Though we aren’t able to travel as often as we’d like, my wife and I love planning and taking trips, from outdoor adventure excursions and fitness vacations, to quick jaunts back home to reconnect with family. Regardless of the destination, we both take joy in escaping our daily routines and being part of something different for a little while – both during the planning process and throughout the trip itself.
Due to budgetary and scheduling constraints, we haven’t yet had the opportunity to take an international vacation together. (We agreed not to count our day trip to Windsor, Ontario, a few years ago.) But we eventually will. When that day comes, we’ll have to contend with a host of headaches and considerations that haven’t yet come into play in our domestic travels, such as obtaining entry visas and dealing with language barriers.
Other considerations, while common to both domestic and international trips, are of greater concern vis-à-vis the latter. Chief among these are keeping money and identity documents safe while traveling.
I’ll never forget the moment, while standing on a crowded Barcelona subway platform, that I realized the guy next to me was reaching for the wallet in my pocket. I casually swatted his hand away and moved to another part of the platform, wallet still firmly in my possession. But had I been less vigilant – or he a better pickpocket – I would have shortly found myself practicing halting Spanish in the waiting room of an equally crowded police station.
All things considered, I got off easy. My would-be pickpocket was inept, his methods decidedly low-tech. There are plenty of other ways to relieve hapless international travelers of their credit cards, cash, and identification documents, many of which are shockingly sophisticated.
Common Types of Theft While Traveling Abroad
Criminals are nothing if not creative, so this shouldn’t be construed as a comprehensive list of the types of theft you could experience while traveling abroad. These are simply some of the most common and best-documented.
Pickpocketing is a bit of a misnomer: A nimble-fingered thief can just as easily lift a wallet, phone, or wad of cash out of a shoulder bag or purse than your pants pocket. Basically, pickpocketing describes any situation in which you’re relieved of valuables you’re physically carrying without realizing that it’s happening.
Mugging is the taking of valuables from your person by force or threat of force. Though the archetypal mugging happens in a dark alley or dimly lit side street, usually at the hands of a knife- or gun-wielding attacker, muggings can also occur in broad daylight or in crowded public places without a heavy police presence.
In fact, public squares and busy thoroughfares offer better escape routes for attackers. When you can readily melt into a crowd, it’s much easier to knock your victim down, take their purse, and run off without being pursued.
3. Distraction Schemes
Though similar in outcome to pickpocketing and mugging, distraction schemes tend to be more complicated, and often involve pairs or teams of thieves working together. The basic concept is that a lead thief creates a situation that diverts your attention, allowing the thief or an associate to relieve you of valuables. Within this framework, the possibilities are endless.
One common scheme: A seemingly helpful fellow offers to put your bag on an overhead bus or train rack, then hands it off to a fleet-footed partner who dashes off the vehicle before it starts moving. Another scheme: You’re walking in a crowded public place when the person in front of you stops abruptly, forcing you to stop as well. While he or she apologizes and perhaps asks you a leading question, his or her associate sneaks up behind you, grabs your bag or purse, and disappears into the crowd.
4. Bag Operations
Bag operations typically involve theft from (or of) travel bags held in public or semi-public areas, such as locked cubbies at the train station or seemingly secure storage areas behind the hotel desk. Bag operations can be opportunistic, such as when a lone criminal picks a lock and makes off with your bag. They can also be frighteningly well-organized, such as when a hotel employee permits an associate to access the storage area under his or her supervision when no one is looking, possibly manipulating security footage or disarming alarm systems in the process.
In very sophisticated bag operations, the thief or thieves may quickly photocopy, photograph, or otherwise record sensitive documents and financial information, such as your credit card or passport numbers, without actually taking anything. You’re left none the wiser until your bank or credit card issuer registers suspicious account activity.
5. Counterfeit Change
Counterfeit change scams prey on travelers unfamiliar with the appearance and feel of their destination’s paper currency. They occur with regularity at restaurants and other service providers with out-of-sight payment terminals.
In a typical counterfeit change scam, you pay for your meal with a single large bill, such as a 50- or 100-euro note. The server returns with an identical-looking bill, hands it back to you, apologetically informs you that it’s a fake, and asks for another form of payment (such as a credit card or multiple small bills).
But you’ve been had: The bill you originally paid with was the real one, and it’s now sitting at the bottom of the cash register or lining the waitperson’s pocket. The returned bill is actually the fake.
