In populated areas, travellers risk becoming the victim of property crimes, including pickpocketing and various common scams.
Much as famished natives spotting a herd of stampeding buffalo on the North American plains in the 1800s would identify the hides as valuable for tentmaking, the meat as a tasty meal and the bones and horns as components to build useful tools, various locals look at the suitcase-laden traveller and see cameras and smartphones which could be stolen and sold, identity documents which can be used for fraudulent impersonation, payment cards on which charges can be run up and currency which can simply be pocketed.
Anyone who can afford to travel is much more well off than most of the population in many countries; add a traveller’s lack of knowledge of the local language and local legal system and a visitor unaware of their environment can become a prime target. An intoxicated visitor in a bad neighbourhood is particularly vulnerable, as is anyone openly displaying valuables.
Travel insurance will often provide some coverage for loss, damage and theft but there are strict limits to how much is covered; a police report will usually be necessary to make a claim. The liability of innkeepers and transportation companies for luggage and valuables stolen while in their care is often limited by local law, although items secured in the hotel’s safe may obtain better protection than items left in the room.
In common usage, theft is the taking of another person’s property or services without that person’s permission or consent with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it. The word is also used as an informal shorthand term for some crimes against property, such as burglary, embezzlement, larceny, looting, robbery, shoplifting, library theft, and fraud (obtaining money under false pretenses). Someone who carries out an act of or makes a career of theft is known as a thief.
The actus reus of theft is usually defined as an unauthorized taking, keeping, or using of another’s property which must be accompanied by a mens rea of dishonesty and the intent permanently to deprive the owner or rightful possessor of that property or its use.
For example, if X goes to a restaurant and, by mistake, takes Y’s scarf instead of her own, she has physically deprived Y of the use of the property (which is the actus reus) but the mistake prevents X from forming the mens rea (i.e., because she believes that she is the owner, she is not dishonest and does not intend to deprive the “owner” of it) so no crime has been committed at this point. But if she realises the mistake when she gets home and could return the scarf to Y, she will steal the scarf if she dishonestly keeps it (see theft by finding). Note that there may be civil liability for the torts of trespass to chattels or conversion in either eventuality.
Types of theft
Pickpockets often target travellers.
Robbery can be a traumatic experience.
Burglary at the hotel room, or wherever the traveller sleeps
Distraction thefts are common scams which take a variety of forms. Generally the thieves work in groups: one or more will distract you and the other will rob you while you’re distracted.
Examples of distractions include:
ready-made distractions like a busker, departure boards, or your own phone or music player;
having an attractive accomplice talk to you;
minor assaults, such as throwing things at you;
having a child talk to you and when the child’s “parent” comes to apologize, the child steals something due to the distraction of the new conversation
fake drownings and similar emergencies causing you to leave your belongings behind; or
staged assaults or fights between accomplices.
It’s best to be aware of what’s going on around you in any public place and to be suspicious of strangers who appear to be trying to single you out. If you are the victim of a minor assault, suspect that it’s the prelude to a robbery attempt and if you feel safe enough, try to get in a position where you can look after your belongings. Unfortunately, you may need to refuse the help of concerned onlookers; it’s common to have an accomplice pose as a concerned onlooker.
While you change the tire (punctured by criminals), a motorcyclist arrives, offering to “help” you. As you speak with him, another thief steals your purse, wallet, camera, or anything expensive to hand (this can happen within seconds). If you need to remove luggage from your trunk to get at the spare tire, put it inside the car. Also, close and lock all doors. Don’t speak to anybody around and be extremely cautious.
Red light bag snatch
While stopped at traffic lights, thieves open the car doors and take what they can. This is particularly prevalent in places like Brazil and South Africa. Keep car doors locked both night and day. Sometimes a bag may also be snatched through an open window. More rarely, the criminals will employ a hammering tool to break the glass, particularly with lone women drivers.
Another variant is to steal items from the front seats of motorcars while the motorist is refuelling the vehicle at a self-service forecourt.
