A theft-triggered trip to Western Union ranks up there with Chinese jails and Mumbai toilets as adventures to avoid. Travelers typically know the basic road rules for reducing loss, such as stash cash/wallets in front pockets only, exit taxis only after the driver to recover your luggage from the trunk and explore the town with a passport photocopy, not the original. Still, the boldness and savviness of today’s pocket pinchers necessitate new tips and precautions. Here are some fresh ideas to protect against potential fleecing.
Even the most nonselective thief will draw the line at underarm deodorant. As a stolen commodity, pit sticks rank up there with used toothbrushes, toenail clippers and Creed cassettes. Travelers who skipped Highway 420 since college likely forgot that head shops sell deodorant sticks, shaving cream cans and other grooming products with secret compartments for hiding cannabis. Sure, Franklin and Grant are a different type of green, but why not hide them in plain sight. Sticky-fingered housekeepers, baggage handlers and police will likely look right past that cash-packed Axe spray. Properly hiding money is especially important in places like Venezuela where state-mandated ATM exchange rates motivate travelers to bring extra greenbacks, and the police and locals know it.
Few moments are more sobering than checking receipts after a wild party night, but travelers reading their ATM withdrawal histories might experience the same hazy recollections. “I withdrew how much?” the surprised traveler asks. The reality is that those questionable withdrawals might be wrong. Consider this common scenario: you need local currency in a foreign city, and the first ATM denies your bankcard or flashes an error message. The ATM did not cough up cash, but your bank account might have deducted the amount. In this case, technology had the sticky fingers, not a particular person, and Central Argentina is an example of a place where such ATM issues have occurred. Protect yourself by keeping a journal of all cash withdrawals, including attempts that failed. If a deduction does not match a legitimate withdrawal, let your bank you know, and customer service will handle it.
Events like Carnival in Brazil represent pickpocketing at its worst, and tourists squeezing through crowds often feel a barrage of hands picking at every pocket. Skilled thieves can even pilfer undercover money belts. A simple trick can help limit losses. First, bring cash and/or card(s) only—not a wallet or purse—and place them in the front pocket. Second, fill the rest of the pocket with one or two strands of cloth (e.g., pieces cut from an old t-shirt). Whether the money-grubbing fingers pull on the cloth or try to dig past it, the traveler is more likely to sense the attempt. The cloth fills the empty space and provides a buffer. If feeling sinister, make it a snot rag. Suckers.
ATMs primarily dispense big bills, and in underprivileged countries, large notes can be particularly difficult to use at corner shops and street vendors. Furthermore, dishonest cashiers are more likely to short tourists on their change, and some might claim the traveler paid with a smaller note. To reduce potential shortchanging (even if accidental), break big notes at a hotel or bank, pay with smaller notes and stay alert during transactions. Also, write your initials in small letters on larger bills. The mark can help mitigate money disputes and provide a potential avenue for reclaiming stolen bills.
In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, many locals call him Liar, Liar. The man—sharply dressed, no accent—approaches in a panic saying, “I am sorry to disturb you, but I wandered into La Perla on accident and got robbed. My family and I need money to get back to the States. Can you please spare $40?” On occasions when locals warn the tourist, mild-mannered Liar, Liar suddenly shrieks like a Real Housewives banshee. In La Paz, Bolivia, the scam starts with a young boy running/riding past and splattering something on your shirt. A well-dressed man in a suit suddenly appears to apologize for what happened and help clean the mess. As he says, “Please do not hold this against the Bolivian people.” He already holds your wallet. In Salvador, Brazil, the man (or kid) might not be well dressed, but his story is. “Sir,” he says politely, “I do not want money, but please get me some milk for my niño.” The man has you buy powdered milk, thanks you, trades it for crack and the dealer uses the powder to transport drugs. Each example epitomizes the elaborate nature of modern scans. When these types of scenarios emerge, make like Road Runner and get the beep beep out of there.
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years as a writer and editor.