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Avoid Theft - Don't Get Ripped Off When Traveling

Lisa Byrne

Lisa Byrne runs the vacation rental agency www.ItalyPerfect.com and shares some of her and her clients experiences with us

In all my years of living and traveling in Europe I'm fortunate to never have had my pocket picked or purse stolen - knock on wood! However, that's not to say that I haven't been "ripped off" in other ways many times, probably more then I'll ever know. To expand on the already excellent advice provided on Slow Travel about staying safe when traveling, I wanted to share some of my own observations to help other travelers avoid getting ripped off while on vacation in Europe.

It's easy to understand why tourists make such good "marks" for thieves and disreputable vendors. You're in a foreign country grappling with a language you can't speak, different money, jet lag, and confusing street signs. You stand out in the crowd as you fumble for your train tickets, sort through your purse to find your map and create maddening delays trying to figure out how to count out the correct change. You are an attractive target to those that prey on your temporary condition known as "Tourist". Believe me, I've experienced this myself!

How do you avoid becoming another vacation statistic whose purse or wallet is stolen upon arriving in Europe for a dream vacation? We hope these tips and anecdotes will help you steer clear of these minor speed bumps that can mar an otherwise perfect holiday. If it does happen to you, no use grumbling, just get on with your vacation, enjoy yourself and chalk it up to "lessons learned":

Cash

Do not carry large amounts of cash. That's why there are ATM machines everywhere throughout Europe. Just withdraw what you need every couple of days and use your credit card if you need to. You'll get a pretty good exchange rate and can avoid carrying large amounts of cash. Forget travelers checks (as other Slow Travel experts recommend); they are not very popular with vendors anymore. Empty your wallet of unneeded credit cards and ATM cards before you leave on vacation.

Dining

Always check the bill for accuracy to ensure that it includes only what you ordered and to make sure the total is accurate. Few restaurants (except in hotels and large restaurant chains) have itemized computer printed receipts; so if you can't read the waiter's scrawl, ask nicely for clarification.

If there is a cover charge included you can tip modestly as you've already been charged a service fee.

It's wonderful to have a knowledgeable waiter make recommendations, but be wary at popular tourist restaurants when the waiter says "leave it to me", relieving you of the burden of ordering. You are putting your fate in the waiter's hands to determine your entire meal for you - all five pricey courses. The tourist restaurants in Rome's Trastevere area are famous for this: you sit down to a fun meal, the waiter flirts and flatters and you get a bit giddy with all the attention. Before you know it you've racked up a huge food and wine bill that includes appetizer platters, special house aperitifs and dessert when you'd budgeted for pizza and a carafe of house wine!

Don't be embarrassed to ask the price if it's not stated on the menu. The daily special might be an astronomically priced dish using hard-to-find ingredients. If the specialty has anything to do with truffles you can bet it will be expensive! So ask before you order.

When paying by credit card, make sure the waiter has picked up the signed receipt before you depart as your card number is usually printed in full on the receipt. Most of us are used to the system where only the last four credit card digits appear on the receipt. This is not the case throughout Europe yet. If you leave the signed receipt on the table and walk away, anyone can walk by and pick it up, thereby obtaining your name and credit card number.

Women should not hang their purse on the back of their chair. Keep it between your feet or in your lap. Better yet, watch to see what the local women do and imitate them. Likewise, men should remove their wallet from their jacket before hanging it on the back of their chair or on a coat hook.

Valuables

Leave your fancy jewelry and designer watches back home when you travel. You're on vacation anyway, so while you want to look appropriately dressed, substitute replaceable, inexpensive jewelry for the real thing. It's one more thing to keep track of on your trip and says "notice me" to thieves.

More then once we've had a client think they've lost jewelry, only to discover when they got home it was buried in the bottom of their suitcase, overlooked in the confusion of packing and unpacking.

If the ever-present raggedy women and children that prey upon tourists in the major cities approach you, watch out for your bracelets and wristwatch. They might plead their hardship while grasping your arm, stealthily sliding your jewelry off your wrist.

Transportation

Taxis

If it's a long cab ride, such as from the Rome or Charles de Gaulle airport into the city, always find out approximately how much it will cost before you get in the cab. There are legitimate surcharges such as tolls and baggage fees, and not-so-legitimate fees.

Make sure the meter is switched on and reset when you head out, unless it's a flat fee.

If you get to your destination and the driver attempts to charge you a price that is significantly over the flat fee or the amount on the meter, don't take out your wallet until you are out of the cab with your luggage in tow. Then you can haggle. Otherwise your luggage is held hostage in the trunk and if you want it, you're stuck paying him whatever he demands. This moment can get pretty ugly, so be prepared for a big scene. Or, just pay it and chalk it up to experience.

I recommend using a private driving service that provides transportation for a set fee. That said, I have had unscrupulous drivers try to pad the bill. In Rome I reserved a car with a driving service I'd used on many occasions. They sent a new driver who, low and behold, tried to charge double the quoted price when we got to my destination. I argued and got the price down (with the driver cursing me as he drove away in a huff), but know that most travelers don't have the knowledge or grasp of the local language to deal with this type of situation. As for that driving service - arrivederci!

