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Thieves and Travel Scams

Travel Safety Street Performers

Warnings and reminders are the theme for today’s article, as I share my own little escapade with trouble.

Thieves and Travel Scams

A week before my trip to Greece a few years ago, I got a brand new smartphone and since it was almost the latest and greatest, it was pretty pricey. I was a bit paranoid with this new phone as I traveled, so I tried to keep it tucked away. The first morning that I was in Athens, I did a little sightseeing before I met my guide for my food tour. I got a bit lost and didn’t pull out my phone for directions as I was concerned about flashing this new phone in public. I made it to my food tour and after a few other stops, we went to a place which serves souvlaki, which is classic Athens street food of meat wrapped in pita. The stand we stopped at was very crowded, so my guide got in line while I held a table.

After waiting quite awhile and looking at my map, I finally pulled out my phone. My phone was laying on the table in front of me as I read my email, and all the sudden a piece of paper covered in Greek words landed on top of it. I looked up and there were two teenage boys, around 13 or 14. Since I had already had a number of incidents with people asking me for money, I figured this was yet another one and I said “No, I’m sorry.” The boys kind of shrugged, and one picked up his paper and I looked down and saw my phone was gone. I yelled at them very loudly, “Give me my phone!!” and grabbed the paper that had my phone folded in it. Once again, they shrugged their shoulders and just walked away, as though they are used to being caught sometimes and it’s no big deal as they move on to the next target. I was very blessed with novice thieves, because I am firmly convinced that later in the season, once they had really practiced and perfected their scam, they would have moved a whole lot quicker and I would have never recovered my phone.

So this was a classic ploy and one you really need to be aware of when you travel, particularly in popular tourist locations around the world. Most of the tactics used by thieves are based on some type of distraction. They are very skilled in sleight-of-hand and stealing items without being detected. It’s imperative to have an awareness, but even more to practice some basic tips to protect yourself from ever being a target.

  • For men: do not put your wallet in your pocket. Do not think that you will notice it if they try to grab it, or that you’ll respond quickly. No, it’s their job to do it so fast and inconspicuously. It’s important to use a hidden pocket or money belt under your clothes rather than having your wallet accessible in your pocket.
  • Keep your expensive phones put away. If you must use your phone, always keep it firmly in your grasp – do not set it down for any reason.
  • Don’t carry any more money than you need for the day. Keep your extra money back in the hotel safe so that you can limit how much you might lose if you’re a victim of theft. If you take €500 at the ATM and you’re going on a prepaid tour, you really don’t need to carry more than €50, maybe a €100 at most. Put the rest in the safe in the room and do the same with your passport – do not carry your passport with you. For the money you do take with you, put it in separate areas – maybe a 20 bill in your pocket, some in the zippered section of your bag, and the rest in your wallet.
  • Don’t carry expensive items in a backpack on your back. One of their tactics is to take a knife and cut the bottom of the backpack so that all the items fall out, which they grab and escape with. Make sure the only thing you put in your backpack is an extra hat or some suntan lotion or inconsequential items. If you want to put something more expensive in there, use the zippered section so that even if they cut the bottom, that expensive item won’t fall out.

Here are some of the typical distractions that they will use to steal from you:

  • You may have heard of the thrown baby technique, where a woman looks like she’s carrying a baby and all of a sudden throws it at you. Obviously, it’s a doll, but in that moment when you’re so flustered and distracted, that’s when they pick your pockets.
  • Be aware of any type of disturbance that might draw a crowd – a fight, people yelling senselessly, or even a street performer. Anything that really attracts attention or draws a crowd can make you less aware and that is when you are more susceptible to have something stolen.
  • If someone accidentally spills some food or drink on you, that is likely an attempt at pickpocketing. Sometimes they even try to put fake bird poop on you. Seriously.
  • Be aware of interacting with two people, whether it’s two people together, or one person that’s attracting your attention and then perhaps someone else to seems to come to assist or translate. One will be attracting your attention while the other is picking your pocket.

I was incredibly fortunate to be the victim of two junior apprentice thieves and able to recover my stolen phone. I already know all these tricks and still I was careless even though I know better. Remember, for these thieves, it’s their job to steal as much as they can while you’re paying attention to your fabulous surroundings. Be aware, be alert, and follow the tips that will prevent your items from being at risk.