Pickpockets are thieves who steal items (often wallets or passports but sometimes other valuables) from people’s clothing and bags as they walk in a public place. For in-depth information on how to protect yourself from pickpockets, see Pickpockets.
Tour and travel baggage is a prime target for thieves, as are bicycles and vehicles, wallets and mobile telephones. Theft of unattended luggage can be an issue; a laptop bag in an overhead luggage rack on a train can be easily snatched by other travellers. Do not leave valuables in bags that will go in luggage storage areas, even if the bags can be locked. Heed location-specific warnings (such as Paris#Crime) for your destination city.
Not all trains provide checked baggage. If on a train which makes many stops in short succession, watch your luggage and stay alert. Theft can be comparatively common on metros or trains where multiple local stops allow a thief to get off the train quickly with your baggage in hand. Razor attacks on luggage during bus or train rides are common in some regions; travellers on overnight buses are particularly vulnerable while sleeping. In countries like India, where trains are routinely overcrowded, it’s wise to lock your luggage to the seat in the carriage and keep more aware than usual. On sleeper trains, ask for ID from anyone who asks to take your ticket or passport and lock backpacks to the luggage racks. Keep valuables on you, as bag robberies happen between major stations.
In third world countries, thefts from hold baggage may take place at airports, especially on the way out of the country. Carry anything of value in your cabin luggage. Having your checked baggage wrapped in cellophane at your point of origin is another possible tactic.
Baggage left unattended in bus luggage holds, dormitory rooms, ferries or during a brief visit to the toilets may vanish; a locked, abandoned bag in a crowded aerodrome may even be mistaken for a suspicious or explosive package. Cargo stowed underneath the bus is vulnerable, unless you get out at each stop and watch your luggage to avoid theft. Luggage may also be vulnerable to thieves in hotels or backpacker’s inns.
Theft from parked vehicles is common in some areas. To avoid being targeted for opportunistic smash-and-grab thefts, don’t leave any possessions in open view.
A dishonest cab driver may put your luggage in the boot of the vehicle, attempt to overcharge you on arrival and (when you dispute the overcharging) drive away with your luggage still in the motorcar. It’s best to keep your bags with you instead of putting them in the trunk.
A few useful items for your packing list may include a luggage lock to seal checked bags, a money belt or passport pouch (worn under clothing) to protect valuables, and a pack safe (a wire mesh secured by a padlock, which encloses a backpack or suitcase to attach it to a solid object).
Passport and identity theft
In 2012, Christian Kozel’s Austrian passport went missing in Phuket, Thailand, On July 22, 2013, Luigi Maraldi parted with his Italian passport in the same region as collateral for a rented motorbike, only to be told that it had been given to someone else who “looked alike”. Both documents were reported stolen and recorded in Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database, yet were accepted as identification for passengers boarding a Malaysian jetliner in 2014. Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing turned back and vanished from radar after encountering trouble unknown; while a piece of one wing washed up in Réunion seventeen months later, the passports, the impersonators, their 237 fellow passengers and crew were never found.
A voyager having to make urgent ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’ calls to worried relatives while travelling, after someone using their stolen passport meets with misfortune in the air or on the high seas, is rare. Less rare are the cases where a traveller has trouble returning home as key travel documents disappear into the hands of thieves, fraudsters, pickpockets or other scoundrels. There’s also the risk that illegal immigrants or wanted criminals will use the stolen documents to assume the victim’s identity, taking up residence in faraway lands, applying for other identity documents using the stolen items as “proof” of identity, applying for loans and payment cards, incurring debts or tax liabilities which they have no plan to repay or even committing further crimes for which the impersonated victim may well be blamed.
Even if the document itself is not physically missing, it’s possible for the personal information to be copied by a shifty vendor (or even a dishonest contractor working for the Passport Agency). The RFID chip in new passports is vulnerable to being read remotely (some wallets include an RF shield to mitigate this risk). There’s also the chance of a passport being lost or damaged if a voyager absent-mindedly misplaces it, uses it as a beer mat or puts it through the wash — a problem if the document is needed to return home.
