Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dealing with Pickpockets

Last fall Joel was targeted by pickpockets minutes into the train trip into Athens from Piraeus, its nearby port city. A theft that took only seconds to accomplish provided a lengthy aftermath, one in which we believe was finally completed two months after the theft. We remain on alert for any irregularities.

We consider ourselves seasoned travelers who are alert to such attacks, but today's sophisticated pickpockets still outwitted us. Our initial disbelief turned quickly to frustration which only intensified as we worked our way through the process of canceling various plastics and a race to the cash machine to obtain enough Euro's to carry us through the rest of the trip without those plastics.

We had taken many of the precautions I've listed below; but we hadn't quite been diligent enough. Hindsight is 20-20 and this is what we we will be doing in the future and offer as suggestions to others:

Before leaving home:

1. Register your foreign destinations with your bank's credit card fraud department. All it takes is a phone call.

2. Determine how the bank will contact you about suspicious card activity if you will not be available by phone during your travels. Have either the fraud department or customer service department, explain how they will contact you if they put a hold on your card while you are traveling. Then call them back, talk with a different person, and make sure that your record clearly states how they will reach you.

  • During one of our trips, we were assured by a woman in the fraud department where we had registered our travel that we would be contacted by email -- she read the email address back to me for accuracy -- before putting a hold on an account. They didn't. But when we arrived home we found three automated messages on our answering machine telling us a hold had been placed on the account and advising us to call immediately. We didn't get that message in Paris.

  • I did call the fraud department immediately and talked with a representative who told me the fraud department would never email; only customer service can generate emails and apologized for the inconvenience. (Luckily we still had enough cash to get us to the airport).

3. Record your card numbers, security codes and expiration dates and then keep those with bank phone numbers in a separate but secure place as you travel.

4. Double check those customer service phone numbers printed on the back of your card BEFORE you leave home. The replacement card sent to us after our return last fall still has imprinted on it the numbers that are no longer working. Because we had a computer - and in room web access - we could look up the bank's web site and got correct numbers; all of which took valuable time at a time when 'time was of the essence'.

While traveling:

1. Pickpockets come in every shape and size. Well-behaved looking children to dressed-for-success-adults are as likely to swipe your belongings as is the person who may look like a vagrant in search of money.

2. Travel defensively - that doesn't mean be rude, it means don't always be polite. If someone repeatedly prevents you from moving out of congested doorwells of Metro trains, buses, or waiting areas to less congested areas, force your way past them if need be.

3. Be aware of your surroundings: keep an eye on those around you. Does someone seem to be watching you? Are they repeatedly looking at your bags? Did you feel a brush against a leg or bag? Do they seem to be doing a visual scan of your body? Are they speaking into cell phones? It could be they are talking to 'teammates' planning their strike and getaway. [Don't be paranoid about it, as not everyone who looks at you or who speaks into a cell phone is a pickpocket - just be aware of those around you.]

4. Use a money belt or other means of securing your money and passport and credit cards to you in a manner that it would be impossible to reach even with the most sophisticated wires and hooks.

5. Split your cash and credit cards, don't carry all in one place.

6. Wear shoulder bags to the inside when walking on crowded sidewalks and streets. This will keep theives on bikes and motorcycles from coming up behind you and making off with your bag.

7. Don't look and act like a tourist. . .if you are trying to read your guide book or your camera is hanging from your neck. . .you look like a tourist. Suitcases, shoulder bags or backpacks are red flags - keep them in front of you, with your arms around them when squished into jam-packed public transportation. It is a snap to slash the bottom of a backpack and make away with your belongings before you even realize you were targeted.

8. Read up on your destinations. Most travel books and web sites include information about safety and safeguards you can take.

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