The Cost of Being Robbed While Traveling Abroad

Let me start by acknowledging that yes, it could have been much worse, and for that matter, it could have been much more expensive. But still, a man walked away with my purse, the police were disinterested at best, and I’ve had to shell out money and accept that some things are just gone.

I’ve been traveling solo for 14 out of the last 20 months, so I figure I know how to look after myself and my stuff. But it’s easy to get complacent in that time, and complacency leads to carelessness; all it takes is a moment of carelessness, if an opportunistic thief is around.

I was sitting on a low wall in a plaza in Cusco, Peru, soaking up the afternoon sun and writing in my journal. I had my purse to my left, touching my thigh, although the strap that I usually wrap around my wrist was dangling loosely, not attached to me at all, as it turns out. I didn’t even notice the man walk by and pick up my purse—that’s how smooth he was and how absorbed I must have been in my writing. I looked over to check the time, and my purse wasn’t there. My brain couldn’t quite process this. I checked behind me, in case it had fallen over. There was nothing. My brain started to catch up. I leapt to my feet and looked around frantically, but my purse was nowhere to be found. I asked the people around me if they had seen my purse (or rather, in my halting Spanish, I asked, “Where is my purse? My purse?” over and over). A teenaged couple giggled at me and suggested that a local man had stolen it, but that’s all they knew or were willing to say.

I couldn’t believe it, I still can’t believe it; this couldn’t happen to me, but it did. I’m mad at myself for being careless. I’m furious at the thief. I’m ready to leave town.

I’m fortunate that it wasn’t violent, and that it wasn’t my money belt. Here are some costs of a more serious robbery, if my money belt had been taken: $110, the cost to renew a passport at the embassy here (they charge you the full amount to renew if they’re replacing your lost or stolen passport); $200 in cash I keep for emergencies; $100 to ship new credit cards from my parents’ house to me (the credit cards themselves wouldn’t carry a cost, although my debit cards might be $5 each, but the real killer is the shipping costs from North America to South America).

The tourist policeman, dressed in an olive green uniform trimmed in gold braid, spoke to me rapidly in Spanish. I did my best to reply. Usually, my height and weight mean that not many people can intimidate me physically, but this guy, who was slightly shorter than me, pushed himself in my face and yelled, and I was already feeling scared and vulnerable, so I shrank back, which I hate. Any time I didn’t understand something, he just yelled louder, in the time-honored way of insensitive brutes everywhere.

We drove past the scene of the crime, which Yell Louder didn’t seem very interested in, and then carried on to the police station. Since it was a Sunday, only a skeleton crew was working in the small office. (None of the officers wore nametags, and they never introduced themselves to me, so I’m sticking with nicknames.) I’d never been robbed before, but I figured they’d want a list of what was stolen, so I had it ready when Yell Louder asked for it. I sat in a corner and cried a little with my head in my hands, while Yell Louder and his friend joked with a man sitting in a chair similar to mine. A little later, a different policeman entered the room and put handcuffs on the guy they’d all been joking with and feeding snacks to. This did not inspire confidence.

Neither did how long it took to prepare the report. Yell Louder was painstakingly copying my list by hand, on carbon paper. Carbon paper. I asked if we could look at the cameras that everyone assures me are all over Cusco, but he said not until we had the report. A few times, he walked my list across the room to a man with rimless glasses and a severe expression, and they whispered a little, and he returned to his desk. Eventually, I realized that he was asking Glasses for help translating, which meant that Glasses spoke at least some English. Here I was, crying by myself in the corner, at one point begging this room of all-male officers for some toilet paper because the bathroom didn’t have any and all my extra tissues were in my stolen purse. I was doing all this in my broken Spanish, and this guy could’ve helped, could’ve explained what was going on? Glasses was now Secret Bilingual.

Eventually, Yell Louder finished up the handwritten report. He handed it to me to inspect, then yelled most of the report over my shoulder while I tried to read. I signed and fingerprinted it, he stamped it with a few official stamps, and then he left. I was alone in the room with Secret Bilingual, who explained—in perfect English—that he was now going to type this up. I am not sure why we needed carbon paper in the first place, when we had these newfangled computing machines at hand, but mine is not to question why, mine is to get the police report.