There are minor variations between issuing countries, but emergency replacement of a passport abroad is done through an embassy, consulate or Commonwealth High Commission and usually requires:
A specific declaration form on which the voyager indicates the circumstances of the loss, damage or theft; if a police report exists for a theft, it should be included with this declaration.
A completed passport application form, which may need to be signed by a guarantor to verify the applicant’s identity,
One or two passport photos, which may need to be signed,
Proof of citizenship and a document proving identity,
Payment of a fee,
In some cases, a temporary “emergency” document is issued to get the traveller home; in others, an entire new passport is issued at a premium to the full cost of a new or renewal passport. See the diplomatic sites for each issuing country (Australia, Canada, Ireland, United Kingdom, USA) for country-specific details.
Any visas in the missing passport will also need to be reported as missing to their respective issuing nations and new visas applied for. If you still have the old visa, you will need its issuer to exchange it; an old visa typically can’t be moved to a new passport.
Once reported missing, the travel document is revoked and (hopefully) cannot be used by anyone… even if it was merely lost and later found. If the missing passport turns up after being cancelled, send it back to the government which issued it. There is a risk that, if a voyager has multiple passports lost, stolen, missing and unaccounted for, that the issuer will refuse to replace the document or only issue short-term documentation with limited validity, possibly requiring proof of travel before any document is provided.
Guard your passport carefully. It represents a sacred birthright whose value is not to be underestimated.
Payment card theft
This takes various forms:
Theft of the physical card, which is used to make fraudulent purchases.
Skimming of credit card information (number, expiry date, CVV/CVC or security code).
Duplication of card information and PINs. Even if a victim still holds the original card, stolen information is used to clone a magnetic-strip card and withdraw money from ATM cash-points.
Outright robbery, either to steal the card itself or steal hard currency from clients as they leave the cash-point.
Check your statements frequently and regularly change your PIN while travelling. In the case of using an unfamiliar ATM, hover nearby and watch to see if any other customers have their cards taken by the machine. If your cards are lost or stolen, notify the issuing bank, credit union or institution immediately; this may serve to limit your liability if the stolen cards are used fraudulently.
If a bank detects a pattern of fraud (such as copies of all cards used at a particular vendor instantly appearing as clones making large, repeated cash-point withdrawals in another city) it often will shut down a huge block of affected cards – potentially leaving the victimized traveller with no access to cash on the affected cards until they can get home and visit their home bank for a replacement card.
Many banks now offer some form of notification to you for every purchase made using your credit card or every purchase above a certain sum to you e.g. on your cell-phone. While this may incur a small surcharge, some banks offer this for free as the effort (and lost money) of reimbursing stolen money or losing customers over it is more expensive in the long run. When you get such notifications keep in mind that they are not free when roaming.
Credit card skimming
In this scam, you use your card to pay in a bar or restaurant. However, while your card is out of your sight, it is swiped not only in the machine that sends the information to your bank for approval but also a second machine that records the card’s identifying information from the magnetic strip. The copy of the card, or the number, are then used by the third party to buy goods. Often, this is an inside job: employees of the outlet are using the information themselves or being paid to acquire it.
The best way to prevent this scam is to keep your card in your sight at all times. Unfortunately, the typical restaurant custom is to let the restaurant staff take your card away and bring you back a receipt to sign: insisting on observing them while they handle your card may make you unpopular.
Otherwise, you can limit the damage done by credit card skimming by keeping receipts when you use your card and checking them against your credit card statement. Make sure the amounts match up and make sure there are no additional purchases you didn’t make. Report any discrepancies to your credit card company: the liability rests with them, not you, as long as you report fraudulent transactions as soon as possible.
