Every country has pickpockets and thieves. As a traveler, you will automatically be targeted by these individuals. Don’t feel bad…foreign travelers who come to the US get the same treatment by thieves in this country. That’s because they know that travelers are typically carrying more cash and valuables on their persons and in their luggage than ordinary citizens. Add to this that these travelers are distracted by being in an unfamiliar place, this makes them the perfect people to rob. In third world countries, where you may be carrying valuables worth more than the typical person makes in a year, the temptations versus the penalties make petty theft even more appealing.
This article will discuss products and techniques you can use to prevent losing your money and valuables while traveling. I’ll discuss each type of theft and what you can do about it.
Pickpockets & Bag Snatchers
This is the most common type of theft you’ll encounter. Travel for very long and eventually it will probably happen to you, no matter how vigilant you are. It goes without saying that your number one defense against getting pickpocketed is to learn to be actively scanning your surroundings at all times and be aware whenever anyone is approaching you. Whenever someone gets within arm’s length of you it’s a good idea to assume that person is trying to pickpocket you. Most of the time it won’t be true, but sometimes it will. Unfortunately there are situations where this is nearly impossible to pull off…crammed into a bus or train or in a crowd of people, for example. At that point, you need to have already prepared yourself by having your valuables secured in such a way that a casual (or even non-casual) search by a pickpocket will yield little.
Having a wallet in a pocket is just asking for trouble. The only time I would ever have a wallet in my pocket is if it contained only a small amount of cash that I was planning on spending that day, or if it was a dummy wallet to distract a pickpocket from my real hiding places. I’ve actually had a dummy wallet pickpocketed and I can honestly tell you I didn’t notice it being stolen. I recommend carrying a dummy wallet by the way as a first line of defense against pickpockets.
A good way to protect your important items (passport, driver’s license, credit and ATM cards, and larger amounts of money) against pickpockets, is to carry them in a money belt worn under your pants (or skirt), or in a neck pouch. Given recent reports of thieves carrying wireless devices capable of scanning the credit card numbers from your cards without even stealing them, you may want to consider getting money belts or neck wallets with RFID screening materials incorporated in them. I’ve carried both neck pouches and money belts and prefer the neck pouch myself. I sweat a lot and the money belts can get pretty soggy in hot, humid locations, so I have to wrap all my stuff in plastic before it goes in the money belt. With the neck pouch I don’t have as much of a problem. A neck pouch may not be as good a choice for a person who has breasts or likes to wear tight shirts, however. My current neck pouch doesn’t have the RFID protection, so I’ll probably get a new one just for that. It also doesn’t have a steel cable in the band to prevent slashers from cutting the cord and yanking it out of my shirt. I’ll have to think twice about that one, first because having a steel cable around my neck (i.e. garrote) doesn’t sound like a great idea and, second, because I can’t imagine how it would be easy for a thief to accomplish slashing the band and then getting pouch out of my shirt. It’s hard for me to imaging someone even trying to remove a regular neck pouch or money belt from under my pants without me noticing it. However, be aware that while the money belt or neck pouch should be fine against pickpockets, they aren’t necessarily a good choice against muggers (see the next section).
The next items you need to protect are whatever items you are carrying during your outings, i.e. your purse, daypack, camera bag, etc. Daypacks are great for allowing you to carry stuff and having your hands free, but they are easy for thieves to access without you noticing, particularly in a crowd situation. A nylon daypack can be slit with a razor sharp blade and its contents removed without you even noticing. It’s much easier to protect a bag if you are holding it in front of you. Bags and purses with straps that hang over one shoulder are very easy for snatchers to rip off your arm quickly and take off like rabbits. These thieves will usually target people who they can physically dominate and who are likely not be quick enough to pursue them. For both these reasons, I would recommended that the your purses, day bags, and camera bags, have a strap which is long enough to cross over your chest and hang on the opposite shoulder and which will allow you to carry the bag positioned with your forearm over the opening or in front of your body where you can see it (maybe off the front of your hip). The best bags will have either a long flap which can be fastened or a top zipper (or both), in addition to interior compartments with flaps or zippers to close them as well. The more barriers a pickpocket has to get through to gain access to the contents of your bags the better. In general I consider hip pouches that attach to your belt to be a bad idea, but if you wear one, make sure it’s one that threads through your belt (no Velcro) and wear it so that it is in front of you, under your gut, not to the side or back. Don’t leave anything valuable in it. These usually have just one zipper access, so a decent pickpocket can get in and out quickly.
When you stop somewhere, at a restaurant, bar, bus station, or wherever, the best situation would be that your bag is small enough that you could just leave the strap over your shoulder and have it resting on your lap or hanging at your side. If you need to take it off, you should try to keep it attached to your body if you can. For example, if you are sitting down at a restaurant, you can put it on the ground between your feet and stick your leg through the strap so a thief would have to yank it over your foot to steal it. An alternative is to put it between your feet with the strap looped under a leg of the chair you are sitting on. A common theft scenario involves stopping at a WIFI café or coffee shop to catch up on emails or do some work. You get your coffee and get your computer out of your bag and set the bag down on the table or next to your chair. Within seconds your concentration is completely focused on your computer and the instant that happens you have become the perfect victim. If the computer is next to your chair and not physically attached to your body and there is a thief in the vicinity, you can kiss it goodbye. On the table you will at least have an opportunity to watch it get snatched by the thief before he races out the door and down the street. However, the main reason to keep it attached to your body is not just for theft prevention…it’s so you don’t forget it. More bags are lost because are left behind than because they are stolen.
Whatever you are carrying, try not to split your stuff between multiple bags. One bag is enough to keep track of without worrying about two. If you are an avid photographer and you can’t go anywhere without a bag full of camera gear, try to get a bag that will hold everything else as well.
