The best way to remember anything is to tie it to an emotion, so It's no wonder I still remember the day I was robbed like it was yesterday.
I was in Budapest and I came back from a quick dinner, opened a bottle of wine and went to go check if I had any messages as I had left my phone to charge.
The phone wasn’t there.
At first I thought it was a practical joke or a misunderstanding as I was the only person booked in the 8 person dorm room when I left,
The front desk knew nothing.
You know that feeling you get when it dawns on you something bad has happened. that sinking moment of realization? This was the moment it happened to me.
I went back to inspect the room again, it was then I found my computer and camera also gone.
Adrenaline started pumping and I was frantic. I went back to the front desk and inquired if they had seen anyone go into the room.
Yes, they had just booked a guy who was staying for the night. He had left right as I came back from dinner, but the front desk employee informed me he had said he would be coming right back.
He never did and I never saw my stuff again.
In the ensuing days, I found out after stealing my stuff he made his way to a hostel a few blocks away. He checked in with a different name, ID and clothing before cutting the locks off the lockers of the girls he was sharing a room with (they were also out to dinner) and making off with their iPads, computers, credit cards, and passports.
He was a professional thief making a living by cruising from hostel to hostel, robbing guests.
As I replayed the entire scenario in my head over and over and over again, there were a few things I did right, a few things I did wrong and some major lessons learned.
Lesson One: Stay True To Your Systems
"You have to build systems to protect against your lesser self." - Neil Strauss
Systems are a great thing to set up to make sure mundane but necessary tasks get done. But, you have to make sure you follow them...
One of my weekly tasks was to upload all of my photos to my external hard drive as a backup in case something like this happened.
However, I started getting complacent, comfortable and lazy and started straying from my system.
Keeping to your defined system can be a drag sometimes, but I’ll never make the mistake again.
Lesson Two: There’s No Way To Make Sure Your Stuff Isn't Stolen
If someone is committed to stealing something you own, there's not much you can do to stop it. You need to remember that most of these thieves are professionals, this is what they do for a living. They are good at it, and much more skilled than you are.
If they decide they are going to take what's yours, there’s not much you can do to stop it.
So don’t let the thought of it happening ruin your trip, or prevent you from going all together.
You can’t be paranoid someone is lurking around every corner to take what’s yours; it’s no way to travel or live your life in general and you wind up not having much fun. My piece of advice is to trust, but verify and always listen to your gut.
I traveled for a year to 23 different countries and only had this one awful experience. Compared to the plethora of amazing experiences, it was totally worth it.
So, if there’s no sure-fire way to prevent it, then what can YOU do as a traveler to not only minimize the chance of it happening, but also make sure if it does, you’re prepared?
How can you make sure it’s just a hiccup, instead having it ruin your entire trip?
As you can imagine, I thought on the subject plenty after my experience and I have come up with the following guide to help you adequately prepare yourself, actively prevent being targeted, and how to deal with a theft if it does happen to you during your travels.
This preparation section is the largest and most time consuming.
It all seems like a lot of work and forethought, and it is, and it will take dedication to stick to the systems you setup for yourself.
But, as the saying goes: I'd rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
Get Property Insurance
Some travelers will get insurance, some like to forego it, save the money and use it on their travels. It’s a personal choice, but the way I look at insurance is this: if the worst of the worst happens, how financially f'ed in the A would you be?
If the answer is: royally, I buy insurance.
If the answer is: kinda, then I explore it more, see how much it would cost and maybe buy insurance or maybe not.
This is where property insurance falls for me.
If the answer is: not at all, then I wouldn’t worry about insurance.
If you decide to get property insurance, most companies will want serial numbers, receipts, and descriptions ahead of time. If not, do it anyway.
Make Digital & Hard Copies Of All Important Information
Both digital and hard formats make the information easier to access depending on what happened to you, so I highly recommend making both.
Here is a list of what you want in this “Theft File”:
- Copy of Passport
- Copy of driver's license
- Phone numbers for the credit cards you're carrying to make canceling easier
- Descriptions, serial numbers and receipts of expensive gear
- Extra passport photos (US Requirements)
Email the digital copy to yourself and a close friend or family member. Laminate the hard copy and keep it in your backpack.
Use A Fake Wallet
While traveling I wore a money belt underneath my pants. In the money belt I kept the bulk of my cash, credit cards, passport and immunization records.
On top of this I also carried a fake wallet and kept it easily accessible in my pants.
