|w o r l d a w a i t s . c o m|
A column on the art of traveling well
Conned, Robbed & Victimized
Scary? Is not the whole of the hostelling world comprised of decent, caring, fun-loving folks like me who wouldnt hurt a fly? Almost, but not quite. Oh, its true that a lot of the stories you hear about travel troubles are tired anecdotes that have been working their way around the globe for months. Some have achieved the status of legend like the gems about whole train cars getting gassed with a sleeping drug in southern Italy, or volcano climbers being shot by armed thugs in Guatemala. Im sure these stories originated in real incidents, and that they may still serve as valid cautionary tales, but the truth of them is a bit overblown.
Other tales, however, are all too current and represent categories of risk that are perennially genuine. Like the one about the guy who befriended a hosteller in New York then crossed the country with her to San Francisco. The would-be friendship grew, drawing in a third person, and the three decided to get an apartment together. They looked at places for awhile, finally selecting one that they all liked. Thats when our con man completed his scam. Claiming that the landlord would only accept a cashiers check for a deposit, he offered to take care of it through his bank and got his two marks to give him cash$1000 each (yeah, rentals are pricey in SF). After supposedly taking care of business, our friend skipped town, saying that he had to say so long to a girlfriend in Chicago and hed be back in a week. That was several months ago.
We hostellers are such good-natured people that were like deer in the headlights sometimes though, admittedly, that scam might even have taken in savvy, jaded travelers. But is it really very likely that youll lose a thousand bucks to some con artist? No, its not very likely at all. That tale is real, but exceptional. Its worth telling, however, to remind us all to be very very careful about handing over large sums of cash to people we dont know all that well.
The risks much more likely to affect us are those that the police would describe as "petty" or label as "misdemeanors", yet that dont seem small at all to the budget traveler. Here and there, once in awhile, hostellers get scammed, robbed, or otherwise victimized. Fortunately, all three are relatively easy to prevent or recover from. Even more fortunately, hostellers truly are a better breed, and such occurrences are rare. Still, it pays to install a couple of general notions of safety and security in your brain before you head out.
Ah, the con artist the scammer what a foul blemish on humanity he or she is. There are people all over the planet who make at least part of their living by fooling people into parting with things of value. The example I described above is a big example in the budget travel realm. Most stories are smaller. Often, someone just befriends you for an hour or two, maybe at the bar or in the common room, then asks for a favor. "Shit, my mom was supposed to wire me some money but it didnt get here yet, and now the office is closed until tomorrow at 9. Can you loan me $20 so I can pay for the hostel for tonight? Ill have that $20 back to you no later than quarter after 9 tomorrow." Blah, blah, blah.
And you say, "Well, uh, you see"
"Oh, forget it. No worries. I understand, I mean, you barely know me "
"No, thats okay. $20? Sure. But, I mean, I need it back because"
"No sweat! The bank is only 4 blocks from here. We can meet for breakfast at 8, then walk over, and Ill hand it right to you."
So it goes, and youre $20 poorer.
The key thing to remember about con artists is that they only succeed if they have a scam that you wont suspect. They are always trying to get you to trust them just enough, and then to get you to give away some money by appealing to you with some story, plan, request for a favor, call for human kindness, desperate plea, or something. They suck. Not only do they rip you off, they also predispose you to suspect the genuine and honest interchanges that are far more common.
If youve never been conned before, you are a prime target. Thats why con artists prey on the young and the very old. Young people are often inclined to be trusting, because they may never have been burned before. Old folks may simply have lost their ability to detect a scam in progress.
The answer? Be very reluctant to part with money or valuables under any circumstances, period. The more youre being asked for, the more reluctant you should be. If, for any reason, people you dont really know want to have your money and then be out of your sight for awhile, forget it. Offer to accompany the person to the ticket office or bank, or wherever. Offer to pay for the meal or the hostel night directly. Remember that con artists may have accomplices who seem to legitimize stories by their actions some cons are truly elaborate. Harden your resolve so you cant be bullied or seduced or shamed into losing a chunk of your travel budget..
Just dont part with your cash and valuables unless you are dead certain you know what youre doing.
I like to distinguish between two types of theft risk that the traveler faces. The first involves leaving things somewhere and having them stolen when theyre out of sight. The second is having things taken from right under your nose. Both happen on rare occasions in hostels, as well as to travelers in general. The risk of either occurring can be substantially minimized with a little care.
