How to Get Robbed Abroad (With Style and Grace)

Eric Reed—Moral Compass

It’s afternoon in Lima, Peru. My cab to the airport leaves in four hours, but I’m in the middle of the Barranco district chasing a pair of motorbike thieves who’ve just stolen my laptop. One whipped the computer out from under my fingertips at a nearby coffee shop and ran to his friend, who had a bike running outside. Traffic is wall-to-wall, and they’re stopped at a red light two blocks away. If everyone stays still just a little longer I can catch them. It would be two-against-one, but that’s not what’s on my mind.

No, the only thought racing through my head is: Freaking. Lima.

I’ve visited Peru three times in the last four years and have been robbed there twice: Once when baggage handlers rifled through my backpack to look for goodies and once again at a Barranco Starbucks with my laptop. At least in terms of travel disasters, Peru has good company. I’ve also been held at gunpoint in Southeast Asia and assigned an office space next to an underfed crocodile in Cambodia. South American airport officials once demanded $100 to print my boarding pass, and an inebriated group of Europeans nearly used my face to make a political point during the Bush years.

Our comfort zones are comfortable for a reason—you know which signals mean danger and which to safely ignore. You know the rules of the road—both literally and figuratively—and you tend to naturally blend in by appearance, language, or dress. But far from home all of that changes. Tourists are often magnets for danger, whether it’s robbery in Sao Paulo and Rio, simple traffic accidents in Iceland, or the infamous scams of Bangkok (Note: Do not buy gems in Bangkok. Do not ever buy gems from a guy who approaches you on the street, period.) We don’t know what watch for, and as a result we stick out like socks and sandals in Paris.

So why do we keep traveling to all of these places when the Grand Canyon is right there, safer and less than half the price to see? It’s because travelers want to see and experience for ourselves. The world is more dangerous because we don’t know how to protect ourselves in a place where spiders the size of tea saucers routinely let themselves into the bedroom, but we go there to see those spiders and to better understand people for whom our horror story is a household nuisance.

The risks and dangers, they’re real. But they’re not stopping determined travelers, nor should they. Instead of shying away from the parts unknown to us, we can better educate ourselves about those risks, as well as cultural norms, to help prevent a sticky situation, or at least aid us in the aftermath.

Firstly, don’t let your blissed-out holiday mindset get the best of you. Too many travel bloggers tell you that the stranger is always friendly and the world always kind. Yes, the stranger is often friendly and the world is often kind, but that’s no reason to ignore your instincts. When your gut says not to walk alone down a dark alley, don’t answer, “But it’s Prague.” It’s easy to put your good sense on hold when on vacation. That’s how a Bangkok gem scam happens. After all, if you were walking down the street at home, would you ever get in a cab with a stranger who promised cheap rubies? I’d like to hope the answer is, “Of course not.”

Try to put that common sense on the front burner if you do get ripped off (or worse). It’s been about two months since I chased those thieves in Barranco in what was an absolutely terrible idea. Had I caught them, what then? I’m not Indiana Jones (despite owning the hat). I’m a nerdy journalist carrying a good 15 extra pounds. That’s a story that ends badly no matter how you write it.

What I should have done was found someone willing to call the police.

When the worst happens, your first step abroad is often the same as your first step at home, although that’s easier said than done. In a place where language or technology barriers might come into play, getting ahold of the cops is tricky. If you need help, whether police or medical or otherwise, seek out the hospitality industry. A hotel or restaurant is the most likely place to have someone on staff who speaks your language and can help place an emergency call.

And go prepared.

Part of staying safe on the road is making sure that, if disaster strikes, you can handle it. Insure your devices, buy travel insurance to ensure access to medical care, and never carry more money than you can afford to lose. Because the truth is, if something goes wrong you probably won’t have time to fix it. Whether it’s robbery or a border guard who demands a suspicious $40 “processing fee,” staying in the area to make things right could take days, weeks, even months depending on where you are. And there’s no guarantee that all that effort will result in the restitution you seek.

If your smartphone or computer vanishes or is held ransom, make sure you’re doing everything you can to protect yourself while you simultaneously seek official aid. Devices are targeted not just because a laptop costs money but because identities are big business. If your phone or computer goes missing, your first step should be to change every password that matters—from bank accounts to Facebook. Then lock down your credit with a security freeze at all three major rating agencies. If you’re able to lock your device, lock it, even if it means never being able to use it again. Chances are, you won’t be getting it back.

The truth is, things go wrong. Sometimes the bad guys win or you don’t see the spider until it bites. When an airport official held my ticket hostage for $100, I paid. When a teenage soldier pointed his rifle at me and said “move,” I moved. (That said, when my office told me about the crocodile, I announced my plans to work from home.)

Perhaps the best way to prepare for trouble abroad is to accept it as possibility and believe that you can handle whatever’s coming. Besides, it’s not as if danger only exists beyond our own borders. I got my broken nose during an attempted mugging in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the most terrifying moment in my life was when a man jumped into my car at a Connecticut red light and said “drive.”

Seeing the world inevitably comes with some risk, but with a little common sense and planning, you can protect yourself while still making the most of your travels.