While fears of terrorism weigh heavy on some travelers' minds, the truth is that there is a much greater chance of being victimized by thieves when traveling abroad.
Even when travelers are aware of the possibility of crime, they are often still victimized. Consider the experience of Jukka Kauppinen, a Los Angeles airline official, and his wife Tuula, during a vacation two years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
"We were sitting at a beachside cafe at Copacabana Beach when a woman at a nearby table told me, very politely, that there was a big mustard stain on the back of my shirt," Kauppinen said. "My wife looked at my shirt, and sure enough, there was a stain, though I hadn't eaten anything with mustard. So I went to the men's room to wash the stain off.
"While sitting, I had secured my camera bag on the floor by putting its straps around one of my legs. Now I shoved the camera bag over to my wife and she put it between her feet, but without tying the straps around one of her legs."
He left the table for less than five minutes, but Kauppinen said his camera bag containing about $2,000 worth of equipment was gone by the time he returned.
"Two men came into the cafe and one distracted my wife for a moment by trying to show her some pamphlets," Kauppinen said. "Both men, as well as the woman who alerted me to the mustard stain, then left, one with my camera gear. I believe they were working together, and I was somehow smeared with the mustard while entering the cafe from the beach, where we were taking pictures. My wife and I were quite aware of the incidence of crime in Rio de Janeiro, but they still got us."
Similar ploys are used around the world to separate unwary travelers from their possessions.
It may be someone who "accidentally" spills a drink on you, then offers to help clean up the mess while an accomplice slips away with a wallet or purse or something else left unprotected.
Then there's the seemingly friendly person who asks you to take a picture of his or her party, which almost always requires two hands . . . and can leave you wide open to theft. Someone else might ask for directions, or to change money. Anything to divert your attention from a crime.
At airports, travelers may be faced with cardboard signs bearing American-sounding names. The person holding the sign then questions approaching travelers, trying to find out if they are that person. Another way to divert the eyes.
Sometimes, phony fights are staged to help create noisy scenes that distract curious onlookers while pickpockets work the crowd.
If you're traveling with children, you may have a built-in distraction. While someone fawns over your progeny, an accomplice makes off with your possessions.
How can travelers better protect themselves against crime while traveling abroad?
Here are a few suggestions:
--Alertness is one of the basic rules of good security. Be aware of the use of distractions. Check your wallet or purse any time someone touches or bumps into you for any reason whatsoever. The action may appear to be innocuous and involuntary, and in most cases it probably is, but be on your guard nonetheless.
And recognize the need for even greater alertness in crowded areas such as airport and railroad terminals, sightseeing attractions, museums, parks, etc.--where thieves are more likely to congregate and seek out victims.
--Reduce your vulnerability by keeping a low profile. This means carrying a minimum of expensive equipment, such as cameras and other electronic gear, and taking extra precautions if you do. One tactic is to put valuable cameras and such in a beat-up tote or flight bag to decrease the chances of being targeted for theft. While you're out sightseeing, leave valuables such as watches and jewelry behind--in a hotel safe, if possible. Don't carry more cash than you need, and dress "down," i.e., try not to look flashy by wearing expensive clothes or accessories, which can suggest wealth.
--When making a payment for something, don't unfurl a yard's length of plastic. All those credit cards just make you a more likely target. Similarly, don't display a large wad of traveler's checks. Put wallets and purses securely away immediately after making a purchase. Men may forget to button their back pockets after using their wallet, while women may neglect to zip purses, or leave their wallets at the top of their purses, where it becomes more accessible to deft hands.
--Clothes with deep pockets allow you to make wallets and purses more inaccessible to pickpockets, no matter how light-fingered they may be. Some travelers use a variety of Velcro-type fastenings sewn inside their garments. A money belt can also be effective. Generally, it's better to carry money on the front part of your body. Breast and back pockets are the most vulnerable.
Secure pockets are particularly important on shore excursions during summer cruises, when travelers are more likely to be wearing less clothing. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security while your handsome cruise ship rests formidably in the harbor. The very fact that travelers are in port for a limited amount of time can work against them, since thieves know there is less time to report a crime to the local police.
--Women's handbags can be risky. Use a shoulder bag with a strap that you can sling over your neck or wind around your hand. (There is a risk of being hurt if someone yanks the strap around your neck.) Try not to carry bags so loosely that they can easily be torn from your grip.
Cover your handbag with an extra item of clothing, such as a scarf or sweater, if you happen to be carrying one. Try to walk in the middle of sidewalks, not against the curb. And keep clear of alleyways.
Don't place handbags unsecured on your lap in buses, subways, trains, restaurants, stadiums or the like. If you're riding in a bus or train, consider sitting away from the exits. Otherwise, you can make it easier for someone to grab a purse or bag and jump off.
--While exploring new cities can be fun, don't be reckless. Learn what areas to avoid. Front-desk personnel at your hotel can probably advise you. If you want to venture into more "risky" areas, try to go with a group or a companion. Carrying a small whistle with you can be worthwhile. Loud blasts can bring attention and discourage would-be thieves. If you happen to be in a non-English-speaking country, be sure to learn the words for police and help .
--If you have a rental car while traveling, or your own car for that matter, avoid leaving valuables in the car. Thieves can jimmy car locks, including trunks, in a matter of seconds. The best policy is simply not to risk leaving anything of value in an unattended car. Covering up items on the car floor or seats doesn't work, and might serve as an additional lure for thieves. But if you must transport valuables--say, after a shopping spree--the trunk is by far the most prudent location.
Don't leave maps, brochures or other travel-related items lying around in an obvious position in the car. Thieves often look for such tourist vehicles. It's best to hide travel aids in the glove compartment. Some travelers, however, leave the glove compartment open when there is nothing of value left behind in the car.