"I thought it would be safe!"
On the road, you often have to leave some of your gear somewhere while youre off doing something. Maybe your pack is on the bus roof while you ride within. Perhaps your jacket is in the train compartment and youre in the bar car. You might leave your camera bag on the café table while you dash to the toilet, or your pack on the hostel bunk when youre out at the pubs, or your wallet in the bungalow as you bask on the beach. If a thief is working the area, all are at risk.
But what can you do? After all, no one wants to cart all of their stuff around everywhere, including me. Here are five useful sort-of-rules:
1. Keep the really valuable stuff with you always, no matter what, unless it can be absolutely securedlike in hostel or hotel behind-the-counter safe deposits.
2. Discourage theft of the rest by hiding, attaching, locking, or otherwise diminishing convenience to the thief. After all, these bozos are sneaky little chicken shit opportunists who go after the easy stuff first.
3. Protect your finances. Carry only as much cash as you need and/or feel comfortable with. Keep your travelers checks receipt separate from the checks so if you lose one, you wont lose the other. Understand how youre protected, if at all, if someone else uses your ATM or credit card.
4. Dont take valuable, flashy stuff with you when you travel. Leave the shiny gizmos and fancy gadgets at home. Assume a generally drab, worn, low budget look and reality.
5. Lighten up! Dont let the risk of theft worry you. Its easy to get overly dependent and sentimental regarding your stuff because its your concrete link to the safety and security of home. And, of course, because it has a lot to do with your real safety and security. But imagine discovering its gone! Run the scenarios of losing stuff or money, and then responding to the challenge. Get comfortable with the possible bumps in the road so that, if you hit one, it doesnt ruin you travel attitude.
"But it was right here!"
Pickpockets and cutpurses two precisely apt labels are minor enemies in the battle to stay solvent on the road. The former look for pockets in loose clothing or openable packs and bags, then slip your valuables stealthily out of your possession and into theirs. The latter use razors to slice into packs and bags, or to cut the straps of travel wallets and fanny packs, then expertly lighten the load. Both depend upon distraction and anonymity to succeed, thus are found where crowds are thick and minds are on other things than security. They are defeated when theres nothing to steal, or when your taking good care of all goodies.
To avoid making the day of a pickpocket or cutpurse, try the following when youre exploring in cities or towns where people are concentrated:
* Keep valuables more or less in front of you, within the range of your peripheral vision. Dont keep anything valuable in your daypack or fanny-mount belt pack (aka, fanny pack).
* Use a travel wallet or money belt, and use it as it should be used under your clothing with straps hidden.
* If you carry a camera bag or wear a front-mount belt pack, hold onto it whenever your in a crowd, watching something going on, getting on and off urban transit, or anywhere else where people jostle about.
* If a distraction suddenly occurs near you like an argument, or someone bumping into you or dropping something, or a swarm of kids, or anything at all be alert and put your hands on your valuables. Hold that bag close, feel for your travel wallet, whatever.
* If trouble is brewing, get out. If it happens, make a scene. Definitely tell the police if you get robbed.
Another classic under-your-nose theft tactic is to catch you when youre asleep, or might as well be. When you sleep in stations, on the grass in the park, at the beach, in trains and buses in hostel dorms or anywhere with public access, someone may creep up, look through your stuff, and take something away.
Let's face it, as budget travelers, we're likely to find ourselves in situations where we depend upon the integrity of strangers. About all you can do is to secure your valuables to the best extent possible, and make it very inconvenient for anyone to take your stuff. Consider the following options:
* Use lockers or behind-the-counter hostel safe deposit for anything of great value.
* Keep your moneybelt on you when you sleep, well covered by sheetsack or sleeping bag.
* Hide anything importantperhaps under your pillow, under you or your matress, tucked in a corner or against the wall, or anywhere else that make it hard to spot and awkward to steal.
* Lock, strap, or tie your pack to the bedframe, train baggage rack, station bench leg, etc., to make it challenging to take.
* Keep your goods out of sight and reach of open or openable windows and doors.
* Watch carefully as your baggage is handled, or as the goods come on and off the bus roof at stops.
The wise traveler is self-protecting, limiting risky activities and placing trust and confidence with care. But how can you prepare fully for the situations you'll meet on the road? Quite simply, you can't. Here are some excerpts from The World Awaits: