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How to Avoid Becoming a Tourist Crime Statistic

<i> Meyers is free-lance writer living in Arlington, Va</i> .

You’re standing in a foreign square admiring a cathedral when a young woman grabs your handbag and jumps onto a motor scooter.

She’s gone in an instant.

Or as you stroll down a crowded street, someone brushes past you. Later discover your wallet is gone.

Or perhaps you find yourself surrounded by a group of children who tug playfully at your camera, urging you to take their picture. After they’ve disappeared you discover you valuables have disappeared with them.

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Seldom Violent

What’s happened here is that you’ve become a statistic in the annals of tourist crime. Although seldom violent, such incidents can wreak havoc with vacationers overseas.

How can you avoid being victimized?

Prevention and security begin at home. Plan your travel wardrobe with an eye to safety. Invest in a money belt with several compartments and a “safari vest” with numerous zipper-closed pockets.

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Purses and camera or tote bags should have zippered sections and wide straps that are long enough to wear over one shoulder and across the chest.

Leave expensive jewelery at home--along with that that nice, multipurpose passport case. Because if lose it, you’ve lost everything.

Instead, split things up: carry currency in a wallet, credit cards and vital papers in a money belt or secure pocket. Divide your traveler’s checks into separate checkbooks, keeping some in your suitcase and others with you.

Make a Checklist

Before leaving home, write down the number of every document or financial instrument you’re taking.

Make several copies and attach to each a photocopy of the information page of your passport.

Airports and stations are fertile ground for those who prey on tourists, so beware.

If you’re traveling with your spouse or any companion, make sure you each carry your own documents, cash and other valuables. If one person falls prey to a pickpocket or purse-snatcher, at least you won’t both lose everything.

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Keep Baggage in Sight

Don’t leave suitcases unattended. On trains, keep your baggage in sight.

When renting a car, choose one with a trunk. Thieves can smash hatchback windows and grab bags at stoplights.

So don’t leave anything in a parked automobile. When you reach your overnight destination, remove your luggage.

Avoid leaving valuables in a hotel room, whether it’s a five-star palace or a simple pension. Any door can be unlocked by a clever thief.

Use the hotel safe, or ask the manager to take charge of your belongings.

Don’t carry more cash than you need. Most shopkeepers will hold your purchases for you. Some will even deliver them to your hotel and accept payment there.

‘Urban Guerrilla’ Look

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Carry what you must securely. That money belt and multipocket vest, together, should easily hold all valuables. Women wearing skirts have another option: a slip with a secret pocket in the hem. American passports command high prices on the black market, while stolen tickets can often be resold or turned in for cash.

Being alert doesn’t mean you must constantly keep looking over your shoulder, but be aware of your surroundings.

Is the square dark or deserted? Quick-footed purse-snatchers can be long gone before you discover your loss.

In crowded areas around a city’s most prominent landmarks, some enterprising pickpocket may be lurking.

If It Happens

Perhaps you did your best and were outsmarted, or maybe you got careless. Now, what?

First stop: the police station. If no one speaks English, phone your hotel or the local tourist office and ask for an interpreter.

You will have to fill out a form describing you loss. Someone will type up an official report, which you must sign. Keep your copy.

Your next move will depend on what’s missing. With luck, your important documents were back in the hotel safe.

The theft of clothing, of course, is an excuse to go shopping. Replacing your passport will be the greatest nuisance. You must go in person to the closest U.S. Consulate, which could involve a major detour from your itinerary.

Years ago my passport case was lifted out of my handbag as I boarded a train. It contained almost everything important--I hadn’t yet learned that lesson--but I did have extra traveler’s checks with the serial numbers listed.

After a visit to the police and an overnight train trip, I presented myself at the consulate. I was completely unprepared for their question: Could I prove I was an American citizen?

Trip Delayed

Sure. I had a passport: I even knew the number. But it was gone. I was traveling alone and had nothing else as proof of identity. As a result, I had to cable the State Department to verify my passport number, which took two extra days waiting for the replacement and, of course, delaying my trip.

That’s why you photocopied your passport’s information page: to spare yourself the empty feeling of being without that little blue security blanket so vital to all traveling Americans.

With that photocopy and extra photographs, your new passport can be issued quickly. Once you have it, you may need to get it stamped to prove you’re in the country legally; and you’ll have to replace any visas required for your current trip. The consular officer can tell you where to do so.

To replace travel documents, contact the issuing company or your travel agent. You may have to buy new air tickets and then wait for a refund.

Credit cards and traveler’s checks are not always easy to replace. You’ll need your list of numbers, and it will help to know how many checks you had cashed before the theft. Take your copy of the police report.

For new American Express cards or checks, head for the nearest American Express affiliate office. It can usually provide replacements immediately.

If you have a MasterCard or Visa Gold card, call its commercial emergency number collect. (The 800 numbers don’t work from overseas.) They’ll tell you where to go for your new cards and a cash advance; Visa offers delivery.

Another Catch

If your cards aren’t the premium varieties, find the closest bank displaying the appropriate credit card symbol. There will be another multilingual form to complete, and they’ll telex a theft report to the issuing bank. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be able to replace your card.

There’s another catch with credit cards and traveler’s checks: you’ll need your passport and identification to get new ones.

If you’re short of funds you may want to use the emergency cash feature of a credit card. Holders of “gold” bank cards can request this when they report the theft; non-premium cards might work in automatic teller machines. American Express only allows card holders to cash personal checks.

This is when that reserve supply of traveler’s checks could be a lifesaver.

Tourist crime is a nuisance, but need not be a trip-wrecking catastrophe.

As the problem spreads, concerned governments are trying to cope. Beyond warning visitors and deploying police strategically, however, there is little they can do. Even if the perpetrators are caught, their victims are no longer around to identify them. And repeated success only encourages the young and aimless, the poor and envious, and those just looking for a thrill.

Yet Americans who want to travel abroad shouldn’t let these risks deter them. With a few common sense precautions, you’re much less likely to be relieved of valuables in most foreign cities than at home. So plan carefully, pack and dress with security in mind, be alert and even cautious, and go .


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