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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46 Comments (2 pingbacks)

  1. Sorry for the unfortunate situation. I always choose to learn from mistakes to avoid them happening again. While living in NYC, I too was robbed. On the subway, by someone next to me who I had a funny feeling about. I feel when traveling you can try your best to plan and do everything right, but pairing the planning with street smarts will always pay off! Best of luck on your journey!

    Reply

  2. Sorry to hear you got robbed, even if it wasn’t life threatening nothing feels worse than getting robbed/pickpocketed! I’ve been robbed once when it really hurt, in a fancy Starbucks in Shanghai of all places. And once in Colombia John got pick pocketed but they only got a few dollars. The best thing you can do is what you are doing, learn from the experience and be more aware next time.

    Just to cheer you up: we did a graphic design blog about the different schemes that people use to pick pocket that either happened to us or to people we know. http://www.hopandjaunt.com/blog/travel/common-pick-pocket-schemes/

    Reply

    • We definitely won’t let it happen again and it has been a good lesson in stepping up security and keeping the minimum in our wallet.

      I love the graphic post! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply

  3. Sorry to hear this happened to you. Others will probably say you’re lucky it has only happened once traveling that long through Latin America, but it still sucks. I got robbed my first day of a year-long trip through Latin America in Quito. I was lucky like you and didn’t lose anything important or expensive. I think that experience saved me from a worse theft/ robbery scenario later in the trip because I am super-cautious now. Zippered or velcro pockets, locks on backpacks, and my money belt are all must-dos when moving between destinations.

    I have also noticed that when I get angry or upset about something, I forget how to speak Spanish. Not sure how to solve that problem though.

    Reply

    • Sorry to hear you got robbed too. I’ve heard that a few times about Quito. But as you say it’s a good learning experience. I’ve heard of people losing everything – passports, cards, money, and can’t imagine how difficult that must be to sort out.

      Reply

  4. Getting robbed overseas is an awful experience, I was cornered and robbed by an elderly woman and a small child in Vietnam who pretended that they were trying to sell me a magazine. Fortunately I wasn’t carrying much with me and they only got my phone (which had cost me $25).

    I’m glad that you are okay, thanks for sharing your experience – it is easy to get complacent when things have been going well for a while and although you want to trust people you should always trust your instincts.

    I am also pleased to hear that you have had very few incidents like this in South America. I am going there for the first time in September and am a bit worried about streetcrime like this.

    Reply

    • We really felt safe in South America although because of the long distances we often got the luxury overnight buses (in Argentina and Peru at least) and this is probably safer. It pays to be cautious but don’t worry too much.

      Reply

  5. Do you two have a PayPal donate thing set up? In the event of a disaster like this, should the damage be worse than a $30 hit, it could be a life-saver. I know I’d donate and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Just a thought.

    Reply

    • Ah, that’s sweet of you to say! We don’t have a donate button, and I think we’d feel a bit bad asking people to contribute for our own silly mistake. Thanks though!

      Reply

  6. A great post and a timely reminder that you can never let your guard down, no matter how long you have been travelling.

    Great blog by the way.

    Reply

  7. You’re lucky you weren’t robbed violently. Everywhere you go, there will be ladrones, so stay alert. Thanks for sharing this slightly embarrassing story, I liked the what we did right & wrong lists. If nothing else, then it’s been at least a great learning experience.

    Reply

  8. Ugh, That story blows! Sorry you guys got robbed. I was once held up at gunpoint in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. The guy got my $30 pesos but I said no when he asked for my iPod. In hindsight it was a pretty brazen move. More scams to avoid on my

    Reply

  9. I carry my personal USB key on a cord that is tied to my belt loop on my pants and tucked into my pocket. Difficult to fall out, be stolen or get lost. Also it is kept separate from my computer so i don’t lose both at the same time. The cord makes it easy to find the key when I take it off. I do still need to upgrade an encrypted key. Sorry to read of your experience and thank-you for sharing the advice.

    Reply

    • That’s a much better idea. We actually don’t need it anymore as the most important files are backed up online (in addition to our main hard drive, separate from laptop), but we were carrying it out of habit.

      Reply

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