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7 Tips for Preventing Petty Theft While Traveling

March 11, 2019
9 min read
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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

There is plenty of focus on staying safe while traveling, but people often worry about the wrong type of safety. That's because violent crime is rare — but even the most experienced travelers will likely deal with petty crime at some point.

Pickpockets and bag snatchers are not uncommon in cities highly trafficked by tourists. However, these thieves are usually opportunistic, looking for the easiest targets. By adopting just a few simple practices, you can greatly reduce the chances that you'll fall victim during your travels.

1. Use a Camera or Phone Strap

I've witnessed this several times: An unsuspecting tourist is lining up a shot, already planning their Instagram caption, when a seemingly average pedestrian walks by — or zips by on a motorbike — snatches the phone or camera, and bolts. The thief is a half block away before the traveler even processes what happened.

Most cameras come with a strap of some sort, so use it. If you are taking a picture, wrap the strap around your wrist or keep it around your neck. If a thief tries to grab your camera, they likely won't be able to yank it away from you. What happens most often, though, is they see the strap and look for an easier target.

With phones, you have to get a bit more creative, as they rarely come with a place to attach a strap. Some phone cases come with wrist straps, but I've found them to be more expensive and sometimes bulkier. I prefer a DIY method. I buy a sturdy case and loop a strap through an opening at the base for a speaker or charger, using a strap from an old camera or another handheld device. I've gotten in the habit of keeping the strap around my wrist whenever using my phone in public.

My DIY cell phone anti-theft plan.

The drive-by technique can also be used on handbags, so whenever possible, walk against traffic (with approaching vehicles visible) and keep your bag on the side of you farthest from the street.

2. Keep Valuables in Front

Never carry wallets or valuables in back pockets or loose side pockets that don't fasten shut. A minor bump in the subway or on the street, and your wallet could be gone. If you have to use pockets, the front pockets on tight fitting pants such as jeans are safest.

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Even better, use a carabiner to secure these valuables to a belt loop so they can't be pinched. I personally like using tiny S-biners. I clip the strap from my phone to a belt loop when it's in my front pocket. I also use a wallet with a loop to attach a carabiner and tuck it in my waistband.

No one is picking these pockets.
No one is picking these pockets.

If you're carrying a purse or a bag, make sure it closes with a zipper. In buses or subways, keep your bag in front of you. Backpacks and purses can easily get picked or even slashed, so keep them in view in crowded areas.

3. Carry a Cable Lock

Bags or purses can easily be snatched from busy bars or restaurants, often right off the back of a chair or from underneath a table. Use a cable lock to secure your bag to a chair, bar stool or table leg. These handy combination locks, not much larger than a lighter, have a thin 2- to 3-foot-long cable that locks into itself. Also known as a snowboard lock, they've proved useful far beyond the slopes.

I've also used my cable lock to secure bikes I've borrowed from guesthouses. They aren't high grade locks, but they are enough to thwart an opportunistic thief.

Attaching your bag to a bar stool in a cafe, restaurant or bar will keep it safe from bag snatchers.
Attaching your bag to a bar stool with a cable lock in a cafe, restaurant or bar can keep it safe from bag snatchers.

4. Hide Valuables

One of the best ways to secure valuables during a beach trip? Keep them hidden ... in a sunscreen container. Turns out, the black market for SPF 30 is pretty small, so thieves are unlikely to abscond with a tub of sunscreen. But they are much more likely to snatch a bag from a beach blanket or something visibly valuable, such as a cell phone. Consider keeping your wallet, phone and keys in an empty sunscreen container, and if you bring a bag to the beach, keep the container out.

If you're going somewhere sunscreen would seem suspicious, an empty, nontransparent water bottle can do the trick, too.

5. Secure Your Checked Luggage

In some parts of the world, checked baggage theft is common — especially having items lifted from external pockets or near the top of your bag. Electronics, jewelry, cash or cases that look like they may contain those aforementioned valuables (thieves don't check first) are the most common to get nabbed. Keep all of your valuables with you in your carry-on luggage. Better yet, travel with a carry-on only.

And yes, this issue can happen in the US, too. So always use a TSA-approved luggage lock with checked baggage, regardless of where you're traveling. And lock up your bags any time they aren't in your possession (think: in a luggage room, or on a bus or train).

6. Avoid Distractions

Thieves often work with distractions. Sometimes, it may be a staged argument or fight in a crowded area. Other times, it's a friendly stranger asking for directions. Get in the habit of securing bags and valuables whenever a distraction happens. And don't leave valuables out in the open. Many people like to leave their phones on top of tables at a restaurant. All it takes is a loud noise across the room for those phones to disappear.

Distraction techniques are also common near ATMs. Thieves will converge as money is being dispensed or grab your card after having watched you enter your pin. Be extra vigilant, and try to only use ATMs within banks where strangers cannot easily approach you.

Only use ATM machines located inside banks or dedicated enclosures. Image courtesy of Louis Allen on flickr.

If you do spot someone in a crowded area that arouses suspicion, eye contact is an intimidating tool that signals you are not distracted. Most thieves are looking for an easy target, so this communicates that the easy target will not be you.

7. Mitigate the Damage

Sometimes, if you are the target of theft of mugging, there is really nothing you can do to stop it. Protecting a phone or some jewelry is never worth risking your safety. Sure, a story about how you Chuck Norris-ed your way through a band of thieves sounds great, but it's not worth the risk (or, frankly, a likely outcome). Instead, use these tips to minimize the blow if you are a victim.

Carry the Minimum in Your Wallet: There's no need to carry around a wad of cash, your full array of credit cards and a passport when you're out sightseeing. My travel wallet usually contains one credit card, one ATM card, $10 to $20 of local currency and a paper copy of my passport photo page. If I lose my wallet, I have additional credit and ATM cards back at my accommodation. If I need to carry more cash, I wear a belt that has a hidden zipper compartment on the inside for folded bills. I've heard of muggers checking for traditional money belts but never looking for belts like these.

Use a Credit Card with Cell Phone Protection: Your cell phone can easily be protected if you pay your cell phone bill with a credit card that provides cell phone protection, such as the Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card or the Citi Prestige Card. Just make sure you get a police report within 48 hours of the theft for the incident to be coverable.

Regularly Backup Photos: Often, the most painful loss after a theft isn't the camera or phone but the photos that were on it. Get in the habit of backing up photos regularly. My favorite method is to upload photos using the Google Photos app whenever I'm connected to Wi-Fi. Once those photos are in the cloud, I can never lose them. Also, be sure to enable cell phone tracking apps such as Find My iPhone. You probably won't get your phone back, but it renders iPhones unusable to thieves.

While petty crime is real, don't let it deter you from traveling. A little bit of vigilance can minimize the risk and help make sure nothing robs you of your vacation.

Are you looking to back that pack up and get some guidance? Send your questions to!

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.