In some countries you may encounter this situation. You are walking along and you are suddenly surrounded by six young street kids all screaming at you for money while at the same time grabbing at your pockets and all your bags. They are all budding pickpockets and if you have anything in your pockets you will be cleaned out in seconds. How would you deal with that situation? You should try to imagine these kinds of scenarios and how you would handle them.
Getting mugged is a completely different security issue from being pickpocketed. A mugging takes work to set up and execute. It usually requires isolating the victim in a location where the mugging can take place relatively unobserved and where help from others isn’t likely to be rendered. Often you hear mugging victims talk about their bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But why were they in the wrong place at the wrong time? Their choices and actions put them there. The only time I have been mugged was in Amsterdam at 3am in the morning, walking back to my hotel from the Rieperbahn drunk. The streets were deserted. A guy asked me the time and I looked at my watch and when I looked up there was a knife at my belly. Fortunately, I had done a few things right. I wasn’t carrying any credit cards or my passport. I had taken only enough money for the night out and I had less than $20 in my wallet. The mugger was disappointed but polite, and I was drunk enough that I mainly thought it was funny and a new experience. And I was also in the wrong place at the wrong time, as I had chosen to be.
I have read a number of mugging accounts where the first thing the mugger(s) looked for was a money belt. I assume the same would apply to a neck pouch. This is why I say these solutions are probably only effective at deterring pickpockets. If you need to carry your important cards and documents on your body and you are concerned about mugging as well as pickpockets, I would recommend using something that they are less likely to find than a neck pouch or money belt. You (or someone you know who is handy with needle and thread) can sew hidden pockets in your pants or other articles of clothing. Place the pockets in a location that a mugger is not likely to pat down or inspect, such as lower down the leg of your pants (away from your pockets) or near your calf. Down the back of a shirt or coat might be a good idea, unless the coat looks valuable enough to steal as well. Another alternative it to use a money pouch that fastens to your lower leg. I tried one of these on a trip to Mexico once and really didn’t like the feeling of having something strapped to my calf, but your mileage may vary. I haven’t tried the hidden pocket idea, but I may in the future if I’m going to countries with a high mugging rate. Still, I prefer to leave my important stuff secured at my lodgings whenever that is possible, rather than carrying them with me everywhere.
You can get creative with other places to hide your valuables. I’ve heard of women stashing currency and even credit cards in their bras. Men can buy Stashitware Pocket Boxer Briefs which have a pocket built into them to hide your “stash”, but it could be used to store other valuables near your “valuables”.
In this section, I’m only concerned about keeping your stuff safe. Refer to this <article about personal safety> for advice on how to prevent getting mugged in the first place and how far to carry your personal defense preparations.
I’ve talked about how to keep your stuff safe when you are walking around, but what about keeping your stuff from being stolen from the place where you are staying. If you are staying in a hotel, you need to be concerned about opportunistic theft involving hotel employees as well as theft from professional or semi-professional thieves.
The usual advice you hear is to keep your valuables in your bags and out of sight in your hotel room. This assumes that the person coming into your room will only steal something if it is sitting out in plain sight. If you really want to keep your stuff, you shouldn’t assume this kindly view of thieves.
At a minimum you should assume that the person coming into your room will rifle through your bags, closet, dresser, etc. and take whatever valuable items they can carry away and sell easily. They will probably put the valuables into another bag which they can take from the premises without attracting too much notice. In other words, they probably won’t just pick up your backpack or suitcase and take the whole lot because that would be a lot more obvious and suspicious.
To prevent this type of theft, you can place your valuables into your bags (which you have purchased because they are lockable) and lock them with padlocks. As overkill, just in case they might actually steal the whole bag, you can carry a steel security cable with a padlock and lock the bag(s) to something solid in the room. This should prevent thefts from the opportunistic maid or other hotel employee.
At the next level, the person who enters your room has brought something sharp to allow him to cut the bags open. So much for the padlocks! This type of theft is most likely not done by the hotel maid, but maybe by someone that has been let into the room or by an actual thief who has broken into the room.
To prevent this type of theft, you have a few options. You can buy heavy slash-proof luggage which has a steel wire mesh incorporated into the exterior of the bags. Or you can buy portable steel mesh travel safes, such as those made by PacSafe <link here>, and put your valuable items into one of these bags and lock it to something secure in your room that can’t be removed or carried out easily, such as a steel plumbing pipe or metal bed frame. These bags are available in several sizes and weigh between 1 to 1.5 lbs. They are not light, but I think they are a good investment, particularly if you are carrying bulkier expensive items like laptops, tablets, and camera gear which would be attractive to thieves. If you are staying in cheaper hotels (like we usually do) they will often not have hotel safes and even if the hotel has a safe they often aren’t large enough to accommodate storing computers and photo gear, so these may still be a good option for you.
At the next level, the thief entering your room has brought bolt cutters capable of cutting through your security cables or a lock picking set and the skills to pick your padlock. In this case you are out of luck. There is always a level of security that can be defeated with the right tools and skill.
One method I didn’t mention is hiding your stuff. If you are a really good hider, and the valuables you are trying to protect are relatively small and easy to conceal, you may want to consider hiding them somewhere in your room.
In some nicer hotels you may have a small safe in your hotel room, usually in a closet, where you can lock up valuables. Other hotels may have a larger safe in the main office which usually provides space for small items like passports and documents (not cameras and laptops). I’ve used the in-room safes on occasion when I didn’t have a better option, but I’ve never assumed that the safe would really deter someone with passable lock-picking skills. I’ve never used main hotel safes, but my brother and his wife put their valuables in a hotel safe in Dublin at a swanky hotel and someone cleaned it out. They lost everything. So even an up-market hotel safe may not be a guarantee of security for your valuables.