Rip-offs I Have Known

We had ridden trolleys in Quito several times, and they were always rather harrowing, jammed in and always conscious of our bags, but also pleasant, helpful people and wonderful opportunities to practice our Spanish. Over and over, people whom we talked to on the trolley would use that little “finger to outside corner of eye” gesture to warn us to watch out for thieves. I took their advice seriously, but when I did get ripped off, I don’t believe there is any way I could have stopped it from happening.

It was our last evening in Quito, we had spent the day in the newer part of town at a wonder crafts market, and we were trying to get back to the old town at rush hour, and this turned out to be a difficult experience.

It was the end of a fascinating week of independent travel in Ecuador with my sister-in-law. She had booked us into a hotel in a centuries’ old building, where the staff spoke virtually no English. We had had much practice with our Spanish, and many fun encounters with the hotel staff and with the other guests, many of whom were from Venezuela and Argentina.

Now, at rush hour, the always-crowded trolleys were so jam-packed with people that I just said I couldn’t do it, and we went back to the corner to try to hail a cab. But when over and over the cabs sped by, back seats full of passengers, we decided to give the trolleys another try.  Finally one came that was full, but not jam-packed, and with relief we stuck our coins in the little turnstyle and got on.  Kathy enjoined me to zip my jacket over my bag and my camera, and I did zip my camera under my jacket.

Our alarm increased as more passengers pressed in at every stop.  The passengers already aboard were pleading desperately with the new people not to get on, “Por favor, senor, no!” The pressure from people all around me was so great that my left hand grabbing on to the bar above was in great pain. I couldn’t hold on with two hands because my right arm was clenched over my purse, zipper end where I could see it if I looked down. When the trolley went around a corner, the centrifical force caused the whole crowd to lean against me, and I cried out in pain. (Later I thought that possibly the thief’s accomplices might have leaned against me on purpose, hoping to get me to lose my balance, as Kathy did not feel such pressure against her.)

Finally it was our stop, and we pushed through the crammed-in crowd and emerged gratefully onto the sidewalk across from our lovely little hotel.  I realized that the claustrophobic ride had left me seriously shaky. I just didn’t think I could face the
people in the hotel lobby, who were always so friendly and chatty.  I told Kathy that I needed to go to that nearby coffee house we liked, and just sit for a while.  She was all sympathy, said of course she’d go there with me, and suggested that on the way she would stop and get me the camera batteries I’d been saying I needed.

I was standing in the door of the little shop when I reached down and realized that my purse was soft and empty. Panicking, I yanked it up to where I could see it better, and saw that the side seam had been neatly sliced open.

“Kathy,” I said in a toneless voice, “They got my computer and my wallet.” I walked beside her, in shock, and she got us two cappuchinos. Suddenly I thought of my passport, and jammed my hand down to my hip, where I felt the comforting lump of my passport, my bank cards, and my extra cash.

“Good Old Rick Steves!” I shouted aloud.  Wearing all one’s crucial items hidden under one’s clothes was what he always advised.

The little Acer laptop was old, after all, and had been “backed up” before the trip. My camera was fine, because at Kathy’s last-minute suggestion before we boarded the trolly, I’d zipped it up in my jacket. And all that had been left in my wallet after our day of folk craft market shopping was a ten dollar bill!

She felt that I would have been better off to zip both items under my jacket, but I myself think that the resulting huge lump might have caused those skillful thieves to slice open the jacket. I’ll never know. What I do know is that the people were so jammed in around me that I would not have been able to stop the thief even if I was watching him or her in the act.  And if I had tried to stop the theft, I might have had my hand or arm cut by the knife they used to slice the purse.

An important point: this purse was touted as being made of slash-resistant material.  The thieves seemed to know this because they sliced neatly along the side seam. This “slash-resistant” bag was not sewn with slash-resistant thread….

When telling this story, friends would immediately deduce that Ecuador is a dangerous place to travel. However, just that year, Kathy had had her own computer stolen from her car in Oakland, California (they broke the class of the car window) and also had had valuable furniture stolen when thieves broke in to her late father’s home in a “nice area” of Berkeley.

The amazing skill of practiced thieves was also demonstrated on a trip to Spain.  In the lovely little hill town of Rondo, about ten of our group were leaning over the stone wall, admiring the way the little stone buildings perched along the cliffs on either side of the deep ravine of the river. One of our group suddenly said, those people just opened all of our backpacks!  We had not felt a thing!  We all looked to the left, at the retreating backs of a well-dressed young couple pushing a baby stroller, who had just passed behind us. Luckily, none of us had anything valuable in our back packs.

