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Travel Safety Abroad: How To Avoid Becoming A Victim

(May 2001)

While on or planning a vacation, you don't want to think about being the victim of a crime. Whether you are a seasoned world traveler or just heading out on a family vacation, travel safety is an important issue that you cannot afford to overlook. The recent disappearance of veteran travel writer Claudia Kirschhoch in Negril, Jamaica, (who is still missing as of this writing) should make us all think. Kirschhoch, a 29 year old editor for Frommer's Travel Guides, was on a press tour of Beaches, an upscale resort owned by Sandals. She disappeared on May 29 from the posh resort and has not been seen or heard from since. Even a massive search effort by the Jamaican police and the FBI has failed to turn up any clues regarding her disappearance.

Jamaica is an extremely popular tourist destination. The warm turquoise waters, pristine white sand beaches, and the "no problem, mon" Jamaican hospitality lure vacationers by the thousands. Most tourists have a great time and often return. However, the Frommer's guide to Jamaica, warns, "Jamaica can be a tranquil and intriguing island, but there's no denying that it's plagued by crime and drugs." Even with that said, the country still does not deserve to be crossed off your travel itinerary.

No matter how travel savvy we think we are, the fact is that visiting foreign countries means exposure to different way of life. These differences are what entice us to travel in the first place. Every country has different rules, language, customs, and culture. If you don't understand the rules, you are putting yourself at risk. As with travel anywhere, caution and common sense are always your best guides.

Go Native

Knowledge is one key to successful travel. Become an informed traveler. Knowing beforehand what hazards and hassles you may encounter -- and how to deal with them -- will make your trip not only more rewarding, but also safer and less intimidating. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • One thing that can enhance your safety is to try to blend in the best you can. In other words, try not to look like a tourist.
  • Always remember that when you're in a foreign country you are an ambassador of your home country. Show respect by being polite and courteous.
  • Always research the destination to which you plan to travel. Go on the Internet and read posts on newsgroups, forums, and bulletin boards that are relevant to your destination. Often you will find great tips from travelers who have already been there.
  • If you can, find English versions of local newspapers. This is one way to become familiar with the native lifestyle as well as current, local happenings.
  • Become aware of possible threats by visiting the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings site for such information.

Street Smarts

It is important to remember that tourists make tempting targets for thieves. Even in the safest of countries, it is always a good idea to get into a routine that will make you less of a target for crime. Blend in with your surroundings as much as possible, and practice good street smarts:
  • Passports are the world's hottest commodities. Keep them safe. Be sure to keep copies of your passport, and hide the original. Carry three copies of your passport and other relevant information: two in separate areas of your baggage and one on your body.
  • Do not carry your wallet in your back pocket. Place it in a front pocket, and only carry small amounts of cash. One good tip is to use a "dummy wallet" with $20 or less in small denominations. If you are robbed, turn over your dummy wallet immediately.
  • Use sock wallets or black nylon hideaway pouches attached to your belt or worn under your clothing for extra cash or other important items.
  • No matter how convenient it may be, do not carry purses or wear fanny packs or belt bags. These scream "tourist!" It doesn't take much for a thief to pull or cut these bags off you. Backpacks are also a bad idea because thieves can steal items by slitting a hole in the bottom.
  • Don't display expensive jewelry, cameras, bags, or other items that might draw attention. If you are traveling in a high crime area, consider using a disposable camera.
  • Speak with the bellman, concierge, and front desk regarding safe areas around the city to jog, dine, or sightsee. Ask about local customs and which taxi companies to use or avoid.
  • Be discreet with your maps. Maps advertise that you are a tourist.
  • When walking around cities and towns, travel in small groups or at least in pairs. Do not use short cuts, narrow alleys, or poorly lit streets. Try not to travel alone at night.
  • Your body language says a lot about you. If you are unaware of what is going on around you or if you look confused, you could become a target. Always walk as if you know what you are doing and have a purpose. Even if you are lost, at least give the impression that you are confident. Do not walk aimlessly, pointing and talking loudly.
  • Keep all important information on a need-to-know basis. Never share travel plans with strangers.
  • ATMs are becoming more available worldwide. It is best to use them during daylight hours when many people are around.

    Lastly, don't ignore your instincts. If you have a gut feeling that something is not right, it probably isn't. Heed your inner conscience; move on, and get out.

Beware Of Scams

Sadly, no matter where you travel there are people looking for opportunities to take advantage of visitors. Crimes against travelers are crimes of opportunity. To play it safe, understand some common scams used around the globe.

  • Beware of scam artists posing as undercover policeman who ask to see your money to determine if it is counterfeit.
  • In parts of Europe, hustlers have devised a cunning new scam. It begins with a man approaching tourists asking if they would like to change some money. Moments later an official-looking man in a suit appears, flashing an ID card, asking what is going on, and explaining that there has been illegal money-changing and drug-dealing in the area. He then demands to check the tourists' documents and cash. To appear convincing, he first checks the other man's wallet before moving on to those of the real tourists. In this whirlwind routine, money is palmed away without the tourists' realizing it.
  • Beware of vagrant children, normally in groups of four or five, who are often expert criminals. While one of them tries to divert your attention by showing you something, even an object as simple as a piece of cardboard, another will pick your pocket. Try to avoid them if you see them coming. If you are forced to walk by them just let them see that you know what they have in mind, and they will leave you alone.
  • Purse snatchers and briefcase thieves are known to work hotel bars and restaurants waiting for unknowing guests to drape these items on chairs or set them under tables. Keep items in view or "in touch."
  • Criminals often use areas around public telephones to stage pickpocket activity or theft. Keep briefcases and purses in view or "in touch" while using phones. Caution is urged in safeguarding telephone credit card numbers. Criminals wait for callers to announce credit card numbers on public phones and then sell the numbers for unauthorized use.
  • Be alert to scams involving an unknown person spilling a drink or food on your clothing. An accomplice may be preparing to steal your wallet, purse, or briefcase while you are distracted.
  • Beware of strangers who approach you offering bargains or to be your guide.
  • Beware of pickpockets. They often have an accomplice who will jostle you, ask you for directions or the time, point to something spilled on your clothing, or otherwise distract you by creating a disturbance.
  • Do not accept food or drink from strangers. Criminals have been known to drug food or drink offered to tourists. If you order a canned or bottled liquid, make sure it is unopened when you get it. If it is open, refuse it.
  • To rob people, criminals in many countries are using a drug called scopolamine. The usual procedure is that someone approaches you, opens a newspaper or similar object, and blows the powder in your face, rendering you unconscious. Scopolamine is also put into food and drinks in restaurants.

These tips are not meant to scare you away from travel but rather are meant to prepare you. When you set off to explore any new place, it is always wise to do some advance research so you'll know a little better what to expect. Keeping aware and using common sense as your guide will go a long way in safeguarding yourself, your family, and your vacation memories.

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