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Tourists Are Easy Marks for East European Thieves

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Joe Raguso, an American university researcher, was drawn to Prague’s architectural charms, its lingering, heady sense of freedom after communism’s collapse, its standing as Europe’s new mecca for the young.

He didn’t know it’s just as alluring to thieves.

Within minutes of arriving from Austria, Raguso had all his luggage stolen--along with his passport, travelers checks and credit cards--by men posing as undercover policemen trying to fine him for paying too low a subway fare.

A uniformed policeman at the train station who was asked for help “just threw up his hands,” said Raguso, of La Jolla.

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Tourists used to come back from newly democratic Eastern Europe with a chunk of the Berlin Wall. Nowadays, many return home with tales of pickpocketing and other crimes.

The U.S. Embassy in Prague replaces 200 to 250 stolen passports a year, while the embassy in Budapest, Hungary, replaced 176 from last May to September.

The numbers are higher in the capitals of Western Europe: In the 12 months through Oct. 31, the U.S. Embassy in Paris replaced 1,100 stolen passports and the embassy in Rome replaced 1,060. But those cities draw far more American visitors.

In the Eastern European countries, where both crime and tourism are relatively new, the thefts come as a shock. Tourists tend to let their guard down, and the language barrier puts them at a further disadvantage, diplomats said.

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In the first nine months of 1996, say Prague police, 6,685 foreigners fell victim to crime in the city. They represented about one-eighth of all people who had things stolen from cars, one-fifth of those whose cars were stolen and a whopping one-third of all victims of pickpockets.

Over the same period, Hungarian police recorded 14,988 thefts, pickpocketings and robberies of foreigners--slightly down from a year earlier. Polish police noted 6,400 such crimes, about one-tenth more than 1995.

Poland’s national police spokesman, Andrzej Przemyski, said the statistics understate the amount of crime involving foreigners. Citizens of the former Soviet Union--Ukrainians and Belarusians who cross the border to shop or work--don’t report crimes to the police, he noted.

Western officials also said the figures do not tell the whole story, because many crimes go unreported even by Westerners who would normally call the police at home.


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