While Secret Bilingual typed away with two fingers, I walked over to inspect the one poster in the room. It was written in English, and it warned tourists that making a false police report is a serious crime that the Peruvian government will pursue vigorously. This jogged my memory; there was a little note in my guidebook about a recent increase in false reports, which makes the police more reluctant to investigate claims. Thanks, false reporters of the world! Now I reconsider my approach from the beginning, which was to try to rein in my panic and tears, to stay strong. If I’d broken down into hysterics, would they have been more likely to believe and assist me?

A copy of a police report in Cusco: -7 Peruvian Nuevo Soles (it’s about 3 soles to 1 dollar)

While printing and stamping the report, SB makes a point of telling me that usually they charge 7 soles to give people a copy, but because it is Sunday and the bank is closed, they will generously give me this for free today. I was sitting in a part of the park with no cameras, so they will not look at those, he says. He has me write down my email address, and he says they’ll email if the investigation turns up anything. They will not turn up anything; he has already told me it is “very unlikely” that anything will be recovered, and he hopes I have insurance.

A taxi to my hostel from the police station: 4 PEN ($1.44)

I ask how I will get back to my hostel. SB says maybe a cop car will come by later, and maybe they can give me a ride, maybe not. Amazingly, I have a few soles in my jacket pocket, so I use those to get away as quickly as possible. The taxi driver initially wants six soles, but when I explain I literally only have four, he agrees, which is the nicest anyone has been to me in the last three hours.

Recovery drinks at The Wild Rover: 15 PEN ($5.38)

When I return to my hostel, I seek out friendly faces, and I find a couple people who immediately suggest we get dinner and drinks, which is exactly what I need to hear. I buy a couple drinks during happy hour at the party hostel The Wild Rover, and my friends each buy me a drink as well. I sing “Jolene” during the open mic, which earns me a fan club of Swedish 20-year-olds, so that helps too.

Scanning and printing costs at Internet cafés: 4 PEN ($1.44)

The next day, I submit my claim via the website of my insurance company. I assemble the necessary documents—a copy of the police report, receipts of purchase, pictures showing me using the items I don’t have receipts for, a copy of my passport—and email them to the claims address. I receive a short reply alerting me that it takes about four weeks to process claims.

The amount I claimed for, the big items: $440

I had just bought an iPhone 5 in February, and was pretty pleased with my first smartphone. The four things I miss the most: the 50 photos, some of them of Machu Picchu, that I hadn’t yet uploaded so will never see again; the 23 GB of music I listened to daily; the white noise app that made it possible for me to sleep in noisy hostel rooms (earplugs don’t cut it); and WhatsApp, which let me text my siblings and new friends regularly. I also claimed for the waterproof iPhone case, the e-reader, and the purse itself. I have never claimed for stolen belongings through my travel insurance, so I don’t know how much of the money I’ll recover. Believe me, I know I’m lucky to have ever had this stuff in the first place.

The value of the other items in my purse: $95

My purse also contained my glasses (I was wearing my prescription sunglasses, which is lucky, and I have a spare pair of glasses I’m using now), a scarf I bought in Italy 10 years ago, a bandana of the Rocky Mountains my aunt gave me when I went on my first big trip, my few bits of makeup, and the medicines and odds and ends I always carry. Also $10 in USD and 156 soles, which is about $50. I can’t claim for any of this stuff. It’s just gone.

Scarf and mp3 player: 100 PEN ($35.89)

Over the next couple days, I bought a couple replacement items that I can’t do without. It is very cold at this altitude, so I needed a scarf immediately. I went for a rainbow chevron pattern, and told myself that a scarf in Peru for a scarf in Italy is a fair trade. I can’t function properly without music, so I went to the local electronics shop and bought a tiny mp3 player.

The books I’d bought for my Nook which cannot be recovered: $50

Goodbye, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and a few other books I’d bought for my Nook but hadn’t yet read. Those aren’t stored anywhere else, so I’ll have to repurchase them or get in line at the library.

In all, I lost about $585 in material items and cash, and I spent another $40 or so replacing things, comforting myself, and making insurance claims. That’s a pretty steep price for a moment’s stupidity, and one I’d rather not have had to pay at all. I’ve found that for every three travelers I tell the story to, one of them has a similar tale of an expensive moment of carelessness. It’s nice to have people to commiserate with. It’s good to see that life carries on, and so do the travels. I’ve always advocated being cautious but not paranoid while traveling, and I still think this is the right balance. Still, as I head to Bolivia next week, I might be clutching my bag a little more tightly.

