and credit card lenders that you will be traveling overseas, to prevent a security hold.

Most banks/credit card lenders have an “outside the U.S./collect call” number on their website or on the back of your card. Email them to yourself, and write them down on a slip of paper you carry someplace other than your wallet (in case you’re mugged, which is the most common reason travelers find themselves sans money). Actually, it’s best to make two copies of emergency numbers, so you can carry one on your person.

The below numbers are general non-U.S. collect call; many financial institutions also have toll-free numbers by country code listed on their sites.
Mastercard: 1-636-722-7111.
Capital One: 001-804-934-2001.
Bank of America: 1-302-738-5719.
Wells Fargo: Access codes vary by country; click here for listing.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.
  • Get a cash advance on your credit card, if you have one (it’s best to carry one for major emergencies anyway, even if it’s nearly maxed out). Also, be sure to check your credit card lender’s policies on emergency travel assistance, lost/stolen luggage reimbursement, etc. It may save you money or negate your having to purchase travel insurance, which is always a good idea for long-term or adventure travelers.
  • Having someone wire money bank-to-bank is the most secure method of receiving emergency funds. Barring that, international wire transfer services are available through Western Union (1-800-325-6000), and Western Union’s Custom House. Depending upon the provider, funds can be received between one hour to three days after wiring, and service charges will vary.
  • If you’ve got a family member or friend you can trust with your checking or savings account number, have them keep it on file so they can make an emergency deposit, if necessary.
  • Some companies, like Visa, offer prepaid TravelMoney cards. These can be used in an ATM like a debit card, but function like traveler’s checks. They may also be reloadable (i.e. reuseable), and feature lost/stolen luggage reimbursement, and travel and emergency assistance services (Visa offers “24-hour translation assistance, medical and legal referrals, emergency trip arrangements, and emergency messages to relatives.”). Be aware that this pertains to assistance and referral only; it’s your dime for any fees incurred from actual services rendered. Remember, too, that while ATM’s are fairly ubiquitous throughout the world, you can’t always rely upon finding one.

The drawbacks with prepaid cards is that they’re easily lost, stolen, or chewed up by an ATM (one reason I carry three–really–ATM cards when I travel. Portugal also taught me that lesson. Admittedly, it’s more cards to potentially have stolen, but I hedge my bets). They’re also expensive to activate and load, and there can be high foreign currency exchange rate fees.

The U.S. repatriation program is federally-funded, and helps destitute or ill Americans return to the States. Again, this is for serious emergencies, if no other option is available. There are strict requirements for eligibility, and you must apply from the American Consulate or Embassy nearest you at the time.

Don’t forget to register yourself with the U.S. Department of State if you’re traveling anywhere sketchy, or engaging in high-risk activities (no, unprotected sex doesn’t count).

ACS’s domestic number (of use if you’re the one who needs to help out a fellow traveler) is 1-888-407-4747. Outside of the U.S., dial the country code, +202-501-4444.

[Photo credits: Flickr | NoHoDamon; riacale; TheeErin]