It’s an unfortunate reality that as a traveller you are often the target of thieves and robbers who know you might be unfamiliar with your surroundings. Crimes of opportunity might also occur if you aren’t vigilant about your belongings. While the types of incidents vary depending on what region of the world you are in, there are a few basic things you can do to reduce your chances of becoming a victim, as well as being prepared if something does go missing.
Don’t Look Like You’re Worth Robbing
I’m not telling you to stop showering and wear tattered clothes, but flashy clothing and accessories (men and women) won’t go unnoticed. Fancy electronics will also attract attention, so it’s best to be aware of your surroundings when you bring out your phone or camera.
I’ve a good friend who was dragged down the center of a Guatemalan bus for her iPhone when it fell out of her pocket and was noticed by a robber. Had it stayed in her pocket, she’d likely still have it and not have experienced the violence.
While I carry a large digital camera with me, I make a point of having it in a backpack that doesn’t look like a camera bag and only take it out when I feel I’m in a safe situation.
An amusing tactic I’ve seen is to make your electronics look beat-up and worn out. In Mexico one of the fellows in a hostel had an Apple symbol drawn on a piece of cardboard and attached to the back of his laptop. It’s hard to say if this kind of thing would work, but it’s an option.
Keep Your Things in Sight/on Hand
In the last year I’ve had friends loose cameras, glasses, debit cards, credit cards, cash, and phones all due to the same error. They would go to the bar and leave their bag or purse somewhere and either the whole bag would go missing or a few items inside would disappear. More often than not they were in a bar full of backpackers.
- If you take a bag/purse to a bar, keep it on you and closed, or leave it with a trusted friend. Better yet, leave it at home.
- If you take off your backpack while exploring a city, put your leg/foot through a strap or clip the bag onto the chair or table.
- Don’t leave valuables sitting at a table unattended in a busy market or street.
- One trick used by thieves in Europe is to cut purse straps, this can be deterred by doing the following:
- Use a bag with two straps.
- Get a bag with straps that can’t be cut easily. Pacsafe is a good option, but they are much heavier than other bags.
A friend in Vietnam was at a restaurant, left the table to use the washroom, and came back to a backpack without a camera in it. After discussions (read arguments) with the owner and an offer of $100 USD, he was walked down the street with another man to find his camera. The cupboard in which it was stored had over 50 other cameras in it. Clearly this was a scam they pulled often.
My mother was the only one of her friends not to lose her purse in Paris to sneaky thieves with scissors as it had very short straps made mostly of chain and could be held very close to her body under her arm.
Use a Lock
While this seems like a no brainier at first glance, it’s a simple thing that sometimes gets overlooked.
- If you’re staying in a room, lock it when you leave.
- If you have a locker, lock it when you aren’t near it.
- If your bag has zippers, it doesn’t hurt to lock them on busses and other transports.
Again, pacsafe makes a net you can put over your bag and lock it somewhere like train and bus stations, but I don’t think this would be a solution for anything more than a trip to the washroom with the bag right outside. These nets are also very heavy. I often prefer to ask the washroom attendant to watch my extra bag and take my valuables with me, more often than not they are happy to.
While using a lock or a clip to secure openings on your bag won’t stop a determined thief and isn’t a replacement for being vigilant, it will do a lot to deter crimes of opportunity.
Use the Hotel Safe
While lockers have become fairly standard equipment in most dorms, they aren’t in all of them and its worth checking ahead of time if possible. When I was staying in Semuc Champey, my hostel didn’t have lockers and if I had had the good sense to use the hotel safe I’d be $200USD richer than I am today.
Busses, Trains, Boats, and Air Planes
Thefts on transport and other crowded places generally fall into two categories:
Theft of Opportunity
When on a transport its best to keep your valuables in a small bag with you at all times. If you plan on sleeping make sure you can put your things somewhere where they can’t be accessed without disturbing you and have something to secure the zippers and pockets.
Valuables left in bags in the overhead compartment or on the roofs of buses can easily be swiped. A friend in Guatemala had his camera and rain jacket taken from the outside pocket of his backpack on the roof of a chicken bus.
Sometimes it’s a hand in a pocket or purse. Those more daring might use a razor to cut open your bag. There are a few things you can do to protect yourself against this kind of theft on a crowded train or bus.
- Keep your bag close to you and out of the reach of others if possible.
- Bags with heavy cut proof fabric are an option, but I’d consider them overkill.
- Keep valuables in inside pockets.
- Ensure zippers are closed and hard to open.