If you need to use an ATM, especially in tourist heavy areas, exercise caution. When possible, use ATMs inside bank branches, which are usually bristling with security. There are three basic scam types:
Low-tech: Watch as you key in your PIN and then physically steal your card and empty your account. (One variant of this is a distraction theft; the scammer watches you enter a PIN at a point-of-sale then distracts you by various means – such as claiming to have found money on the ground – while an accomplice steals your card. The scammers then go on an ATM withdrawal spree.) To prevent this, ensure that your PIN cannot be seen when you enter it.
Medium-tech: Rig the ATM so that it swallows your card and then retrieve the card after you stomp off in disgust. Having someone come and try to “help” you retrieve a lost card at this point is a red flag that you’ve been scammed — they’re trying to get your PIN. To prevent this, ignore offers for help, stay with the machine until authorized personnel arrive, and cancel your card immediately if you absolutely have to leave the machine.
High-tech version: retrofit the ATM with a card reader that records your card details and PIN and then creates a cloned card. Other variants swap the debit keypad at a retailer’s cash register for a tampered one or infect the point-of-sale terminal network of a major chain with malware, often without the retailers knowledge. These are the nastiest forms, as you may not notice a thing until it’s too late; the only form of prevention is to ensure that the card slot has not been tampered with.
Chip-and-PIN cards, in theory, should reduce some of the high-tech frauds by making ATM-style cards harder to copy. Unfortunately, the level of adoption of this technology varies between countries; there might be nothing preventing scammers from skimming cards in Europe (which is chip-and-PIN but still has the magnetic stripe on cards for backward compatibility) and using the stolen data in some other jurisdiction (such as the United States of America) which is being slower to adopt the chip cards. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so the scam only goes away when the last cash-point in the last country finally goes chip-and-PIN. The chip is also no defense against the physical card being stolen, if the scammers manage to steal your PIN.
If there’s a $500/day limit on ATM withdrawals, don’t be surprised if the thieves withdraw $500 at 11:59 PM (23:59) and another $500 immediately after midnight, local time.
Travellers cheques (US: travelers checks) or “gift cheques” were originally intended as a safer alternative to carrying cash; if lost or stolen, their issuers claimed that a telephone call worldwide would obtain replacements, often within 24 hours. They do not always live up to this promise, with voyagers often complaining issuers delay or reject claims for various arbitrary reasons. An issuer may suspect the client of fraud or claim the buyer failed to provide adequate information and evidence to support the claim, sometimes launching an “investigation” which could delay any refund for months.
In their original form, they are a paper document bearing a sequential serial number and space for two signatures – the client signs once when purchasing the cheques, and again when the cheque is cashed. The two signatures must match.
A book of travellers cheques comes with a written receipt, on which the serial numbers of each cheque are recorded. Bring a copy of the list with you, on which you note which cheques have been used, so that you know by serial number which cheques are the missing ones after a theft. Travellers cheques are a prime target for thieves who forge the second signature (copying it from the one already there) and pocket the money. There have also been cases where forged or counterfeit cheques have been pawned off on travellers or merchants.
If the cheques go missing, report this at once as the thieves usually will attempt to forge the signatures and cash the cheques fairly quickly. When reporting the cheques stolen, expect the issuer to ask for the cheque serial numbers, the date and place of purchase, the time and place at which the cheques went missing or were stolen and the name of the bank or institution issuing the cheques.
Do not countersign the cheques until you want to use them.
Make a note of the serial numbers and the numbers to call to report a theft; keep these separate from the cheques.
Handle the cheques as if they were cash.
Keep the copy of the purchase agreement form separate from your cheques.
A recent variant is a “travel money card” or stored-value prepaid debit card with a “zero liability” clause replacing the money should the card be lost or stolen. These usually look like (and are processed like) a standard debit card from one of the major credit card companies. Keep the numbers in a safe place; they’re needed to report the card as stolen. (Be careful – as not all prepaid cards are intended as travellers cheque replacements, some take an inordinately long time to replace a lost or stolen card if you get your money back at all. A refund months later doesn’t get you home.)