I filled it with old hotel room keycards, business cards I’ve collected over the years, $20 in 1 dollar bills. and around $50 USD equivalent of the local currency.
Basically, I made it look as real as possible without keeping any personal information in it.
The fake wallet served three purposes:
- Something of substance to offer if ever mugged
- Something a pick-pocket could take that wouldn't ruin my day
- An easy access to money that didn't require me going into my money belt in public
Every morning I’d take out enough money for the day and put it in the fake wallet, which allowed me easy access to cash instead of having to get into the money belt in public.
Install Tracking Software
Use services like Prey (www.preyproject.com) or Find My iPhone (www.apple.com/icloud/find-my-iphone.html)
Prey is an anti-theft tracking software for your laptop, phone and tablet letting you remotely locate, lock, wipe and recover it if ever stolen, or simply missing. You do this by logging into a web platform where you can also trigger actions like sounding an alarm or show an onscreen message to let the thief know you’re after them.
Find My iPhone is similar but only works for Apple devices.
The problem with these services while you're traveling is they need to be connected to the internet in order to locate your devices and interact with them.
When you’re in a foreign country this can be a problem. This is what happened to me.
I had these services installed on my devices but since I was in Hungary with no cellphone reception, I depended on the thief to connect to the internet before wiping them. This, unfortunately, never happened.
Another more advanced step you can take with your computer is to add a BIOS password and disable booting from removable devices on your PC, so the thief will be forced to boot into the previous installation and thus, not be able to format your hard disk easily. If you have a Mac, there’s a firmware password utility on your Tiger/Leopard OSX installation DVD (look for it in in Applications/Utilities). On newer OS X versions you’ll find the utility by booting from the recovery partition.
Make Systematic Backups
After my stuff was stolen, the most upsetting thing was losing 3 months’ worth of memories through my photos and videos. Those are the things I’ll never get back and what caused the most grief when I think about the experience.
It’s important to come up with a system and stay dedicated to it.
Some of the problems you’ll encounter while traveling are: a large amount of photos/videos and slow (or no) internet, which makes backing up to the cloud difficult. But, cloud backup is still a good option depending on where and how long you’ll be traveling.
My system was to back up my files to an external hard drive I kept separate from my computer. It worked out because the thief didn’t take my whole backpack, but if he had, I would have been one sad panda.
My problem was I didn’t stay vigilant with the system and so I hadn’t backed everything up in a while when the theft occurred. It was a hard way to learn, but I’ll never make the mistake again.
Another option is to travel with a bunch of memory cards and send them home through the mail when you fill them up.
Make It Ugly
Brand new and shiny items will attract a thieves attention so one tactic is to make your stuff look broken and unappealing
- Cover electronics in stickers
- Use duct take to make it look like your stuff is broken and being held together by the tape
- Carry your camera in an old grocery bag instead of a nice camera case
Do As The Locals Do
A great way to not be targeted is to look and act as the locals do.
What types of clothing do they wear? Do you see people wearing shorts or sandals? Are the locals wearing mostly dark colors? How do they carry themselves out in public?
One of my favorite ways to relax is to people-watch, especially when it’s an unfamiliar culture. However, it has the added benefit of teaching you local customs you might not be aware of, which you can then use to not stick out as much.
Be Aware Of Common Scams
There are so many different scams thieves use to take advantage of tourists it’s impossible to know about them all, but as you hear/read about them you’ll start to notice a pattern.
Let’s take a look at some common scams to be aware of:
You’re walking around in the evening, when all of a sudden 2 girls approach you and they strike up a conversation.
They’re complimenting you and asking you about your trip and after a bit of conversation they invite you to go have a drink at one of their favorite bars. You decide, why not? They seem nice and travel has really put you in the “be open for new experiences” vibe.
You have a great time with the girls at the bar having drinks and as the night starts to wind down you’re excited to see what happens next.
The girls excuse themselves to go to the bathroom and a few minutes later a large and intimidating man brings you the check and you look down and see it’s 20 times what it should cost.
You begin to make a fuss, but the intimidating man isn’t having it. You don’t even have the amount of money, so the guy roughly drags you to the nearest ATM and forces you to withdraw the money before letting you go. You never see the girls again.
You have the day to kill so you break out your nice camera and decide you’ll go explore the city.
As you’re engrossed in taking photos you feel something land on your leg. You look down and see a bird just took a nice dump on your pants.
