Safety & Security Tales & Tips for Travelers & Expats
last updated 6/27/13
Face it - if you are a tourist, or, in a part of the world you are clearly not from, YOU ARE A TARGET. If you are American, British, Canadian, Australian - you are a "rich" target. You already have a big "T" written on your forehead, but don't need to have a big "L" as well.
Get into GOOD HABITS - don't just follow safety procedures when you are in a place where you feel you may be threatened.
ALWAY BE AWARE of your surroundings. Watch out for groups of young men and women. Keep an eye out for people watching you. If a group is walking down the street toward you, behind you or crosses the street to your side, duck into a store or cross the street. Don't worry about being obvious! Just do it!
Spend some time on travelers' sites on the internet researching the place you are going. You can LEARN A LOT about the scams that are popular in that town/country. E.g., muggings in taxis (like in Guayaquil, Quito, Lima and Caracas), taxi drivers overcharging (esp. Lima) - ask what it costs in advance, where you should not flag a taxi on the street but call a radio taxi or ask the hotel/restaurant to call a taxi for you (Lima, Guayaquil, Caracas, Mexico City), hold-ups at ATM's or when leaving banks, phony ATM card readers, and the like. (e.g., Barcelona - those gypsy women trying to give you a flower for a peseta in front of the cathedral, they don't want your money, they just want you to show where you keep it. Then you walk around the corner through one of the narrow side walkways in the Ramblas and get mugged - a quick hit and run).
Avoid wandering around looking at maps - marks you as a tourist. Find the smallest map you can and photocopy it. Then, I usually cut it down to size and stick it in my pocket. I do this in advance of leaving home and make one set for me and one for my husband.
When you are in a TAXI with your luggage in the trunk and you arrive at your destination, do NOT get out of the car until the driver does. It is an invitation for him to take off with your stuff. (One taxi driver in Guayaquil was very upset when I did not get out of the car. And I waited quite a while).
Know where you are going in a TAXI - scope out in advance on Google Maps. That way you can tell if the taxi is taking you somewhere other than your destination.
Be extra watchful in crowds - if you suddenly have people crowding around you pushing on you there is a good chance you are being pickpocketed or your bag slashed.
- Puno, Peru during a festival - suddenly I have a crowd of people around me (SWARMED!) and a woman (indigenous with the bowler hat and all) on my left pushing into me. About 10 seconds later I felt for my "stealing wallet" and it was gone. Her pushing on my left side was to focus my attention on her while someone on my right side pulled the wallet out of my pocket. They only got about $15 - $20 but I was still very upset. Upset at myself that I had not been on my guard.
If someone squirts mustard or some condiment on you or spits on you (happened to a friend in Cusco - they slashed her cargo pants pocket and stole her camera), move away quickly and move away from anyone who comes to aid you. You are about to be pickpocketed or have your bag slashed by those coming to help.
In BUS AND TRAIN STATIONS be extra careful. Watch out for distractions - a group of guys suddenly fighting, a woman screaming at her husband - it may be a distraction intended to allow someone else to snatch your bag as you look in the other direction. If possible, keep your BAG STRAPS AROUND YOUR ANKLES when are sitting down (or standing in line). Don't set your stuff next to you on a park or bus station bench. Put it on the ground between your legs. Keep your bags in front of you and touching you so you will feel it if someone tries to take it. Look around all the time - look for people looking at people. Look for 2 or more guys together. They usually have one or more partners in crime. Be very wary of anyone who comes up to talk to you.
If you are out walking with someone at night in a sparsely populated area, avoid talking. Open your mouth and the bad guys can tell right away you are tourists. Unfortunately, in some parts of the world all they have to do is look at you and know you are a tourist. 6 foot tall blond hair in Peru or Ecuador or Japan, etc.
NEVER CARRY YOUR PASSPORT on you when you do not need it. Always make 3 or 4 photocopies and carry one with you rather than the passport itself. I also put a copy into my suitcases.
I carry a "stealing wallet" in my pocket. It has a small amount of cash and usually one or two outdated plastic cards - like insurance ID's. NOT credit cards - that makes you more vulnerable to express kidnapping.
When TRAVELING BY BUS:
Always watch your stuff being loaded into the cargo bin under the bus - then keep watching until they close it. Try to get a seat overlooking that bin so you can keep an eye on it when the bus stops to let people on and off. Anytime the bin is opened, be there to watch. Do not store stuff under the seat or in the overhead bin. Keep it on the floor between, in front of or underneath your feet.
DO NOT ACCEPT FOOD OR DRINK from anyone. Make sure beer or water bottles are unopened or opened in front of you.
- Phoenix, AZ - A niece having a drink with some friends in a bar. Suddenly feeling very sick. Fortunately one of her astute friends recognized the symptoms and realized that someone must have slipped something in her drink. He helped her get home safely.
