How We Were Robbed and How to Avoid It

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Yesterday we were robbed. We only lost $30, a debit card, and a USB drive but what stung the most was that we let it happen.

In over two years of travel this has never happened to us. Our debit card was cloned during the first week of our first round the world trip but the bank promptly refunded the £600 loss and it didn’t affect us much. We had a near miss in Rio, but again we didn’t actually lose anything. Despite the horror stories we often hear, during the last 14 months in Latin America we’ve felt entirely safe and street smart.

So how did we let this happen?

We were reluctantly leaving our countryside retreat Establos San Rafael and returning to civilization. As we arrived in Alajuela on the bus from San Jose Simon got up to get off the crowded bus. As he retrieved his guitar from the overhead storage I noticed he was blocked in place by a group of young men, moving strangely and apparently trying to get their own luggage down. I had a bad feeling and called to Simon to get back into his seat. He didn’t hear what I was saying and I began to doubt myself. Maybe he was safer getting off the bus. Maybe I was being ridiculous.

Simon had the same concerned feeling and kept his hands in his pockets. But as people moved forward he experienced doubts too, let his guard down, and needing to carry his luggage stopped holding his wallet. The jostling happened again and this time it was too late: as he reached the front of the bus the wallet was gone.

He shouted back to me (still in my seat) what had happened and we were confused what to do. Was it the guys behind him that he was blocking getting off the bus? Surely it was the men in front who were already gone? I lamely cried “Ladron” (thief), naively hoping a local would come to our rescue. It was met with indifference. Not knowing how to accuse the guys in Spanish, Simon let them off the bus.

As I got off I told the driver what had happened. He shrugged.

Fuck.

We assessed the damage. Thank God: the expensive iPod Touch was still there, hidden in Simon’s zipped pocket. There wasn’t too much cash in the wallet, and just one bank card.

The only unknown was the USB stick: what documents were on there?

How had we let them get away with such a blatant, clumsy robbery? It was this that hurt more than the losses. We hadn’t trusted our instincts. We had wanted to trust the people around us and not assume the worst.

Still, we realised we were lucky. We hadn’t lost much. We had back up bank cards. It wasn’t violent and we hadn’t been held up at gunpoint like our friend Jaime recently, also in Costa Rica.

Looking back, we did some things right and some things wrong and we’d like to share our tips on avoiding robberies while travelling.

What We Did Right

Have Zipped Pockets – This is when specially designed travel clothes are really useful. Simon’s shorts and North Face trousers both have a hidden zipped pocket. It was this that saved our iPod from getting stolen. Shame both pockets didn’t have zips so the wallet could have been more secure too. I honestly think it’s worth getting this tailored in.

Wear a Money Belt – Many long term travellers sneer at wearing a money belt but this is what prevented us from losing our passports, most of our cash and bank cards. We only wear them on travel days, when we are most vulnerable with all our possessions. The rest of the time we only take a small amount of cash and one bank card with us in a wallet and lock the rest up in our room.

Have a Lockable Backpack – The thieves could have grabbed things from Simon’s backpack but we deliberately chose side opening backpacks that we can lock up with a combination lock.

Have Multiple Bank Cards – If the debit card that was stolen was our only one we’d have no way of accessing our money. Getting a replacement sent to Central America would have been difficult and time consuming. Thankfully it was a joint account and I still have a card for that account. We also have a number of other debit and credit cards for back ups.

Cancelled the Card – The first thing we did was quickly find a hostel, check in and call our bank using Skype to cancel the card. Obvious, perhaps, but it could be forgotten in the shock.

What We Did Wrong

Didn’t Trust Our Instincts – Our instincts told us that something odd was going on, but we doubted ourselves and felt bad about suspecting the locals on the bus. Although we’d love to trust everyone all the time, you just can’t. I should have insisted Simon got back in his seat, he should have kept a tight grip on his valuables.

Rushed to Get Off – It was the final stop and usually we wait for most people to get off before we do. Not because we worry about getting robbed, it’s just easier. If we had stayed in our seats until the bus emptied, this couldn’t have happened.

Carried a USB Drive in Our Wallet – This is what caused us a lot of stress. What documents did we have on there? Would our online security be compromised? We didn’t think so but just in case we went on a long overdue spree of password changing (making sure we didn’t use the same password for everything, a horribly bad idea). We didn’t even need the USB stick as an extra back up any more as we’d switched to using SugarSync to save our important files online but we should at least have password protected it.

Forgot Our Spanish – In the stress of the moment my Spanish failed me. I couldn’t think of anything to say except ‘Ladron’. Not that it’s easy to confront a suspected thief, even in English.

Although we are pissed off with ourselves for letting it happen we know we are lucky that this is the first time we’ve lost anything, and that we didn’t lose much more.

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Leave a comment and share your tips for keeping your belongings secure while travelling.

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46 Comments (2 pingbacks)

  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It can happen to anybody, and it sounds like you did pretty good. 3 friends of mine, in 3 separate incidents, tried to “save” money by taking the airport bus to San Jose, Costa Rica. This is a route populated by professional pickpockets. Spend the money on a taxi. If you must take the bus, DO NOT BOARD the bus unless there is a seat where you can sit down, and put your backpack on your lap. Forget about putting your backpack in the overhead rack. Then have your valuables well hidden on your body (money belt around waist, or on your legs.) It is excellent to have a wallet with about $10 and an expired credit card or driver’s license. Thieves get this, think they have your loot, and leave.

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    • We haven’t travelled with an ipad but I would imagine the same advice applies as to a laptop. Keep it locked away in your bag or hotel safe when you leave it in your room, and make sure it’s insured.

      Reply

  2. That sucks guys! But you’re very right – it could have been worse. They could have taken more valuable items, or your life could have been threatened. Don’t be too hard on yourselves though!

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  3. Wow, so sorry to hear this has happened. I know I get stressed out in travel situations like that, so it is understandable that you “froze” in your Spanish ability. I’ve traveled lots (though probably not as much as you), and I still get a little nervous sometimes. I’m glad to hear that you use a password encryption program. I personally use Password Gorilla, for what it’s worth.

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  4. You can carry a dummy wallet and keep the true one in a more secure place.In the dummy wallet I carry a credit card that is out of date,just enough money for drinks or to eat. Hope this helps. Leonard

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  5. So sorry to see your last post. I’m glad that you are not being too hard on yourselves . . . you can’t protect yourself against everything, and what kind of travelers would you be if you were constantly paranoid and distrustful of everyone?

    With regard to computer security, I highly recommend two free programs, KeePass and TrueCrypt (if you are not using them already). KeePass allows you to encrypt and organize your passwords, and TrueCrypt enables you to encrypt all or part of your hard drive and USB drives. You can find them both on Google.

    Reply

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