How To Minimize Your Theft Exposure While Abroad (Part 1)

I recently visited Quito, Ecuador, a place notorious for crime and petty theft, especially against travelers.

Practically everyone I have met who has visited Quito has either been robbed, seen a robbery, or had a friend be robbed. I am no exception, as my buddy Brendan was robbed the day after I left, and one other buddy of mine was robbed one night out, right after I left them to go home!

I am happy to report that I personally escaped unscathed after spending 7 days there, but would advise anyone to be extra careful if you are visiting Quito.

But, as long as we’re on the subject, here are the biggest steps you need to take to minimize your theft exposure while traveling.

Step 1: Minimize Your Chances of Anyone Trying To Rob You

This should be pretty obvious… Do whatever you can to avoid being robbed at all.

That means above all you should avoid specific places, like the more dangerous parts of town, lonely streets at night, and desolate city parks.

It also means if you absolutely have to walk through these areas (for some crazy reason), you do so in large groups… preferably of 6 or more. I’ve heard too many stories of couples being robbed, and a group of 6 will be substantially larger than the 1 to 3 thieves that usually operate together.

Also, don’t have a general appearance like you have a lot of money or stuff worth robbing. Unless you are a high-roller and can afford a body guard, know that if you walk around town wearing a $100 shirt and your best pants, nice shoes, a sparkling watch, and your gold chain, you are a moving target for Señor Stickyfingers.

Dress to fit in and be inconspicuous. For me, that means wearing a non-heavy, unmarked, rather uninteresting black jacket whenever I go out at night. It covers whatever I’m wearing, even down to my watch (although, I wear a rather cheap watch anyway).

While theoretically I could wear some bling-bling, I still wear rather basic clothes underneath. So that if I take off my jacket, I still do not look like I am worth robbing. :)

If you are walking somewhere within the city, especially at night, you should either know exactly where you are going, or be walking with someone at all times.

Now, I know… There are people who venture out on their own into unexplored or unknown areas of cities, and they like doing it. It is there inspiration.

If you are this adventurous type and that’s your thing, go for it. Go explore the back streets of the metropolis… just know that you are at a much greater risk of something happening. (And, especially if you’re in southern Bogotá, you need to be careful.)

If you like wandering aimlessly around the city, but don’t have anyone to accompany you, try to do it in the day time and try to strike up a conversation with a friendly-looking local. They will often have a better sense of danger and safety than you do. Most often, they will help you find where you need to go and give you pointers on what you should avoid.

In Santa Marta, for example, I was once told not to walk more than 5 blocks to the east of where I was, because that is where it was way too dangerous to be. And that turned out to be where I was going to wander… Thank you, friendly Colombian!

If I have to walk alone, I walk at a brisk pace (no reason not to), so it is unlikely anyone could sneak up on me from behind. In fact, this actually helped me one night…

If you follow me on Facebook, you may have seen a status update about some guys that snuck up behind me one night in Cuenca. I knew they were up to something because there was no way an ordinary person could catch up to my pace. So I was able to see them, and get away untouched. #RyanWins… (Check out that status update for a few more crazy stories in the comments.)

Also, I have a habit of giving at least a 30 foot radius between myself and any suspicious character. I’ve lost track of how many times in South America I have literally crossed the street in order to avoid walking by certain shady figures. Sometimes I even walk straight down the middle of the street if there are shady figures on both sides.

In Quito, this literally prevented me from getting robbed. The thugs I walked around one night ending up robbing someone I knew, that very same night.

Lastly, don’t become stark-raving drunk and piss-off a bunch of people. This might be common sense, but if you do stupid things to people in a club or bar, they might come after you. To me, it is utterly ridiculous that some travelers do this. It spoils the night for you and often your friends anyways. Don’t be stupid.

Travel Day Considerations

To me, travel days to be different from other days. When I leave one city and go to another, it means I will take special safety considerations, most especially because I have all of my stuff with me.

Don't be like this guy. Put stuff in front!

The first thing I do is pack anything important in my small backpack, and a few important things in a front pant pocket. This means money, credit cards, papers, laptop, iPod, glasses, etc. all go in the backpack, and then I carry some cash and my passport in my front pocket (preferably hidden pocket).

I never put anything I couldn’t lose in my big suitcase. If that big thing goes missing, who knows whether I’ll find it? Much less with nothing taken out?

The next thing I do is I keep the backpack with me at all times. It never leaves me. We are joined at the shoulders, no matter how sweaty and worn my shoulders get. The only time I will take it off is if I am in the simple waiting area of a bus terminal or airport, but apart from that, on a travel day it is like a new bodily appendage.

A backpack is just too easy to pick up and walk off with… Don’t give any stalkers that opportunity.

Finally, when traveling to or from the bus station / airport, I always take a taxi, and preferably one I telephoned for.

The alternative of taking a bus to the bus station / airport seems like a real hassle to me. You end up having time added on to your already long day. The ride is stop-and-go. You have to deal with crowds, lugging your big bag around. You might not even get a seat. And, of course, you might have thieves trying to rob you from behind.

Whereas in a taxi, there’s only you. You have the cab to yourself, with enough private space for you and your stuff.

Yes, it costs more, but the added security and decreased hassle is worth every penny.

Some people have been robbed in taxis, yes, including my buddy Dave. I’m not talking about never getting robbed. I’m talking about minimizing your chances of being robbed. If you get in a private taxi, keep the windows up and your valuables hidden, you greatly decrease your chances of being robbed compared to your standard bus ride through the middle of a city.

Risk Is Part Of Travel

Of course, I have a feeling one day I will be robbed, especially if I keep traveling through South America. But that’s part of the package when you leave home and explore the world. Risk is part and parcel of true exploration.

But I feel that these measures greatly reduce the chances I will be robbed. If you have any handy tips to avoid being robbed at all, be sure leave them in the comments!

>> Check out part 2 on how to minimize your theft exposure even more…




Published December 14, 2011

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