- Somewhere in Baha Mexico - friends stopped at a bar along the highway and had a drink - both suddenly started feeling sick and realized what had happened. Ran out of there, got in the car and sped down the highway. When they were sure no one was following them they pulled off the highway and stopped. They both passed out for hours and woke up with splitting headaches.
Watch out for people watching you:
- New York City - Two friends and I were shadowed for about 45 minutes as we walked through Central Park in broad daylight. I had an expensive camera and was taking lots of pictures. After about 45 minutes he finally went away. The female friend looked at me and said - did you see that guy watching us? Unbeknownst to each other we had both been watching him following us. We would vary our path and stop unexpectedly. But he was always right there. The guy we were with didn't observe a thing! But Alicia and I were fully aware that we were being stalked.
- Cusco, Peru - Two young guys (obviously amateurs) followed us for a down a side street. I spotted them watching us. They stopped as we crossed a street and went over to where a lot of people were standing waiting for a bus. They waited, uncertain as to where we would go next. We started out again as if to continue on down the street. They went over to the entrance to the next block and waited - to see if we were going that way or turning down the cross street. We took a few steps down the street and then I stopped my husband to "talk." They continued past us. As I was telling my husband what was happening, they got about 30 feet ahead of us and then turned to look at us. We turned around and went back to the cross street where all the people were. They followed. My husband turned to them and started yelling very loudly in Spanish. "What do you want? Do you want something from us? Why are you following us? Is there something you want?" - They were very embarrassed, mumbled something and walked off.
That good old SAFETY PIN - get a large safety pin and pin your pocket shut! I also have a woven bag that I sometimes carry and shut with a safety pin. Anything that makes a theft a little bit more difficult or take a little bit longer is a deterent. Thieves look for the easiest targets.
- If you are traveling in a country with a large poor population, DO NOT WEAR JEWELRY, not even wedding rings. If you must wear jewelry wear things that clearly look inexpensive.
- AVOID CARRYING A PURSE if possible. Get (or make, if you sew) a small pouch just big enough to put some folding money into. Even when running errands in my home town in the U.S. I rarely carry a purse, but when I do I still put my mini-wallet in one pocket and my phone in the other. I have my house & car keys on a retractable lanyard that I either have around my neck or in my pocket. When I travel I also have a very small but very loud whistle on it as well.
- When travelling I do often carry a bag with a book, maps, stuff I buy, etc. It is usually a cheap looking worn out bag, sometimes even one of the disposable plastic bags you get at the grocery store. (Not many thieves want to steal groceries). But I do not put anything valuable (wallet, phone, house key etc.) into it.
- I always buy clothes with pockets. With jeans/slacks I make sure they are big pockets. I have bought dresses without pockets and then sewn large deep pockets into them (pretty easy to do.
- Whenever you are WALKING DOWN THE STREET, keep any purse or shoulder bag on the side/front of your body away from the street. Avoid walking right next to the curb. If you are with someone else, keep it between you.
- I have made pouches, both mini-wallet size and passport size with velcro on one side. On all my pants and skirts I have velcro sewn on the inside. I use this whenever I need to carry my passport (which is ONLY when I absolutely need it- like when flying) or a large amount of money or a credit/debit card.
- Keep your wallet in your front pocket. Barcelona, Spain. Rushing to get a subway ticket during rush hour (AVOID rush hour). My husband bought our tickets and in a rush put his wallet into his back pocket. Just as we were getting onto the metro a gang of guys crowded between us and around him. Bill felt his wallet being lifted but knew there was no way he was going to get it back. One person steals it and then quickly passes it to another person who takes off. No use trying to accuse someone - they won't have it any longer.
- Be careful where you use your camera (and DON'T have it hanging around your neck). And be extra watchful when you are out taking pictures and after you have taken a picture. Cuenca, Ecuador - We watched a parade years ago in Parque Calkderon and took some photos – right after we went into a restaurant on the plaza for lunch (the one that now has grafitti on the outside wall). My husband thwarted a thief (who had two buddies with him) who tried to reach into his carrybag. It was on the floor but with the handle wrapped around his chair leg.
- La Paz, Bolivia - My husband took some photos of a wedding party in front of a church. Right after he was SWARMED by 5 people – 3 men and 2 women, who picked his pocket and sliced his daypack. They got his mp3 player. Carry your backpack (and purse) in front of you, not on your back.
- Try to use only ATM's that are inside a bank. Have someone with you to keep an eye on people who might be keeping an eye on you! Leave the area immediately and watch for people following you.
BORED? HAVE SOME FUN
- Go to a park or plaza or bus station where tourists frequent and sit and observe. Make it a game to look for likely pickpockets.
- Get on YouTube and do a search on "pickpockets." You will get some good ideas on what to watch for.