 

See also: “How Real People Afford to Travel the World For Extended Periods of Time”

Lisa Findley writes about her travel adventures—good and bad—at Stowaway.

Photo: Danielle Pereira

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32 Comments / Post A Comment

OllyOlly (#669)

When I studied abroad in Spain our coordinator was like “at least five of you will be robbed before the semester is over.” I was thinking, “no way we have been warned so many times! Everyone will be so careful!”

And yuuuuuup five of us were robbed [pick pocketed might be more appropriate, nothing violent], plus two friends that can to visit me from their program in Paris, which I kind of felt personally guilty about. Basically, everyone lets their guard down eventually.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@OllyOlly Yeah, I actually made the mistake of saying out loud to a fellow traveler once, “Oh, if I get robbed, it’ll have to be violent, because I am always super careful.” Famous last words, etc.

raptoresq (#6,612)

Why didn’t you make a claim for all of the items that you lost, including the Nook books and the cash? Just because you don’t have a picture of something or a receipt doesn’t mean you can’t claim it. And there should be some record of the nook book purchases, no? E-mails or something?

Also, you can’t recover the nook books via barnes and noble? Aren’t they associated with your nook account or whatever?

Stowaway (#5,169)

@raptoresq Hmm, you know, it’s a good idea about receipts for the Nook books. I’m guessing if I claim again, it’ll look like I’m scamming the insurance company (assuredly not so), but I’m not sure. Does anyone know?

@Stowaway

The books themselves aren’t gone, so I definitely would not claim for them. I would change all your passwords on the accounts/apps that were on your phone. And it’s possible your iphone had backed up the photos to icloud if you had been in a wifi area between taking them and losing the phone.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@emmycantbemeeko Another failure of a techno-idiot: I did not have the phone set up to automatically update to icloud, and I didn’t set up Find My iPhone, either. I know, I know! Lesson painfully learned. Passwords were all changed immediately, though, and there’s been so suspicious activity on any of my accounts, so that’s great. According to most people I’ve met down here, the common thing is to just wipe the phone and sell it as quickly as possible, rather than go for personal data.

raptoresq (#6,612)

@Stowaway We’re talking about a scarf, some makeup, some medicine and like fifty bucks. It’s not like “OMG I forgot about my laptop my pearl earrings my cartier wristwatch and eight grand in various currencies.”

Just be honest. “Hey I was a stressed out by the incident and didn’t think to claim this stuff. Here’s my amended claims report.”

Also, re: scam. You got a police report. Very smart thing to do, insurance-wise.

If they won’t pay, there’s a magic phrase you can invoke: “bad faith.”

Insurance companies are statutorily obligated to resolve claims fairly and expeditiously. They can decline coverage based on exclusions in the policy, but if you have theft protection, I don’t know why this wouldn’t be covered.

Source of knowledge: I’m an insurance attorney (although I’ve never dealt with travel insurance either personally or professionally).

Stowaway (#5,169)

@raptoresq Thanks for the advice! The insurance company processed my claim faster than expected, and I recouped almost all my costs, which is good. I might still do an amended report, but even if I don’t, things turned out okay.

You can redownload the Nook books on to another iteration of the Nook app. I realize that’s cold comfort while you’re without a tablet or phone, but whenever you do get another smart device, your books will be waiting for you in your bn.com account.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@emmycantbemeeko That is comforting, actually! See how good I am at this technology stuff…

MollyAuden (#6,292)

Great piece, and very sorry to hear about your robbery, Lisa. But since you mention this was your first robbery in many months of traveling, could you perhaps share with us how you successfully avoided/prevented robbery before this incident? There’s lots of advice online, but to the uninitiated it is tough to tell what’s actually necessary and useful and what is less so. E.g. did you always sleep with your money belt on? What backups did you carry? And how and where did you carry sensitive documents? I think this might be useful to many of us.

snackspace (#5,835)

@MollyAuden Yes! This. Especially when the only preventative advice seems always to come from an Aunt who is clutching her pearls and invoking some story about gypsies gassing sleeper trains and stealing valuables and wondering why you are going in the first place.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@MollyAuden Sure! I originally posted some tips here, and there are good ideas in the comments too: http://lisafindley.com/2011/08/30/three-steps-to-keeping-your-belongings-safe-on-the-road/

