How To Minimize Your Theft Exposure While Abroad (Part 2)

Previously, I wrote about the first step in minimizing your theft exposure while abroad: minimize your chances of being robbed at all.

Now we move on to the second step…

Step 2: Minimize The Stuff That Can Be Robbed

This is a step, which if combined with step 1, will drastically reduce the effects of theft on your travels.

What does it mean to “minimize the stuff that can be robbed”?

First of all, it means you don’t carry around your actual passport except on cross-border travel days. Carry a black-and-white paper copy instead. Your actual passport should be hidden and behind a lock somewhere about 98% of the time you are abroad… You should never have to take it out except on ‘official’ business, to cross a border, or to get a visa extension.

And, if you think about it, carrying a copy will enable you to accomplish almost everything else you might need a passport to accomplish. Use it if you are in a country that frequently asks for ID (like Colombia). Use it when entering clubs and bars as proof of age. Use it at the store if you are using your credit card and are asked for identification.

There’s simply no reason to carry your actual passport around. I have heard too many stories of people’s passports being stolen… Instead of being on you, it should be back at your apartment in a locker behind a durable padlock. At minimum, it should be behind the lock of the door to your hostel / apartment building, and then behind the lock of your actual room, and then in a locker by itself.

That means it’s literally behind 3 locks, at least 1, of which you are the only person who knows the combination. Doing this will significantly reduce the likelihood that you will be robbed of your passport.

On that point, consider leaving all your other important papers and cards in the same location as your passport– behind 3 locks. Leave your credit cards, ATM cards, driver’s license, extra cash, shot record locked away somewhere and only take them out in the rare occasion you need them.

This means you don’t carry your ATM card around. Take it out if and only if you are going to make a trip at full day light to a secure ATM to withdraw cash and then take it back to the place behind 3 locks.

I am surprised more travelers don’t realize this… If you’ve traveled a bit yourself, or have been reading travel blogs, you may have come across the stories of people getting mugged and taken to the ATM machine, only to be forced at gunpoint to enter their PIN and withdraw as much money as the machine will allow.

This can be completely avoided by not carrying your ATM card with you. There’s no reason to carry it around.

What you really need to carry around is just the cash you need for the day… No credit or debit cards necessary. Simply carry around the cash you need for food, transportation, and incidentals. Most often this will be around, what $50 per person? (Perhaps if you are traveling in more expensive places or paying for tours, etc. you will need a little bit more.)

But think about it… If you only carry around $50, that means the maximum the thieves can possibly take from you is $50. They won’t get your ATM card, your passport, your debit or credit card. Just $50.

And better yet, you’ll be as worry free as you can be… You’ll have something to give them when and if they hold you up (very important), but it will be honestly all you have and it won’t break your bank.

Also, consider not carrying a smart phone.

Having heard too many stories of people getting robbed in Colombia, and after having dropped my iphone while abroad, I came to the conclusion there was no real compelling reason to carry a smart phone / iPhone / Blackberry with me at all times.

Fellow traveler Dave, by contrast, even though he has been robbed not once, but twice of his Blackberrys, still carries one around. He claims that social media and the web are just too much a part of his life to go without it.

While I can see his point, I simply don’t want to have to dump $200-$400 on a new smart phone if it gets stolen.

This is part of minimizing your theft exposure. The more valuable things you carry on you, the more the thieves can take from you. And I am not one to carry a lot of valuable things on me, especially when there are viable alternatives.

For example, I can do all my social media / email / tweeting / facebooking on a simple iPod back at the hostel or apartment where there is wifi. It’s quick and easy, and I don’t have to wait for a laptop to load, or create some space on a table. Granted, I am not the biggest social media bull out there, but all social media can be done apart from a smart phone. You should be doing them in bulk anyway, using a scheduler / sorter like TweetDeck.

And, I can carry an el cheapo phone for all my calling and texting purposes. The phone cost me around $40 brand new, and I’ve probably got that value out of it already. It can be used in multiple different countries in South America with just a change of SIM card. If they steal this phone, I’m not out nearly the amount as I would be if I were carrying a smart phone. And, with my phone info saved on my computer (and in the cloud), I can easily call in and cancel the service if they take it.

So, I see carrying an el cheapo as a viable, savvy alternative to a smart phone, and something which significantly reduces my theft exposure.

One note here is to make sure you periodically transfer your contacts from your el cheapo phone to your computer / Gmail contacts so you don’t lose them. When my phone was inaccessible for a few days while I was in Cuenca, I was at a loss because I had no way of getting in calling with various friends and contacts in Cuenca. Ay!

Finally, like I said in part one of this series, do not wear bling-bling watches or gold chains, particularly at night through areas you might be robbed.┬á If you’re not wearing a gold chain, the thieves can’t steal your gold chain.

Now, a recommendation like this may be a punch to your ego, especially if you are a habitually well-dressed man or woman. But just keep in mind that anything shiny attracts attention, and many people around the world covet shiny objects for themselves. Furthermore, many people infer shiny objects = rich person, and rich person = worth robbing. So I would say to play it cool…

OK maaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe you can consider an exception if you have a date with someone spectacular and you are going to be chauffeured around town by a trusted driver… BUT, in general, don’t wear any bling bling you don’t want stolen off of you. You take a chance if you dress to impress.

Also GUYS — if you wear a lot of gold, watches, chains and general bling-bling, you are communicating to the girl that you are stacked.

In some many countries this can act as a trigger for the girl to jump into “gold-digger” mode. This is another beast altogether which for an unprepared man may cause as many problems as your average petty thief…

Regardless, you gotta be smart about your stuff at all times. ­čś»

  • Cristian Ele

    I’d call that “common sense” but some people simply ignore the fact there’s some places you can do-wear-use whatever you want and some places you can’t. As in my personal experience, I’ve never been robbed in Colombia nor in Chile and I lived in both countries my whole life!┬á

    For the one who has a way-too-gringo look try to wear and act like locals. But as before, it is only necessary in some places.┬áLatin american┬áCities are not┬áentirely┬ádangerous, just some places within the city (normally the down town because it’s always too crowded).

    • Never been robbed ever in a whole life in South Am?! Cristian, you should write an ebook on that, for sure… and ditto on the common sense! ­čÖé

  • I just doubled down and spent $800 on the new iPhone 4S. I must be freaking crazy.

    Now that I’m in Lima where they’re not as common in the US, it feels like I’m pulling a Ferrari out of my pocket. Gotta be more careful than I have in the past, but it’s insured, so worst case if it gets stolen, I get reimbursed. ┬á

    • Going huge, Padrino! ­čÖé … Now that you mention insurance, you’ve got me thinking that could be a way of limiting your downside. If it’s not too expensive, it might just be the right move…

      I guess I’d always be worried that the insurance company might — only after the fact– say something like “sorry that’s not covered” in which case I would not only lose something, but get all upset and fuming about it…

      I will definitely be interested to see how long your iPhone can stay with you, especially through all your globetrotting.

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  • do people really think that in the USA robbery & theft don’t occur? esp. in the bigger cities?

    • I don’t think so

  • If you need an official ID with you (and you’re a US-American) take out a passport card for $30. They’re officially used to cross land borders with Canada and Mexico, but also make a nice ID. I carry mine with me all the time in Sao Paulo. Very useful for getting into buildings, taking an inter-city bus, or when someone wants your “passport number” for a transaction. My passport itself only comes out when I fly, deal with the Brazil gov, or cross borders.