Bus, Subway

You are very vulnerable in crowded places like busy city buses and subways. Keep valuables in a waist wallet or money belt under your shirt and out of site. If that is not an option, men should carry their wallets in their front pocket and preferably wear pants or a jacket with pockets that zip. I know men who insist on wearing their wallet in their back pocket, claiming they would know instantly if someone attempted to touch their backside. This is tempting fate! We recommend women sling their purse over their shoulder and across their body with your hand keeping a firm grip on it at all times. If using a day pack, carry it slung in front of you when riding the bus or subway, as the locals do.

Here are a few examples that illustrate these points:

  • A client recently had his wallet stolen on the Rome subway even though it was in his front pants pocket. He kicked himself as he said he knew to be more careful but they were excited to be in Rome and hurrying to get to the Vatican.
  • Another client had his wallet stolen out of his back pocket while riding a crowded bus in Florence. He was with a group of friends and was distracted so never felt a thing.
  • A friend told us of getting his pocket picked while studying the subway map in Rome metro. One guy sidled up to him and pretended to be studying the same map while his partner-in-crime approached from the other side and picked his pocket.
  • My own sister, a seasoned world traveler, was riding the Paris Metro and chatting away with a couple of friends. As the train pulled into a station, she felt a sharp tug on her purse and immediately realized it had just been snatched. She spotted the thief running away and jumped off the train just as the doors were closing. Against her better judgment she chased him through the station while screaming obscenities at him. Fortunately, this caught the attention of the Paris metro police, who managed to stop the thief. He still had her purse in hand but had already handed off her wallet to a colleague so her money and credit cards were not recovered. While she was relieved to get her purse back the police cautioned her that chasing the thief was pretty foolish on her part, as she could have been harmed.

Train Station

These are ever-popular spots with pickpockets. You find a place to sit, and put your bags on the seat next to you. While listening to your iPod and reading your book you look over and realize your purse or laptop have vanished.

Vacation Rentals

Ask about all fees and charges before you rent. Reconfirm this upon check-in so there are no surprises later.

Lock up each time you go out. Pay careful attention when the greeter explains how to use the keys to lock up. Typically, when you pull the door closed it is latched and requires a key to open it, but it is not locked! An experienced thief can probably open it in under 30 seconds using a credit card to slide the latch back. You must take the extra step to use the key to turn the bolt in order to lock it.

Close windows, shutters, and terrace doors. It's time consuming but worth the extra effort and could prevent a break-in. While a high-up balcony or tiny window doesn't look accessible to you, you'd be surprised at the clever ways thieves can get in through these seemingly unreachable spots, and how quickly they work.

If there is a hotel-style safe, use it for your valuables and travel documents.

Never leave your luggage unattended in an apartment lobby as it will irritate the residents and may very well disappear, even if you are only gone for a minute.

Sightseeing & Shopping

When you're in a crowded venue filled with tourists, you can bet there are some rings working to lighten your wallet. Here are some more anecdotes that illustrate this point:

  • One guest, a US police detective, told of amusing hours he spent with his kids sitting on a bench by the Eiffel Tower watching several thieves at work. In this case, it was a gang of three: one to distract the victim by bumping into him or her, the other to pick the victim's pocket and the third for the handoff.
  • After learning of the subtleties of these techniques (we are, by no means, experts), we put our knowledge to the test. We stationed ourselves at an outdoor cafe by the busy Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Fortified with espresso and gelato, it didn't take long before we noticed a neatly dressed man with a very old fashioned video camera pretending to videotape the scenery, for what seemed like forever. After about 30 minutes of playing "spy" we deduced that he was working with a partner stationed nearby and he was using the video camera to zoom in on prospective targets and communicating directions on who to target to his colleague by cell phone.
  • I was once walking along chatting away with a friend. Our arms were laden with shopping bags as we hurried to catch the train to Florence. Along the way, we passed a leather goods stall. Initially I thought the vendor was trying to get our attention as he was whistling loudly and yelling "whoo-hoo". Having grown up in Rome, I'm immune to this gimmick and ignored him (although at my age maybe I should be flattered by the attention!). As we stood just beyond his stall waiting to cross a busy street he kept it up. I then realized he was shouting at us to watch our bags as there were two boys, about 10 and 12 years old, hanging just behind us waiting for an opportunity to snatch our purses or shopping bags. We were so grateful to this nice man!
  • If you have to carry a store shopping bag (because your luggage is too full to cram in one more thing), choose the one from the low-end store, not the one that says Gucci or Prada, which are like little billboards advertising "expensive stuff inside".
  • Count your change. More then once I've been in a rush only realize later that I've been short-changed. Let the people behind you in line cool their heels and take an extra minute to count your change. If there is any confusion it will be easier to clear it up on the spot, instead of returning later. Then put it in your wallet and put your wallet away before you leave the shop. Don't hurry out of the shop while fumbling with loose change, bills and parcels, as it will only make you more conspicuous.

I don't want to make you paranoid about travel rip-offs as most travelers don't run into any problems. In fact, we have stories of missing jewelry found by vacation rental cleaners and returned to clients, a cafe that contacted me to tell me they'd found a client's briefcase (identified by my business card inside), and the honest Florentine limo driver who found a wallet belonging to one of our clients in his vehicle and made a special trip just to return it safely to her. Here's wishing you safe travels!


Lisa Byrne owns www.ItalyPerfect.com a vacation rental agency specializing in vacation rental properties in Italy.

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