6. Wireless Identity Theft
Wireless identity theft, sometimes called contactless pickpocketing, is a new, high-tech trend in travel-related theft – and any payment or identification card with an embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) chip is vulnerable. Chipped cards are already ubiquitous in Europe and some other parts of the world. They’re gaining popularity in the U.S. as well – many U.S. credit and debit cards issued since 2014 have one. All U.S. passports issued since 2006 are chipped as well.
Wireless identity theft occurs when hackers use radio frequency devices to compromise supposedly secure RFID chips, stealing account information, such as credit card numbers, and personal identification information, such as Social Security numbers and home addresses. The hackers (or those to whom they sell the data they’ve stolen) then use this information to conduct fraudulent transactions, open credit accounts in the victim’s name, or impersonate the victim for nefarious purposes.
Wireless identity theft is even more insidious than traditional pickpocketing, which is typically discovered within a few hours at most, because it can go undetected for days or weeks. In many cases, the victims don’t know what’s happened until questionable activity hits their accounts.
7. ATM Skimming
ATM skimming is among the most common and difficult-to-detect forms of ATM theft. A skimmer is a super-thin card-reading device that fits into or around an ATM’s actual card reader, surreptitiously scanning every inserted card’s magnetic strip. (Since cards with enhanced-security RFID chips have redundant information in their strips, they’re vulnerable as well.)
Sophisticated thieves typically pair skimmers with hidden cameras that capture machine users’ keystrokes and card PINs, or fake keypads that record users’ PINs directly. Since skimming requires thieves to return to an ATM at least twice – once to install the skimmer and camera, and once to retrieve them – the practice is more common at out-of-the-way ATMs that aren’t monitored by security cameras or visited frequently by their owners.
How to Keep Your Money & Valuables Safe While Traveling
With these common types of travel theft in mind, some of the most straightforward ways to keep your money, valuables, and personal information safe while traveling include the following.
1. Minimize Use of Physical Cash
When you lose paper or metal money, it’s gone forever. By contrast, it’s often – though not always – possible to successfully dispute fraudulent charges on a stolen card. Cash is also easy to counterfeit, whereas plastic cards are basically impossible to impersonate, unless the data on them is stolen via skimming or RFID theft.
For both these reasons, carry the bare minimum amount of cash you plan to use during any given excursion. Even if it’s customary for your destination country’s merchants to pass interchange fees onto shoppers (this occurs often in New Zealand, for example), the additional 2% to 4% is a small price to avoid a debilitating financial loss. And when you must use physical cash, use small bills, which aren’t as vulnerable to counterfeit change scams.
2. Use an RFID-Blocking Money Belt
If you know some or your cards are chipped (or even if you’re not sure), invest in a money belt capable of blocking RFID signals. Money belts come in several different forms – some resemble fanny packs, others purses, and still others more compact wallets. All feature sturdy construction and basic physical security features, such as zippers, in addition to RFID-blocking capabilities.
Many are small and sleek enough to be tucked under your clothing and avoid visibly advertising the presence of your valuables. And they’re a worthwhile investment, especially if you travel abroad with any frequency at all. The Eagle Creek RFID Blocker Money Belt DLX, a well-reviewed model, retails for a reasonable $25 to $30 online.
3. Avoid Visibly Displaying Money and Valuables
The would-be pickpocket in Barcelona selected me because I was an easy target: My wallet was basically hanging out of my pocket, visible to any observant bystander. While in public, avoid this mistake by keeping your wallet, cash, cards, and other valuables deep in a bag or purse, or in a hidden (interior) pocket.
If none of these options are available, at least avoid storing valuables where they can be identified by their shape – for instance, a back pocket that shows the bulge of your wallet or phone. And don’t flash cash or cards in public unless you want to make a thief’s day.
4. Keep Valuables in Multiple Locations
Keep money and other valuables in as many locations as you’re comfortable with (and can remember easily). This goes for valuables carried on your person and stored in your hotel.
When you’re out and about, only take what’s absolutely necessary, leaving the rest behind in your room safe, hotel safe deposit box, or other secure storage area. Divide the cards, cash, and ID documents that you do need while out and about between a money belt, pockets, or purse. Using multiple storage locations ensures that an opportunistic thief can’t make off with all your money and valuables in one fell swoop.
