My wife and I take pleasure in organizing and going on travels, whether they are long-term adventures abroad or short visits to see friends and family at home. No matter where we go, we always have a good time just getting out of the house and into a new environment.
We haven’t been able to go on a big trip together overseas just yet because of time and money restrictions. (We decided not to count that one day we spent in Windsor, Ontario.) We will get there though. When that time comes, we’ll have to deal with a whole new set of challenges and obstacles, such as getting entrance visas and overcoming language problems, that haven’t come up on our domestic trips thus far.
While certain factors are the same for both domestic and foreign travel, others are more important while going abroad. Most importantly, travelers must take precautions to protect their money and identification at all times.
Standing on a packed Barcelona train station, I remember the exact moment I noticed the person next to me was trying to get into my pocket to get my money. Without even thinking about it, I smacked his hand away and walked to a different side of the platform, still holding my wallet. If I hadn’t been so careful, or if he were a more skilled pickpocket, I would now be in the midst of a busy police station waiting room, attempting to speak Spanish as best I could.
Overall, I feel like I got off quite easily. My would-be mugger used really antiquated techniques. Other, often astonishingly clever methods exist to steal money, passports, and credit cards from unsuspecting tourists abroad.
Common Types of Theft During International Travel
Thefts overseas may take many forms, and criminals are resourceful and inventive, so this is by no means an exhaustive list. Simply said, these are some of the most well-known examples.
The term “pickpocket” might be misleading. A robber with deft hands may just as quickly remove your wallet, phone, and cash from your handbag or bag as they can from your jeans pocket. Put simply, pickpocketing refers to any incident in which you lose possessions you were carrying without noticing it.
To get mugged means to have possessions taken from you by force or the fear of force. Muggery can occur in broad daylight or in busy public locations without a significant police presence, but the stereotypical mugging takes place in a dark alley or dimly lit side street at the hands of a knife or gun-wielding assailant.
In reality, assailants have fewer obstacles to overcome in public places like plazas and main streets. In order to steal someone’s pocketbook and get away unnoticed, it helps to be able to blend in with the throng in where the victim is standing.
- Distraction Schemes
While the ultimate result may be the same as with pickpocketing or a mugging, distraction techniques are typically more complex and include more criminals. The lead thief orchestrates a distraction so that he or his accomplice may make off with your possessions while you’re distracted. The scope of what may be done inside this structure is vast.
One popular scam involves a nice-looking stranger offering to place your bag on an overhead rack on a bus or train, only to hand it off to a faster friend who then sprints off the moving vehicle.
Here’s another con: you’re making your way through a busy public area when the person in front of you suddenly pauses. A companion of his or hers comes up from behind you, takes your bag or purse, and vanishes into the crowd as he or she apologizes and maybe even asks you a leading question.
- Baggage Handling
The majority of bag operations involve theft at or from public or semi-public locations, such as secured cubbies at a train station or ostensibly safe storage facilities behind a hotel desk, where tourists are likely to leave their bags unattended.
Opportunistic bag operations are situations in which a single thief opens a locked bag and makes off with its contents. A hotel employee may let an associate into the storage room while no one is watching, perhaps changing security video or deactivating alarm systems, which is an example of how frighteningly well-organized these crimes can be.
There are more sophisticated bag operations where the thief(s) may simply capture your personal and financial information (such as credit card or passport numbers) by swiftly photocopying, photographing, or otherwise recording it. You won’t find out unless your bank or credit card company flags the behavior as suspicious.
- Counterfeit Change
Tourists who are not familiar with the look and feel of the local money are easy targets for counterfeit change frauds. Frequent targets include eateries and other businesses that use out-of-view payment machines.
If you pay for your lunch with a single big bill, such a 50- or 100-euro note, you may be the victim of a counterfeit change scam. The waitress returns with a second bill that appears to be legitimate but is really counterfeit, delivers it back to you while apologizing and requesting alternative payment (such as a credit card or multiple small bills).
You’ve been tricked though: The genuine bill is presently at the bottom of the cash register or in the waiter’s pocket, although it was used when you first paid. The counterfeit bill is the one that was sent back.
