Don’t Let Your Guard Down

Several months ago, I was in a casino in a city with which I am very familiar. I was so comfortable, I almost felt like I owned the place. Yes, my guard was down, and if it weren’t for the hangover I was nursing, I would have been out $500.

I decided to play a little blackjack and went to the bank ATM to withdraw some money. After keying in my PIN number and the amount of my withdrawal, a little old lady (everyone’s grandmother) asked me to read a number on a receipt that the casino’s Frequent Gambler Club ATM had spit out. As I looked over to help her, I saw an hand reach for my cash. I grabbed the wrist, but the young man wrestled away and disappeared in the crowd. Me — the frequent flier, the world traveler, the über-paranoid — I’d been conned. I looked back at the little old lady, and she, too, was gone — no doubt to join her partner in crime.

The story has a happy ending. When I looked back at the ATM, there was a message on the screen indicating that I had keyed in the wrong PIN number. Hmmmmm. I tried again, and got the same message. So I began to think that maybe scammers didn’t get the cash, after all. I tried it one more time, and the machine ate my card. I called the bank and we determined that indeed my money was safe — thanks to one-too-many Tanqueray-and-tonics.

The lesson: You are never as safe as you think you are. There are thousands of ways that travelers get ripped off every year. Prevention is mostly common sense, so heed these 7 tips and hedge your own bets.

Yourself. Make sure your purse or wallet is secure in your front pocket or around your shoulder. Go heavy on credit cards and light on cash. Use the ATM to replenish your cash on a daily basis; your safety is worth more than the ATM charge. Keep your original ID in the hotel safe; bring copies with you when you are out and about. Think about what jewelry and other valuables you really need on this trip. When walking, keep to the curb, stay in well-lit areas, and never be afraid to run to a police station or into an open store if you feel threatened. Finally, mind your look. If you are going to a football game in the United Kingdom, dress the part — heels and furs are not appropriate. Right now, the U.S. image is not as popular in the world as it once was, so dress to blend in. Dressing like an ad for Old Navy might just spell trouble.

Hotels. Safety starts when you book your room. Check out the neighborhood and request an upper-floor room in the middle of the hallway. Lower floors make for an easy escape for a criminal, and stairwells make fantastic hiding places. The front desk clerk should never broadcast your room number; if he does, request another room. If the hotel has a bellman, allow him to enter your room first and turn on all the lights while you check out the room. If there is no bellman to accompany you, prop your door open while you check the room out. And to prevent identity theft, ask the front desk not to slide your bill (with all that personal information about you) under your door on the last morning — pick it up on your way out. Finally, stash your passports and valuables in the hotel safe. (Room safes? Everyone has the code.)

Planes. OK, the million-milers will hate this advice, but always stow your carry-on in front of you where you can keep an eye on it, especially on long-haul flights. It is really easy to pilfer stuff from a bag if the owner cannot see it. Also, pack your valuable stuff on the bottom of the bag — it makes it more difficult for a crook to get to it. If you feel the need to lock your checked baggage (I don’t), invest in some TSA approved locks. Before you zip up, put a paper with your home address, dates, destination address and cell phone number on top. That way if your bag is “misdirected” (airline-speak for lost) and your tags have gone AWOL, too, the airline will know where to send your bag. Finally, trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable about a passenger, don’t feel bad about reporting your concern to the nearest flight attendant. If you still feel uncomfortable, get off the plane and take the next flight.

Public transportation. Public transportation can be an inexpensive way to see a new city, but it is also a haven for crooks. A simple bump can cost you your wallet or purse, so be very vigilant. (When I travel, my kids say I look like I have a nervous twitch because I am always grabbing myself checking on my wallet!) Whenever possible, I take a seat near the driver, and if I feel uneasy, I just get off.

Limos and rental cars. Limos are nice. No argument there. But any fancy vehicle or hired car can draw unwanted attention to you. Unless you are prepared to consider and implement other security measures, I suggest that when you hire a car, you ask for something plain: a sedan or SUV will do fine, and you can put the money you save toward a good dinner. Also be sure to check out every car you rent. Go for the newer model, and look for damage, warning lights or other indications that the car is unfit to be driven. Rental cars are a huge target for thieves, so if your assigned car is plastered in Billy Bob’s Car Rental stickers, ask for a different one. No need to advertise that it is not yours. Also, make the car look like it belongs to a regular Joe — a crumpled McDonald’s bag in the front seat goes a long way.

Taxis. On most trips, a taxi will be part of the equation. The first rule is to make sure the taxi and its driver are licensed. If possible, hail a cab from a taxi stand, or have the hotel bellman get you a cab. Never be taken in by someone who approaches you in an airport offering a cheaper ride; it is rarely cheaper and is sometimes dangerous. Finally, make use of online mapping programs and become acquainted with your approximate route. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, New York City cabs were notorious for taking fares from JFK to midtown by way of Montana. If you are familiar with the city, feel free to give the driver the exact route you want — that way you’ll have the upper hand.

Insurance. Make sure you are covered, not only for the cost of your trip, but also for unexpected circumstances. Like if you need to be medically evacuated after being mugged in a dark alley. Or if you have an allergic reaction to that dish you just ate. Or your tooth develops an abscess. Or a loved one dies or becomes ill at home. The list goes on and on. There are a million things that can go wrong when you travel, and a good insurance policy will go a long way to mitigating those countless “what ifs.” Your travel planner can help you identify necessary coverage for your circumstances.

See, it is not all that difficult. Most of these cautions are common sense, but as I learned at the casino, common sense can fly out the window when you are away from home and you let your guard down. It boils down to the simple fact that Dr. Terry Riley (a friend and colleague of mine) keeps preaching: You are responsible for your own safety. If you are interested in some more detailed safety tips, I recommend that you grab a copy of Terry’s book, Travel Can Be Murder.

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