5. Record Important Financial Information and Keep Separate
Being the victim of financial or ID theft abroad, regardless of how it goes down, is frightening, disorienting, and inconvenient. The last thing you want to do on your vacation is spend hours on the phone with your bank, state ID issuer, or U.S. consulate. To minimize the inconvenience of theft abroad, make photocopies (or take high-quality pictures) of all the documents and cards you plan to bring on the trip and store them in a safe place.
The best practice is to make one set of physical copies and leave them in a secure location at home, where only a trusted associate can access them if need be, and then make a second set of copies to take with you and leave in a secure location in your hotel room. Some travel experts recommend making electronic copies and storing them on your computer, flash drive, or secure cloud storage service – but remember that electronic records are subject to compromise.
If you use cash regularly on your trip, take the additional step of writing down the serial number for every big bill (the equivalent of $20 or more) that comes into your possession. Serial numbers come in handy if you’re the victim of a counterfeit scam and choose to report the incident to the police, though they alone can’t guarantee the return of your stolen funds.
6. Be Smart About ATM Usage
Minimizing cash usage is the best way to avoid loss or theft, but it’s not always possible to completely avoid paying with paper or metal while you’re abroad. If you do need more cash than you brought with you in the first place, be smart about how you use ATMs in your destination.
First, avoid ATMs in secluded or sketchy areas at all costs, as these are more likely to be staked out by muggers, especially at night. Also, avoid third-party ATMs if possible, particularly if they seem old or seldom-used. Such ATMs are likely to be less secure or, depending where you are, perhaps set up for the explicit purpose of scamming unsuspecting tourists.
Instead, research the top banks in your destination and stick with ATMs that carry their brands. If possible, only use branded ATMs in a secure bank lobby or doorway, where skimming and PIN-stealing cameras are far less common.
7. Keep a Tight Watch on Your Bags
When it comes to your travel bags, you simply can’t be overprotective enough. Whenever you’re in a crowded public place, maintain physical contact with your bags whenever possible. If you need to put your bags down momentarily, perhaps to thumb through a guidebook, don’t walk away from them. At airports, don’t place them on security conveyors until the last possible second – in other words, not until you’re being waved through the body scanner.
And no matter how nice they seem, don’t ever allow a random bystander to help you with your bags. Only uniformed personnel, such as hotel employees, should be handling your luggage – and even then, be suspicious of anyone who’s vague about their role. (Impersonating hotel employees, private security personnel, and even local or federal police is a lucrative con in some countries.)
8. Tell Your Financial Service Providers About Your Travel Plans
Before you embark on a trip abroad, set aside the cards you plan to take with you and notify each issuer of your travel plans, preferably with specific dates and locations. This reduces the likelihood of your lender assuming that your foreign transactions are fraudulent and putting a potentially very inconvenient hold on your account while it sorts out the situation.
Just as importantly, giving your issuers a heads-up about where you plan to be (and when you plan to be there) can reduce the impact of actual fraud if a stolen card or account number registers activity in a place that you’re not supposed to be. For example, if your credit card goes missing on the last day of your trip to Thailand and turns up a week later in China – when you’ve already returned home to the U.S. – it’s pretty easy to make the case that it was stolen.
9. Research Your Destination
Planning a major trip, particularly to an international destination that you’ve never visited, involves a fair bit of ill-defined apprehension. It’s hard to know what to expect from a place if you have no frame of reference. While reading travel guides and local blogs can’t guarantee your safety in every possible situation, conducting exhaustive research is a great way to set expectations and create a mental picture – however incomplete – of your destination.
Two research strategies are particularly fruitful. First, before the start of your trip, map out your routes to and from the attractions you plan to see and your hotel or hostel, noting potential trouble spots, such as poorly lit side streets. Second, rely on impartial sources, such as recent travel guides from reputable publishers, when evaluating a particular area’s safety. Local tourism authorities and even municipal governments are known to gloss over potential threats and downplay the dodginess of rough neighborhoods.
When I was a bit younger, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to live and study in London for a few months. I took a couple of trips to continental Europe while based in England, which is how I ended up on that subway platform in Barcelona. Fortunately, the near-miss with the pickpocket was the closest I came at any point on that trip to feeling like my personal or financial security was threatened. And I did plenty of things – and took plenty of risks – that I’d think twice about if given the opportunity to relive the experience.
In other words, I was lucky, as were the dozens of my fellow travelers who played equally fast and loose while abroad. No matter which money-safe tips you choose to follow on your next big trip, make sure you have something other than luck on your side.
How do you keep your money safe while traveling?