Dodg­ing the sticky fin­gers of pick­pock­ets

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE -

I don’t give much thought to petty crime when I travel abroad. I’m well aware that it hap­pens; I’ve been preach­ing about the im­por­tance of wear­ing a money belt for decades. And for decades — prob­a­bly about a to­tal of 4,000 days of travel — I’ve never been hit by a thief. Well, my happy streak fi­nally ended: I was pick­pock­eted in Paris this sum­mer.

It was my own fault. I wasn’t wear­ing my money belt, a small pouch worn at the waist un­der your clothes. I lost my driver’s li­cense, credit cards and some cash. I went back to my ho­tel, re­ferred to the “in case of emer­gency sec­tion” in my Paris guide­book and set about can­cel­ing my credit cards. My ex­pe­ri­ence just goes to show that, sooner or later, if you’re not on guard and wear­ing a money belt — or at least keep­ing ev­ery­thing prop­erly zipped and but­toned — you’ll likely be a vic­tim.

Thieves tar­get tourists, not be­cause the thieves are mean, but be­cause they’re smart. We’re the ones with the good stuff in our purses and wal­lets. But don’t let the fear of pick­pock­ets keep you from trav­el­ing. Be­sides wear­ing a money belt, here are some other tips for keep­ing your valu­ables safe.

Be­fore you go, take steps to min­i­mize po­ten­tial loss. Make copies or take pho­tos of key doc­u­ments, back up your dig­i­tal data and pass­word-pro­tect your de­vices. Leave your fancy bling at home. Lux­u­ri­ous lug­gage lures thieves: They’ll choose the most im­pres­sive suit­case in the pile, which never is mine.

Your valu­ables are most likely to be stolen when they are with you on the street. Your day bag is at high risk. I find my ho­tel room is the safest place to leave my pass­port, lap­top and so on. I wouldn’t leave valu­ables out in the open in my room; I tuck things away out of sight. (I have never both­ered with a ho­tel safe.) Thieves want to quickly sep­a­rate you from your valu­ables, so even a mi­nor ob­sta­cle can be an ef­fec­tive de­ter­rent. If you’re sit­ting down to eat or rest, loop your day-bag strap around your arm, leg or a chair leg. A ca­ble tie, pa­per clip or key ring can help keep your bag zipped up tight. The point isn’t to make your bag im­pen­e­tra­ble, but, rather, harder to get into than the next guy’s.

Some thieves are so bold as to snatch some­thing right out of your hands. I’ve seen thieves on a bike zip by and snare a purse or bag that a re­lax­ing trav­eler placed care­lessly next to cafe ta­ble.

Thieves know where the crowds are, and where the tourists are, and they are very deft at their work. A petite bump and a slight nudge get­ting off the Metro in Paris and ... wal­let gone. (That’s ex­actly what hap­pened to me.)

Be on guard in train sta­tions, es­pe­cially upon ar­rival, when you may be over­bur­dened by lug­gage and over­whelmed by a new lo­ca­tion. Take turns watch­ing the bags with your travel part­ner. Don’t ab­sent­mind­edly set down a bag; stay in phys­i­cal con­tact with your stuff. Be es­pe­cially care­ful on packed buses or sub­ways. On trains, I keep my lug­gage above me on the lug­gage rack rather than on the shelves near the door.

Of­ten art­ful-dodger teams cre­ate a dis­tur­bance — a fight, a messy spill, a jos­tle or a stum­ble — to dis­tract their vic­tims. Crowds any­where, but

Qe­spe­cially on pub­lic tran­sit and at tourist sights, pro­vide bad guys with plenty of tar­gets, op­por­tu­ni­ties and easy es­cape routes.

The sneaki­est pick­pock­ets look like well-dressed busi­ness­peo­ple. Some pose as tourists, with day­packs, cam­eras and even a Rick Steves guide­book. You’ll meet a lot of peo­ple on the street with beau­ti­ful eyes, beau­ti­ful chil­dren and sad sto­ries, but many beg­gars are pick­pock­ets. Don’t be fooled by im­pres­sive uni­forms, femme fa­tales or hard-luck sto­ries. Get­ting ev­ery­thing straight­ened out can take a while. If you do get robbed, file a po­lice re­port; you’ll need it to file an in­sur­ance claim, and it can help with re­plac­ing your pass­port or credit cards. Cancel both credit and debit cards. Sus­pend your mobile ser­vice (if you have a se­cu­rity app, use your ho­tel’s com­puter to en­able the “lo­cate, lock and wipe” fea­ture be­fore you cancel ser­vice al­to­gether). Above all, be flex­i­ble and pa­tient.

Nearly all crimes suf­fered by tourists are non­vi­o­lent and avoid­able. Be aware of the pit­falls of trav­el­ing, but re­lax and have fun. It may not help at the time, but if you are a vic­tim, re­mem­ber that your loss will make for a good story when you get home. Like a friend of mine says, “When it comes to travel, tragedy plus time equals com­edy.”

RICK STEVES/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

City bus and tran­sit lines that cover tourist sights (such as Rome’s no­to­ri­ous No. 64 bus) are happy hunt­ing grounds for lurk­ing pick­pock­ets.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

A money belt tucked un­der­neath your clothes pro­vides a se­cure way to safe­guard money and other valu­ables.

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