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.

Top five travel documents to email yourself before you travel

A lost or stolen passport or ATM card is a surefire way to add stress to any trip. As a preventative measure, I keep a list of travel documents (scanned, as necessary) in my inbox, so I have them at the ready should I run into trouble. Before you head out on your next trip, make sure you have the following documents, copied, prepped and prepared in the event you need them quickly:

1. Passport
If your passport mysteriously goes missing from the hotel security box or hostel front desk, or you’re mugged or robbed on the road, scanning a back-up copy can save you hours of paperwork and waiting. If you need a visa for travel, scan a copy of it, as well.

2. Medical and travel insurance cards (if applicable)
Not all medical insurance covers travel outside of the U.S., so check before you get on a plane. If you plan on visiting a region prone to civil unrest, natural disasters, or general sketchiness, have a medical condition, or are a fan of adventure travel, travel insurance might be worth looking into.

3. Bank and credit card collect call numbers
Keep the bank phone numbers nearby. It won’t bring your cards back if they’re lost or stolen, but at least you can report and cancel/put holds on them, ASAP. Most financial institutions have collect call numbers you can use from a foreign country.

4. Emergency contacts and relevant health information
At a recent appointment with a new physician, he noted that I was allergic to penicillin, and asked what happens if I take it. I explained I have a family history of anaphylaxis, and he asked why I don’t wear a medical alert bracelet, especially given my occupation as travel writer. It’s a good idea that never would have occurred to me. So while you’re typing up that list of contacts, including doctors, add in any life-threatening allergies or medical conditions. Should you wind up in a medical emergency, odds are someone, somewhere, will speak English. Or write it down in the language of the country you’re visiting (Lonely Planet Phrasebooks are invaluable for this kind of translation, even if you need to say it in Urdu or Thai).5. Itinerary
Be sure to send copies of your travel itinerary to family and/or a close friend. If you’re backpacking and don’t know where you’ll be staying or don’t have a world phone, the ubiquitousness of global cyber cafes makes it easier than ever to stay in touch, even in rural areas.

*Bonus round

U.S. Department of State contact info/Embassy and Consulate list
If you spend a lot of time overseas, especially if you fall into the category cited in #2, it’s a very good idea to register your trip with the U.S. Department of State. In the event of an emergency requiring evacuation, you’ll be in their system. It’s also helpful to keep the embassy/consulate link in your inbox and on your person, in case you or a fellow traveler runs into trouble.

Immunization card
Some countries or regions require you to present this, to prove you’ve had the necessary vaccinations before being admitted entry. Admittedly, I’ve never actually had to produce this document, but better safe than denied. For a list of recommended and required inoculations for destinations, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cubicgarden]