Is that an iPad in their pants or is the TSA just happy to see us?

It happens every day. You amble up to the TSA security checkpoint, and with the customer service touch of gulag overlords, the TSA officers slowly herd you through to freedom on the other side. They stare you down with steely eyes, inspect your ID with hawkish intensity, berate you for forgetting the hand sanitizer in the deepest recesses of your backpack, and apparently, occasionally stuff your electronics into their pants.

That is what one Florida TSA agent is guilty of – stuffing items of material worth into his TSA-issued pants. Nelson Santiago had all but perfected the art of the security checkpoint heist. He would pilfer items out of screened luggage such as GPS units, tablets, laptops, video cameras and more. He would take pictures of his loot (probably with a stolen camera) and immediately post the stolen goods online to sell. The goods would be turned around and sold before his shift even ended, making him a nimble bastard of the highest order.

And then one day, while casually stuffing a gleaming iPad into his pants, he was caught red-handed.According to the Broward Palm Beach New Times, a Continental Airlines employee witnessed Santiago (left) as he pulled an iPad out of some poor sap’s luggage and slid the tablet computing device into his pants. The authorities were alerted, and Nelson Santiago’s reign as the “Thief of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport” was over. Charged with two counts of grand theft, Santiago was finally apprehended and taken into custody.

While his overall take is an estimated $50,000 in electronics, most of the goods will never be recovered. Santiago has worked at Terminal 1 of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport since 2009. I don’t think he will be making it back to work any time soon.

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

travel theft

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.

travel theft

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.

travel theft

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.

travel theft

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.

Prologue
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.

Chocolate thief to lose hands in Iran

Can you call it “sweet revenge?” Probably not …

A man convicted of robbing a candy store has been sentenced to have his hands chopped off. As if that isn’t enough to keep him from stealing, he’s also going to do a year in prison. The guy was arrested back in May, when the police found “$900 (£560), three pairs of gloves and a large amount of chocolate in his car,” the BBC reports.

So, if you find your way to Iran, bring a full wallet – or exercise some restraint. The BBC adds that amputation is usually only used in the cases of habitual thieves, but I don’t know that I’d roll the dice. If you want a candy bar, just buy it. Then, you’ll have the hands you need to eat it.

[from hapal via Flickr]

Sicilian steals a New Year’s Eve away from his family

Some people will do anything to dodge family at the holidays. We’ll kick and scream or otherwise misbehave, but my new hero is a Sicilian man who risked getting a record to score a New Year’s Eve away from the wife and relatives. The 35-year-old went to the police station and asked to be incarcerated for the evening. The cops refused, claiming that he needed to commit a crime before he could score accommodations in their establishment.

So, lacking any other option, the man went right next door to a tobacco shop, threatened the owner with a box cutter and grabbed some gum and other candy. Rather than take off, he hung around and waited for his ride the police, who arrived and arrested him for armed robbery.

No indication was given as to whether the turn-down service was to his liking, though it’s likely the price was right.

[Photo by harry525 via Flickr]

Invasion of the Bag Snatchers in Phnom Penh

If you’ve been to a backpacker ghetto anywhere in the world, you’ve seen them. For fear of having their belongings snatched, they guard their bags carefully. Perhaps wearing their rucksacks in the front and wrapping an arm around it for extra security. That might seem like overdoing it. After all, who is going to rob a backpack with a bunch of smelly clothes and out of date edition of Lonely Planet?

But the ease with which a practiced thief can snatch a bag is surprising. All two thieves on a motorcycle, perhaps with a razor blade, need to do is slice a strap or grab a purse or camera and pull hard. Then it’s bye-bye dirty clothes (or camera or passport or cash).

Bag snatching is on the rise in southeast Asian cities like Phnom Penh. It has always been a problem, but things are especially bad now that inflation has put the economy into a downward spin. Some thieves have completely abandoned the timeless art of bag snatching, and instead simply knock their victims off their motorbikes and make off with the loot before the unfortunate rider(s) can recover. Looks like it might take more than wearing your pack in the front to avoid a nasty situation these days. But that’s all part of the fun of travel, isn’t it?

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