As quickly as you felt the splatter, a tissue is being offered; wow, how nice, they are even cleaning it up for you as their friend also walks up to laugh at the situation.
A few seconds later and your pants are good as new, you thank the man and continue on to finish taking photos.
You spot your next shot, put your camera up to your eye and realize the lens is gone.
Here's a video of a man getting his camera lens stolen when his camera is around his neck. The thieves work in a group and even though he immediately recognizes his lens is gone, everyone scatters in different directions while the lens gets handed off and the man has no chance.
You’re walking along and you see a mother approaching with her baby in her arms, as you get closer she suddenly trips and as she screams she hurls her baby towards you; you’re surprised but you manage to catch the child.
The people around see and rush up to congratulate you on being a hero and pat you on the back. You’re so overwhelmed you don’t realize the child feels a bit light and isn’t even moving.
You definitely don’t notice the hands patting you on the back are also going through your backpack and taking anything they can.
So what do they have in common? Something happens and it doesn't seem quite right.
Two girls making an effort to directly approach you and start a conversation, you get crapped on by a bird and someone is immediately there with a tissue, and throwing a baby, who throws a baby?
All of the scenarios are distracting, which makes it difficult to process and it drowns out your gut feeling telling you something isn’t right. Oftentimes you will be getting touched a lot in multiple places, which confuses your brain from noticing the hand in your pocket.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is and if someone starts touching you, protect your valuables.
I got in the habit of swinging my arms while I walked in a way that brushed against my wallet so I could easily check it was there.
Have A Safe Word/Phrase
Hopefully you’ll never have to use this but it’s smart to set up a safe word or a phrase with a family member before you leave.
There might come a time where an accident of some sort happens and you need to get money sent from home, there also may come a time where you get put in a situation where someone is forcing you to call/email home to get money.
A safe word/phrase is a great way to alert your family member everything is ok or something is wrong, without the assailant knowing.You want something easily worked into conversation without sounding forced or out of place. A good example would be to refer to a pet or a loved one that doesn't exist.
Set it up before you leave and make sure you keep it to yourself.
In The Moment
While you’re in the moment getting amongst it, there are a few tips you can use to make yourself less of a target and blend in better with the local crowd.
Keep The Important Things Safe
No matter what happens to you, if you have cash and your passport, you can get back home.If you lose both of those you’ll still be ok, it’s just going to be a lot more difficult. So make an extra effort to keep those items safe.
- I never brought my money belt out in public
- When staying in hostels I always slept with my money belt and wallet under my pillow
- In public areas I’d make sure to keep my wallet in my front pocket and sometimes carry my backpack on my chest (especially when I saw locals doing it).
Keep It Old School
When you’re out in public (especially high tourist areas), resist the urge to pull out your electronics to entertain yourself or get directions.
As soon as you bring out anything expensive, you’ve let the people within eyesight know. Most thieves don’t steal at random, they see something of value and go after it.
Instead of using your phone for directions, grab a paper map from the hostel or write down the directions you need on a piece of paper or notepad before heading out.
Instead of using your iPad or Kindle to play games/read, use a paper book or entertain yourself in other ways like people-watching.
Be A Tourist
It’s ok to be a tourist and do tourist things.
But, when you put on the fanny-pack, bust out the lonely planet guide book and sling the camera around your neck for a day on the town just be aware of how obviously touristy you look and be extra vigilant.
Be Careful Traveling In Pairs
In my opinion, traveling in a pair is the most dangerous. You’re in a small non-threatening group and usually talking to one another. This not only means you’re distracted, but when you’re in a foreign country, anyone in earshot can hear your accent and easily tell you’re not a local.
As a solo traveler you most likely won’t be talking and you’ll be more aware of your surroundings. When you’re in a large group you come off as more threating and there are many more eyes to notice a stranger doing something sketchy.
Spot Thieves Before They Spot You
Most thieves work in groups so look for people watching you (or others) intently and people who are making an effort to stay in a close proximity to you.
When I was in crowded areas I got in the habit of protecting valuables and rechecking anytime I was touched.
Give It Up
If you ever do get mugged, give them what they want and don't linger.
Your life is worth more than the amazing pictures, the expensive camera and the money.
After The Dust Has Settled
The adrenaline is going to be pumping. You need to focus, breathe and follow these steps:
1. Get To A Phone
Call the local Police and get a police report filled out as soon as possible.