Other specific tips:
*I lock my passport and credit cards in the hostel lockers (using the small lock I carry with me, or some hostels will rent or sell you locks). I keep my money belt in the locker, don’t sleep with it.
*I only bring a credit or debit card with me when I know I’m going to be taking money out or making a big purchase with a credit card.
*I carry a copy of my passport in my purse as a matter of course when I’m in another country.
*I keep things separate–one credit card in one bag, another credit card in another.
*Don’t leave your electronics when you’re charging them in a hostel. Many hostels have lockers with outlets in them, so you can lock them up while charging and go do something with your day. If that’s not a possibility, be sure you’re in the same room as your electronics when you’re charging them. Thieves are far too often your fellow travelers.
*If you’re using your smartphone as an alarm and thus have it with you in bed, keep it under your pillow, if you’re in a dorm room. I did hear one horror story of a girl hitting snooze on her smartphone alarm, and when she woke up again 9 minutes later, someone had taken the phone from her hand. Yikes.

Hope that helps!

Renee (#6,682)

@Stowaway This is all awesome advice. I also recommend getting a cross body purse preferably with a leather strap. My wallet was literally cut out of my purse while getting on to the metro in Athens. If you have a cross body purse you can leave it wrapped around you while you are sitting.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@Renee Yep, cross-body straps are great. When you’re at a cafe or restaurant, keep the purse between your feet the whole time, or better yet, on your lap.

Oh, and since this just happened to a friend of mine: if you’re leaving your bag with your friends while you’re at the toilet, tell your friends! This woman left her bag with them but didn’t point it out, and they didn’t notice it. But a thief did. She came back from the bathroom and said, “Where’s my bag?” Her friends said, “What bag?”

Sorry, this sounds like more pearl-clutching, but so much of it is just being aware of what you have, and making others aware if need be.

megsy (#1,565)

@Stowaway I always carry my passport with me because, as a foreigner, it’s often the only acceptable piece of identification. My money belt is with me 24/7 when I travel, wrapped around my waist during the day and in my sleep sack (which I always use, I don’t care how clean the sheets look… my silk sleep sack is comfy) when I’m at night. I have a day wallet and I usually sleep with that as well.

Another thing: invest in a portable power pack for times when you want to charge your electronics but can’t do it when you’re in the room. Portable power packs are cheap, not that attractive of a target and you can charge your electronics in your locker without worrying about it too much. I’ve been backpacking through Europe and have yet to see a hostel with power-integrated lockers. I’m sure they’re out there, but even the fanciest lockers (key card operated!) I’ve seen haven’t had them.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@megsy Okay, if that works for you! But I am very wary of carrying my passport everywhere. I generally don’t need identification except maybe to sign into my hotel (and I have it in my money belt at that time anyway), or if I’m buying something with a credit card (like when I got a new camera in Lima).

megsy (#1,565)

@Stowaway I’ve been asked for it several times or stopped at checkpoints, especially when off the beaten track. I don’t know where you travel but anytime I’m asked by a soldier or policeman with a gun to produce my passport I’m glad I have it! I think it last happened on a major trip when I was in Colombia, but that was about six years ago. Also, lots of bars in smaller towns in the US (for a close to home example) only accept passports from Canadian citizens which is really annoying.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@megsy Ah yes, US bars are picky about ID. I didn’t know that they wouldn’t accept a Canadian driver’s license though–how annoying.

youngpreeezy (#6,686)

Thank you for sharing your story! This has always been one of my worst fears when travelling abroad – losing any or all necessary info (especially your passport) in a foreign country.

If it makes you feel any better (though it probably won’t) I had my purse stolen in the exact same way, with almost the exact same response (“where’s my purse?? what happened to my purse?”) and was met with the same lack of enthusiasm by the local police. It was in DC and I was a junior in college at the time, was meeting up with a friend of a friend for dinner to show her around town, and someone simply walked out of the restaurant with my purse in hand, without me even noticing until later. I asked other patrons in the restaurant by the time I noticed – no one saw anything. It took police 2 hours to show up after I called and all they could do was file a police report and said the same thing to me– that they most likely wouldn’t find the culprit. They said it’s most likely that whoever stole my purse just grabbed cash, credit cards, and trashed the rest.