- Wear a money belt and wear it properly (under your clothes).
Wearing a money belt on top of your clothes is a sure fire way to have it pickpocketed. You’re basically saying here are all my important things for when I pass out or stop paying attention.
My preferred pants for travelling have two zippered cargo pockets and two regular pockets with snap buttons on them. I’ve also sewn in a custom “money belt” into all my pants as well as sewing a zippered pouch on the back of my actual belt for emergency funds.
Watch Where You Charge Electronics
Many modern electronics including iPhones, tablet, computers, and e-readers come with built in batteries and thus have to be left near the plug to charge. Having an iPhone stolen while it’s being charged in a dorm is sadly a rather common occurrence. When possible follow these practices to guard your electronics:
- Only charge your device where you can see it and it can’t easily be walked off with.
- Ask the hostel or hotel to charge it behind the counter if there is someone who stays there at all times.
- Charge it in your locker if your cable is long enough. Some hostels are even wiring their lockers with electricity now.
- Choose a device with a removable battery and get a universal charger. In my case I can charge the batteries for my camera, phone, and other devices with the same charger.
Crowded markets, streets at night, and other crowded or deserted locations can also be prime hunting ground for the thieves or robbers. There are a few things that can be done to avoid ending up in bad situation:
- Ask locals and people working at your hostel what the area is like and where you should avoid.
- Wear bags with straps across the chest (instead of just a shoulder), both backpack straps, or clip the waist belts to prevent snatch and grabs.
- Wear your bag in front. Yes this can look stupid but sometimes it’s necessary in crowded situations, just don’t do it all the time. If you see locals doing however, you probably should be too.
- Put your back to a wall in crowded spaces if you feel uncomfortable.
- Walk with friends or a local at night or take a taxi.
- If you are stopped by someone for directions or just to talk, keep an eye on your things and your friends. Thieves often work in teams.
- If you feel like someone is following you, change direction or which side of the street you’re on. (Advice from a local in Honduras)
- Make sure your zippers and pockets are closed and difficult for others to open.
I’m not suggesting you be a saint, but a lot of robberies and petty thefts are related to consuming alcohol or other drugs. Anything can happen from leaving your bag somewhere you normally wouldn’t, to walking down the wrong street, or talking to someone you really shouldn’t have. If you plan on getting wasted, leave your valuables at home and make sure you go with trusted friends.
What to do Before You Leave Home
Record the Serial Numbers
Before you leave make a list of anything you have that is of value. Write down all the serial numbers and email them to yourself. It doesn’t hurt to take a picture of things as well. In the event you do have something stolen you can give these numbers and photos to the police or even visit some of the local pawn shops looking for your personal items.
I’ve actually seen items recovered from pawn shops because they could be readily identified.
If you’re buying new things before your trip, use a credit card and take advantage of the 90 day theft policy most have.
Backup Your Information
Actually this should be done often even during your trip. In the event you do have something electronic stolen, you’ll be far less stressed out if you have already backed up all the important information. Phones, cameras, tablets, and computers can all be backed up for just a few dollars a month using services like Just Cloud and Bitcasa.
Install Tracking Software
There are a few free and paid services for some electronics that install software to track stolen items or wipe the data clean. Depending on the data and the cost of your electronics, this can be an option worth considering.
If you have any special or expensive equipment you’re carrying, check to see if your travel insurance will cover it. Most companies limit their liability to $1000 (or less) per items or won’t cover them if you use them for work.
What to do if Something Happens
The vast majority of the time you’ll be down the block or even in another city before you realize the theft has taken place. By then its usually to late to do much beyond getting a police report.
In some places robberies of only a cell phone is common. Carrying a spare or old “dummy” cell to hand over often works if the theft is petty and not life threatening.
If you’re actually being robbed and threatened, don’t fight, don’t hesitate, give the assailant whatever they are after. Your stuff isn’t worth your life and most of the time when people get hurt in robberies it’s because they resisted.
Afterwards, go straight to the police and get a record of the incident. You’ll likely need it to file an insurance claim.
While the information above is as comprehensive as I could make it, listing every trick, type of theft, and scam would take a whole book. The most important thing is to stay vigilant and trust your gut to keep you out of a bad situation.
I also don’t want to give the impression that the world is out to get you while travelling. I assure you it isn’t. The vast majority of travellers will never be the victim of a theft or robbery or are at any more risk than they would be in their home country. Be prepared and aware.
Have any other tips you like to share about keeping you things safe? Share them in the comments below.