Use someone from the hostel/hotel/wherever you’re staying to help you speak the local language if there’s a language barrier.
You should have access to all of your serial numbers, so make sure they all get into the police report (it will make filing an insurance claim much easier).
2. Write It Down
Write down every detail you can about the incident while you're waiting for police to arrive.
- Where you were
- The date and time
- What the thief looked like (if you saw them)
- What happened
- What was taken (with serial numbers and descriptions)
- Sign and date it with the time
3. Cancel Credit Cards (If Stolen)
4. Change Passwords
5. Contact Your Insurance To Start A Claim (If You Have It)
6. Figure Out If You Need To Replace It
After you've figured out what was taken you need to figure out if you need to replace it (and how you're going to do that) in order to keep traveling (like a passport) or if you can continue traveling without a replacement.
If Your Passport Was Stolen While Abroad (US Citizens)
- Contact the nearest US Embassy or Consulate and report it stolen as soon as possible to prevent identity theft. Use the US Embassy Locator: http://www.usembassy.gov/
Gather as much of the following before going in to make replacement go quickly:
- A passport photo (requirements)
- Identification (driver’s license, expired passport, copy of passport etc.)
- Evidence of US citizenship (birth certificate, photocopy of stolen passport)
- Travel itinerary
- Police report (not required, but it helps)
- DS-11 Application for Passport (may be completed at time of application)
- DS-64 Statement regarding a lost or stolen passport (may be completed at time of application)
Ideally you’ll never have to find out if the techniques in this guide are helpful.
However, if you ever do have to deal with theft, my goal in writing this is to adequately prepare you to make the experience as painless as possible as you process it all and move forward with your travels.
You should never let the idea of getting your stuff stolen (or other negatives) paralyze you from doing what you want to do in this life.
All you can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Remember, whatever happens to you, it can always be worse. So look for the positive in an otherwise negative experience. Thank the people around you help you with language barriers and family/friends back home who will do everything they can to help you.
You will get through it, and you will be better for it.
Thanks for this great article!You are quickly becomeing my favorite travel blogger.
Yaaaaaaaaaaaaasss! This pleases me. Thanks Cesar 🙂
Got my wallet stolen at Charles de Gaulle right before I got on a plane to Barcelona by myself. Hell of an experience but also one of my best stories
So many stories from Barcelona about pick-pocketers…
It’s funny how these types of things are always devastating in the moment and then turn into great stories later.
Glad you made it safe, or I would never have gotten to share a room with your sweet, bearded face 🙂
Thanks for this. I’m a firmer believer in—and practitioner of—the “make it ugly” approach. Duct tape, hockey tape, and electrical tape are all good options for this. I also try to make my things—electronics and my bag—as personalized as possible, to make them easy to identify on sight and even from across the room. My rationalization is that this makes them less obvious targets. Instead of the standard rolling suitcase in black—because everyone has one of those, and how could you reliably spot the thief making off with yours?—I have a burgundy-colored suitcase that’s been scratched to hell by two generations of cats. And instead of the black Timbuktu (or similar) backpack that so many travelers swear by, I have a bright turquoise bag with a lime green interior. (Bonus if you put tape and stickers on your bags, too.) Sure, this may make me more visible, but it also makes my stuff look ugly and more easily identifiable.
Such a good point on the combination of “making it ugly” AND making it easy to identify in case you need to spot your items quickly in a crowded area 🙂
I always appreciate reminders to be cautious when traveling. A few years ago I was in Rio and had $400 USD stolen from my hotel safe. I carelessly opened my safe while house keeping was in my room and the guy spotted my safe combination. He was pretty sly about it too. He only took part of my cash so I only spotted it missing after doing one of my daily cash counts. I contacted hotel security and at first they tried to blow me off but I was insistent. They brought up one of the hotel managers and pulled the login codes off of my room door which records who enters your room and when. They also pulled the combinations from my digital room safe. I ended up spending the evening at the tourist police station in Copacabana filing out a police report. The hotel reimbursed me on the condition I never let out that one of their employees stole from their guests.
My lessons learned were:
1) Always count my money.
2) Don’t open my room safe with anyone in the room that is not a personal friend.
3) Stay at a good hotel. If I had not been staying at a 4 star place I probably would have never gotten my money back.
Cheers and thanks for the share.
Awesome advice Ed, I love the advice about always keeping an accurate count of your money! I’m glad you were able to get reimbursed! Thanks for sharing and safe travels 🙂