Flipping through a book of travel tips the other day, I discovered this little gem: “Scared of rats in the dark in a strange room across the globe? Be sure to wash your hands. Those cookie crumbs on your fingertips will be the ones to get licked first.” Yikes! A valuable safety precaution! Yet I couldn’t help thinking that even better advice would have been to suggest that if you’re sharing your quarters with vermin such as rats, you should — call me crazy! — seek other accommodations.
I realize that I am always encouraging people to say "yes” to spontaneity and that I frequently tout the charms of vacationing in dubious places, but that doesn’t mean throwing common sense to the winds. Pickpocket gangs and other nefarious characters are gearing up for the spring and summer vacation season, and you should too. The more we learn about how street criminals operate, the easier it will be to foil their dastardly plans.
1. Don’t carry valuables in a backpack, an unzipped purse, or anywhere else that you can’t watch properly. While you’re admiring the scenery or looking out for a bus, nimble-fingered pickpockets behind you in the crowd may be happily extracting all your belongings. Backpacks are fine for water bottles, spare sweaters, and (if well hidden deep in the interior) maybe your iPhone or camera. But I don’t recommend tempting fate by putting your passport and all your cash in an easy to access outer pocket. Watch how pickpockets in Napoli work together to lift your stuff:
2. Be aware that cash machines are magnets for thieves. Urban folklore alleges that when a reporter asked the prolific American bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, Sutton said, “Because that’s where the money is.” Today’s robbers know that the money is in ATMs, and they have devised various schemes for getting it, starting with the simple but effective grab-and-run approach. They also know that you’ll have both eyes on the screen while trying to sort out the value of 15,000 Hungarian florints; by the time you calculate that it’s $51.96, your luggage may be long gone. That’s how my friend Debbie lost her backpack, stuffed with her passport and all her valuables, en route to an overseas wedding.
3. Learn about common street scams. If strangers offer you a gold ring, try to tie a string around your wrist, or appear to be dropping a baby at your feet — look out! They are most likely distracting you while their colleagues are slipping things out of your pockets. (See video above!) Once a Paris subway passenger dropped a lighted cigarette, shouted that my friend Jim’s trousers were on fire, and began slapping at Jim’s ankles. A seasoned traveler, Jim reacted by whirling around just in time to foil the efforts of the smoker’s light-fingered accomplice.
Helpful hint: Thieves are well aware that when law abiding travelers pass a “Beware of Pickpockets” sign, the first thing most do is touch their wallet to reassure themselves it’s still there. Try to avoid sending this helpful signal to local criminals who may be wondering where you keep your best stuff.
4. Never ride with a taxi driver who accosts you inside the airport or train station. I’ve been to transportation hubs in 50 countries, and all had taxi stands outside and regulations (however loosely enforced) against freelancers approaching tourists as they arrive. These freelancers will likely attempt to overcharge you, steal your money, make off with your bags, or at the very least spend the entire ride trying to persuade you to bypass the hotel you booked to get a “better deal” from their cousin.
5. Don’t go home with people who approach you on the street offering lodgings for the night. This is the fastest way I know to wind up someplace where you’ll need to wash the cookie crumbs off your hands to avoid attracting rats.
Even savvy, seasoned travelers get ripped-off occasionally. All we can do is try to minimize the risk, and learn how to cope if it happens to us. Have you ever been swindled, robbed, or fleeced on the road?
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich.
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