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.


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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46 Comments (2 pingbacks)

  1. Shit, sorry guys, just an annoying piss-off more than anything – hey?

    We were robbed only once in S.A. and it was a similar thing – we let our guard down. We thought it would be *okay*, *just this one time* to put our bag above us on the overhead rack. Sure enough, un ladron pulled the bag back and took my North Face rain jacket. Bugger.

    90% of the time, that’s how the story goes…just silly mistakes…

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    • It is easy to let your guard down when nothing has happened in a long time, and of course that’s when it happens! Sorry to hear you lost your jacket. Stuff like that can be the worst because they are so hard to replace abroad.

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  2. Hey!!! Really glad you are both OK! Smart to cancel the card right away! It’s hard to remember when you are in the moment what to do!!! Just happy you didn’t get hurt!:)

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  3. So sorry to hear guys. You know more and more Ive learned that trusting my instincts is better than worrying about being rude.

    But what a rotten way to be robbed.

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  4. We’ve avoided a few close calls by keeping our bags between our legs or wrapping the straps around our legs while sitting at cafes. It sounds obvious, but a few times now I’ve seen travelers relaxing while some one snatches their stuff and runs. We once had some one give a tug on our bag before realizing it was wrapped around my husband’s leg (in Buenos Aires). Foiled ’em!

    That said, I’ve been pickpocketed without knowing it (Buenos Aires) and I was also the victim of a false front ATM in Ecuador and got taken for my limit every day until I figured it out. Live and learn!

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    • The cafe thing is definitely a good idea. We usually remember that, especially in cities.

      I guess it can happen to anyone, even if you are ultra careful.

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  5. We are all glad that you are both safe – things can be replaced, but you can’t! We agree with all the precautions you are taking about spreading the risk and keeping as much as possible in zipped/locked places. It’s also hard to be suspicious all the time – it’s much nicer to believe that people are basically good, and have the same set of moral codes as you do! Thinking about it, getting off the bus/plane last is a good tip – Dave and I usually try and avoid the rush, but that’s more about us being lazy. I think now it’s good advice! Look after yourselves! xx

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    • We are both fine and it could have been way worse. It’s always shocking when it happens at first, but I think we’ve recovered now!

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  6. So sorry that you had to deal with this especially in your last few weeks in central America. I’m so glad that too much wasn’t taken. Glad y’all are okay and keep your chin up – I think you did better than most in that situation.

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    • Isn’t it strange that it happened as we arrived at our last stop in Central America? At least it means we’ll be back in the UK for a visit in 2 months and can pick up our replacement card.

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  7. That sucks guys! Zippered pockets are a must, no matter how un-fashionable they are. REI has great shorts with 4 different zippered pockets that actually look normal. I love em’. REI Shorts

    I’m also a big fan of re-usable zip ties for my daypack. Less cumbersome than locks, someone’s got to cut them off or know how to unzip them (doubtful).

    They look like regular zip-ties, but can be unzipped by depressing a tiny release. Re-Usable Zip Ties

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  8. That sucks. Sorry that happened to you guys. Hopefully nothing too important is on the USB stick the thief(s) would be more interested in the money. I imagine traveling days can be very stressful, huh?

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    • I think it would take a hardcore hacker to do anything with the USB stick and they didn’t look that smart! It’s incidents like this that really make you step up your security practices though.

      Travelling days can be stressful (and tiring) although this was a really easy one up until that point. It certainly was stressful afterwards!

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  9. Damn, that sucks. Sorry to hear that it happened, but it seems like the damage was limited. Glad you’re both okay!

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  10. Don’t beat yourselves up too much – it’s far better to be too trusting than too suspicious most of the time. Glad there was not too much harm done and you’re both okay.

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