- Theft of Wireless Identity
There is a new, high-tech form of theft associated with travel called “wireless identity theft,” sometimes known as “contactless pickpocketing,” and it targets cards that have radio frequency identification (RFID) chips for making purchases or proving identity. In Europe and certain other areas of the world, the use of credit cards with embedded microchips is almost standard.
And in the United States, too, they’re becoming increasingly common; many cards produced here since 2014 have one. A microchip is included in every U.S. passport issued after 2006.
To commit wireless identity theft, criminals utilize radio frequency devices to break into RFID chips that are intended to be secure, then use those chips to steal sensitive information like credit card numbers and personal details like names and addresses. The hackers (or those they sell the stolen data to) may then use the information to commit identity theft, make fraudulent purchases, or obtain credit in the victim’s name.
Unlike traditional pickpocketing, which is usually caught within a few hours at most, wireless identity theft may go unnoticed for days or weeks. Until suspicious activity appears on their accounts, victims often have no idea what has happened to them.
- ATM Skimming
The skimming of ATMs is a prevalent and tricky method of stealing money from them. A skimmer is a slim card reader that may be concealed in or around an ATM’s legitimate card reader to stealthily read the magnetic strips of all cards placed into the machine. (Even cards with high-security RFID chips can be compromised due to the presence of redundant data in the cards’ magnetic stripes.)
Skilled criminals frequently employ phony keypads to record PINs or covert cameras to record keystrokes from machines. Inconvenient ATMs are more likely to be targeted for skimming because criminals must visit the machine twice: once to install the skimmer and camera, and again to recover the stolen information.
How to Protect Your Money and Valuables While Traveling
Keeping these prevalent forms of theft in mind, the following are some of the simplest ways to safeguard your cash, belongings, and personal data on the road.
- Reduce the use of physical cash
Lost cash or coins are useless forever. In contrast, disputing fraudulent charges on a stolen card is usually, but not always, a possibility. Plastic cards are very tough to counterfeit unless their data is taken through skimming or RFID theft, but cash is easy to imitate.
Because of these two factors, you shouldn’t bring more money on a trip than you’ll need. Even if it’s common practice in your destination country for merchants to charge customers for their share of interchange fees (as it is in New Zealand, for example), paying an extra 2% to 4% is a drop in the bucket compared to the alternative of suffering a crippling financial loss. If you must pay with cash, use smaller notes since they are harder to forge in a counterfeit change scheme.
- Make use of an RFID-Blocking Money Belt.
Money belts with RFID blocking features are worth the investment if you suspect that any of your credit or debit cards have chips. The styles of money belts vary widely, with some resembling fanny packs, others being more like handbags, and yet others being like slim wallets. All have RFID blocking capabilities in addition to a solid build and standard physical security elements like zippers.
Many of today’s wallets are slim and sleek enough to be concealed by being tucked beneath garments. Furthermore, they are a good investment regardless of how often you travel internationally. The highly rated Eagle Creek RFID Blocker Money Belt DLX may be purchased for around $25–$30 on the web.
- Avoid displaying money and valuables in plain sight.
The would-be thief in Barcelona chose me because my wallet was so obviously exposed. If you want to prevent this embarrassing gaffe, make sure your cash, cards, and other valuables are safely tucked away in a hidden (internal) pocket or a deep bag or purse when you’re out in public.
If none of them are feasible, then at least try to avoid keeping valuables in pockets that reveal their presence due to their size or form, such as the rear pocket where a wallet or phone would cause an obvious bulge. And unless you want to brighten a thief’s day, don’t whip out your credit cards or cash in public.
- Keep valuables in several locations.
Spread your cash and belongings out as much as you feel secure doing (and can remember easily). This includes both personal belongings and hotel room safes.
It’s best to leave all but the bare essentials in your room safe, hotel safe deposit box, or other secure storage location and only bring along what you may reasonably expect to need while you’re out and about. Use a money belt, pockets, and a handbag to store the cards, cash, and ID you will need while you are out and about. Having your money and belongings spread out in many places makes it less likely that a burglar will be able to make it with everything in one fell swoop.