The police report actually helped in some aspects – I had schoolbooks I needed to return but no longer had the receipts because they were in that purse. My school bookstore accepted the return and refunded in full with the police report number. The thief had charged my debit card before I was able to cancel it, and my bank replaced that money for free because of the police report number as well.

For a long time after, I’d clutch my purse tightly and would obsessively feel around inside to make sure my wallet and phone were still there. It hasn’t happened to me since, and I’ll be travelling to Europe next week, so knock on wood…

Safe travels to Bolivia!

Stowaway (#5,169)

@youngpreeezy Yeah, I’m crossing my fingers this was the worst of it. Bolivia has been fine so far, thanks!

That’s a rotten story from DC. I’m glad the police report was helpful, even if the police weren’t particularly.

cryptolect (#1,135)

I had an experience in Argentina that might make you feel better… After arriving by bus in either Humahuaca or Purmamarca (I can’t remember) and having lunch in the park, I noticed my wallet was gone and tried not to panic. I retraced my steps to the bus station and walked around asking if anyone had seen it, but of course no one had. Then a little girl came up to me and tugged at my elbow. Turns out, I had just left my wallet on a park bench, someone brought it to the police, and they had sent her out to find me! So if you hit Argentina, I highly suggest visiting Purmamarca. Or Humahuaca. They’re both lovely.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@cryptolect Oh how excellent! I generally find that people are pretty great everywhere I go, as your story shows. I just happened to have rotten luck with people this time.

Susan Tidebeck (#5,691)

Cusco is notorious for this type of robbery. There must be hundreds a week. I like how the police always try to help by acting like they are doing you a great favor. Of course we all just follow along with it. You were fortunate that your passport was not in your purse. You are a seasoned traveler.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@Susan Tidebeck Yeah, none of the locals I told about it were surprised; it is pretty common.

readyornot (#816)

I am so sorry you had a robbery happen! I totally relate to feeling stupid and hating the bureaucracy of it all. I was working abroad and traveling for fun in Diego, Madagascar when I had a robbery happen. I had left my passport, a few credit cards, some cash, and a cell phone locked in a hotel safe and had it stolen. It must have been an inside job by a staffperson at the hotel, since they needed a key to our room and to the safe, and I was only gone for an hour and a half maximum. I don’t normally leave that many items, but I just didn’t want to take them where we were walking on the beach, especially if we got in the water.

It all ended up OK, of course, but it was stressful because we were due to fly back to the capital city the next morning, a flight we almost missed due to getting the carbon copy police report which took hours to produce, and I was then scheduled to leave the country completely a mere 48 hours later. I was lucky to have my airline tickets, some cash, a photocopy of my passport, visa, credit cards, and driver’s license stored elsewhere, and a really kind friend to get me through it all.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@readyornot Oh that’s rotten, when you’re pretty sure it’s someone working for the hotel who did it. You want to feel like your stuff is safe wherever you’re staying.

Jull (#5,296)

Never say never! I also hoped it will never happen to me, but the trouble came the most unsuitable moment as it usually actually happens, I have just got a loan from Personal Money Service, when my purse with the whole sum has been stolen. The craziest thing about it that I could not figure out the moment it happened and I hate all those formalities with police.

bergenia (#6,712)

I don’t carry a regular purse or money belt when I travel. I have a small, slender neck wallet with a strap long enough to go cross body as well. It is large enough for passport, cash, credit card and driver’s license, phone, and a few other items like aspirin and gum. I can wear it outside my clothing, but I can also drop it inside my shirt around my neck, which makes it much more secure. Therefore, there is nothing of particular value in the larger bag I sometimes carry for my water bottle, sweatshirt, etc. I often don’t even need to bring a bag at all.

Jess (#6,713)

I’m really impressed with how graciously you handled this whole crummy incident. Well played!
Also, I’m a toolshed. I send you the Nook books you lost before realizing that 1. you don’t HAVE an effing Nook or iPhone to read them on, and 2. You can probably re-download them. Fail. (In my excuse, I’m super sleepy.) But at any rate, your friends are thinking of you and cheering you on from all over the globe! Suck it, Peruvian Klepto Asshat and Yell Louder.

Stowaway (#5,169)

@Jess Hardly, you are lovely for thinking of me and sending me a gift. Thank you so much.

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