We had a couple of hours to explore the little town before our bus left to go back down to the coast. But one of our group, Karen, a nurse, was so angry about the attempted rip-off, that she stood on that bridge for those two hours just to watch that the skillful thieves did not try the same thing on other tourists.

“Time and time again,” she said, “The couple with the baby stroller would approach the bridge, see me standing there watching them from the other side, and turn around and leave.”

On that same trip, one of the group had her purse stolen in the breakfast room of the hotel we were staying in! She left her bag on the chair next to her as she went to the breakfast buffet, and when she returned it was gone.  Our Spanish guide said that some people book a hotel room, and pay for it by just such a theft. This incident made a big impression on me, because I had naively thought of the hotel as a “safe zone”, where I could let down my guard.

Her passport and wallet with her cards were in the purse, not under her clothes. She and her husband had to stay in Seville an extra day, which they spent at the US Embassy. They then had to take a train on their own to meet us in the next city.

Many travelers swear by the use of a fanny pack, worn facing forwards. Even some of those who comment on the Traveler’s Help Line on the Rick Steves website, pooh pooh Rick’s advice to keep all important papers and cards hidden under one’s clothes.  A theft which took place in Athens demonstrates that Rick is right about this one.

The three women in our group were from Mercer Island, an affluent part of Seattle, and were shopping at a jewelry store near the Acropolis. They were telling the woman behind the counter that they wanted to go to a certain museum. She advised them to take the subway, that it was much the easiest way to go. Later, they wondered if she didn’t signal someone to follow them….

On the subway, there was a bit of a commotion as a young man fell into them as the car swerved around a corner. He apologized profusely, smiles all around….and it wasn’t until the three women got back to the hotel that one of them realized that her fanny pack had been unzipped, emptied, and zipped up again without her feeling a thing.  The young man falling into them was probably the diversion which allowed another to perform the act without her noticing.

The victim immediately called her bank and had the cards “stopped” before any funds were withdrawn. Her passport was back at the hotel in the room safe, so that was all right, and she had not had much cash in her bag.

On a trip to Italy, my roommate was the victim of a ATM machine scam. This lady was the Chief Economic Officer of a small Seattle company, a pleasant, sensible woman and the furthest thing from a fool. She had noticed, when she’d put her card in an ATM machine that day, that the machine held on to the card for longer than she’d expected.  A passer-by suggested, “Just try again,” and this time the card came out (to her great relief), and so did her cash.

The following day, her card did not work at the ATM machine she tried. She went into a bank, and they found that the card was not valid!

That evening in the hotel room, she waited until 11:00 PM Italian time, which was her bank’s opening hour in Seattle. She was speaking with a bank official, and I suddenly hear her say, “Bangcok?!!!” There had already been four withdrawals from her card, in Bangcok!

She had brought another card with her, a credit card, but had never activated it.  She was able to do this over the phone, in about a half hour.

Apparently there are some ATM machines which have had a false front put on them, and this contraption was able to copy her card information before returning the card.

Her experience demonstrates the truth of another Rick Steves “instruction”, to always bring two bank cards with you. I myself do not use credit cards, so after I saw what happened to her, I opened a second checking account and put some cash in both accounts before I travel. Never do I have both cards out of my under-clothes wallet at the same time.

And if you don’t remember your password for your bank account, bring it with you.  There was some trouble with my card (not a rip-off, just Cairo bank problems, even though I had told my bank that I would be in Egypt). I couldn’t remember my bank account password, and I had to call my husband and have him go into the bank in person, before the problem was straightened out and I could use my card.

The only other attempted theft I remember was also in Spain, where a cute, charming young girl came up to an older man in our group who was looking at their city map of Madrid, offering to help him.  He guessed that her hand was under the map, coming toward his wallet, and slammed his free hand hard down on the map, knocking her hand away! He re-told this story with great pleasure that night at dinner.

My husband refuses to keep anything under his clothes, insisting that is passport is safe in his front shirt pocket. This drives me crazy, because these practiced thieves are as skillful at slight-of-hand as a professional magician.

It’s true that it’s often quite an inconvenience to have one’s passport hidden and hard to get to. In Ecuador, for instance, as foreigners we had to show our passports just to buy long-distance bus tickets.  It was irritating to go into the restroom and remove the document, then go back in the restroom to put it back in the hidden wallet.  But the Ecuador trolly theft I describe above
made me realize that the extra hassle was so worth the trouble!

Well, thanks to you for taking the trouble to read this!  If I haven’t convinced you that Rick Steves’ safety suggestions are worth listening to, then at least I’ve tried as hard as I am able to! He says in his guidebooks that each time he gets ripped off he is happy, because it makes him better able at stopping the same thing happening to his readers!

Happy traveling, and I wish you great travels with no problems!