- Keep Important Financial Information Separate
No matter how it happens, falling prey to financial or ID theft while traveling may be terrifying, unsettling, and annoying. On vacation, the last thing you want to do is spend hours on the phone with your bank, state ID issuer, or U.S. embassy. Make photocopies (or snap high-quality photographs) of all the documents and cards you want to carry on the trip, and keep them stashed away somewhere safe to lessen the impact of theft while you’re away.
To be safe, you should duplicate everything and store one set at home where only a trusted colleague can get to it, and the other set in your hotel safe. The advice of travel experts is to scan documents and save them on a flash drive or in the cloud, but keep in mind that electronic records can be compromised.
If you plan on making many cash withdrawals throughout your vacation, it’s a good idea to keep track of the serial numbers of any bills of $20 face value or more that you get. If you’ve lost money in a counterfeit scheme and want to file a police report, the serial number will help, but it’s not enough on its own.
- Use ATMs with Caution
Although using as little cash as possible would reduce the risk of having it stolen or lost, it may be necessary to make some purchases using hard currency when traveling. It’s important to make good use of ATMs in your final destination if you find yourself needing more cash than you brought with you.
First, it’s important to never use an ATM in an isolated or suspicious place, as this is a prime location for muggers, especially at night. Keep away from ATMs that are not operated by a bank. It’s possible that certain ATMs are less secure or perhaps specifically designed to con naive visitors.
Instead, find out which banks are considered the best in your location, and only use ATMs that have those banks’ logos. Use only well-known brands of ATMs in well-lit areas of a bank’s lobby or entrance, where the risk of being filmed while entering your PIN is low.
- Keep a Close Eye on Your Bags
You can never take enough precautions to safeguard your luggage. Keep your baggage close by whenever feasible while you’re in a busy public area. Don’t move away from your baggage if you have to set them down for a second so you can look at a guidebook. If you’re going through airport security, wait until you’re being waved through the body scanner before setting them on the security conveyor belt.
Don’t let a stranger, no matter how kind they seem, carry your things for you. If someone is helping you with your bags and they aren’t wearing a uniform, such as hotel staff, you should be wary. (In certain countries, criminals may make a good living by posing as hotel workers, private security guards, or even municipal or federal police.)
- Inform Your Financial Providers of Your Travel Plans
Separate the cards you want to use on your vacation and inform the issuers of those cards that you will be using in foreign countries well in advance of your departure. Because of this, your bank is less likely to suspect fraud in your overseas transactions and place an uncomfortable hold on your funds while it investigates.
Notifying your issuers of your travel plans ahead of time can also lessen the damage caused by real fraud, such as when a stolen card or account number shows activity in a location where you aren’t meant to be. If your credit card disappears on your final day in Thailand and then reappears a week later in China, after you’ve returned to the United States, it’s very straightforward to argue that it was stolen.
- Investigate Your Destination
When planning a long vacation, especially to a foreign country you’ve never been to before, it’s normal to feel some undefined anxiety. It’s tough to form an impression of a location without any prior experience there to compare it to. Reading travel guides and local blogs won’t keep you safe in every scenario, but it can help you prepare for what to anticipate and paint a picture in your head of what your location is like, however sketchy.
There are two primary methods of inquiry that have shown to be highly fruitful. Plan your routes to and from your hotel or hostel and the sights you want to visit before you leave, making note of any potentially dangerous areas, such as dark alleys.
Second, while gauging a location’s security, use unbiased resources like up-to-date guidelines published by reliable companies. Municipal governments and local tourism boards often minimize the dangers and appeal of less desirable areas.
I was lucky enough to spend a few months of my younger years living and learning in London. I was stationed in England, but I took a few excursions to mainland Europe, which is how I found myself standing on the Barcelona metro platform.
My only real scare throughout that trip was avoiding a thief, but I was never in any real danger. Indeed, there were many actions I made and dangers I was willing to take that I would reconsider if I could do them all over again.
I, along with the scores of my fellow tourists, who were just as carefree as I was, got lucky. If you’re planning a major vacation and want to avoid spending a ton of cash, there are a few things you can do to increase your odds of success beyond just chance.