Getting robbed abroad is something every traveler fears and I’m here to tell you your fears are warranted! It’s an absolute nightmare! However, one great thing about having a blog is that I can relay my trauma into a post that will hopefully help you not have to experience what I did, but also to help you in case it does happen.
I’m going to use my experience getting robbed abroad as a case study.
In the criminal justice system, thievery-based offenses are considered especially heinous (if you ask me). In Rome, Italy, the irritated detectives who pretend to investigate these vicious felonies are members of a second-rate squad known as the Annoying Victims Unit (at least, that’s what I bet the Polizia call themselves at office parties). These are their stories.
Everyone’s heard the cautionary tales of petty theft while traveling abroad–tales of getting robbed abroad that usually include a list of outlandish scams (throwing a baby at you? what on earth?) and the infinite ways you can be pick-pocketed, ripped off, and stolen from in foreign cities.
This is why I swore I would never let it happen to me. I swore I would never allow myself to be a victim of such petty pettiness. I do not need a money belt! And then I let my guard down for ten minutes.
My experience getting robbed abroad
I had just spent a couple of days in Nettuno, Italy and was taking the train back to Rome, about an hour’s ride north. I traveled solo and carried one purse, one backpack, and one travel pillow. Naive me, doe-eyed and smiling at strangers–this would be my downfall. Curse you Southern charm!
The trip was your average inter-Italy train ride. Uneventful. Sweaty. Full of people who absolutely refuse to make eye contact with one another. Towards the end of the trip, between the early hour and the tedious landscape, I was bored. I went face-down on my pillow and closed my eyes.
Your Honor, let the record state that I was awake the entire time.
Bored with that, I sat up and reached for my backpack in the seat next to me… and IT WAS GONE. I can’t describe to you the feeling of realizing something valuable of yours has been stolen.
The trauma of getting robbed abroad
You have to personally experience getting robbed abroad to understand the gut-wrenching soul-suck. It churns your stomach and makes you ache for your stupidity. You want to vomit, and cry, and slap the sh*t out of someone all at the same time. But mostly, you want to slap yourself.
Getting robbed abroad hurts your brain. A million scenarios simultaneously flood your hippocampus you almost can’t handle it. What ifs and shoulda, woulda, couldas. The yearning to turn back time for just a half hour. (Is that so much to ask, Universe? I bet if you took a poll the majority of Earthlings would happily agree.)
How could you be so stupid? But instantly the flight-or-fight response takes over and you do what you’ve gotta do, regardless of how idiotic you look. And you’re about to look straight up nuts.
Also, getting robbed abroad destroys your makeup.
How to prevent getting robbed abroad
I will never blame anyone but myself for getting robbed abroad. I don’t blame the thief–he was just trying to make a living and I made it as easy as possible for him (or her, I’m not ruling out girl-on-girl crime). It’s up to me alone to protect myself when I travel and, sadly, I failed. I’m embarrassed, ashamed, and rrrreally pissed off.
However, lesson learned. I now know exactly what I need to do to prevent ever getting robbed abroad again.
Don’t sit near an exit
(Or the bathroom for that matter–yikes.) I boarded the train and took the first row of seats nearest the door. Huge, lazy mistake. I’m quite certain the thief saw the opportunity and, right before the doors closed, grabbed my bag and jumped off, leaving me no way of chasing him/her had I even seen this happen. And behind this Southern charm boils a hot Southern temper so chase the bastard I would have.
These kinds of criminals are opportunists. They do this because they can get away with it. If they sense even the slightest that they’ll get caught, it will deter them. The key here is to not make it as easy as possible for someone to rob you. I think it’s pretty likely that he/she wouldn’t have stolen my stuff had I been sitting far away from the door.
This piece of advice isn’t specific to trains though. I’d be willing to bet the number of purse thefts is infinitely greater on restaurant patios than it is from tables at the backs of restaurants.
Can you image someone trying to steal a purse from the back of a restaurant, having to run through the whole place, dodging children, tables, busboys, waitstaff, and the crowd of people waiting at the front entrance? Ha, no. But can you imagine someone walking by on the sidewalk and casually swiping a bag without anyone the wiser? Oh hell yes.
Maintain physical contact with your belongings
Every. other. time. I travel I strap the bag to my seat. Wrap it around my arm or leg. Or under my butt. I feel my uber-paranoia to be one of my strengths and I never let my guard down. No one has ever thrown me a successful surprise party.
In this particular case, I had my bags sitting in the train seat next to me, sans contact. I should’ve kept the bag in my lap, or at my feet, or between me and the window.
Same goes with anytime you are in public. Take these familiar scenarios:
- Never hang your purse on the back of your chair in a restaurant.
- Don’t put your wallet on the counter while you dig through your purse.
- Never leave your cell phone just sitting out on the bar.
- And, if you’re anything like me now, refrain from using the luggage rack on a train. It’s a pain, but so is losing all your stuff while traveling solo.
Don’t close your eyes
Especially when traveling alone. Regardless of how often you travel solo or how comfortable you are doing it, maintaining awareness of your surroundings at all times is crucial
to sidestepping an unsolicited birthday party. Stay vigilant people!
Trust no one
This is a very sad piece of advice, I know. I’m aware that many people enjoy travel to meet others in foreign lands and make new friends, especially solo travelers. But I’m in the group that believes this is how you become a target.
And, unlike you’ve been led to believe your entire life, you have no idea what a criminal looks like. Maybe they’re old; maybe they’re handsome; perhaps they’re female; or maybe they’re even a child. They can be a n y o n e and they lurk among us.
What they aren’t though is tip-toeing through the train cabin wearing striped shirts and Hamburglar masks for easy identification, despite the fact that this was a legit train caper.
But trust your gut
But most importantly, trust your gut. If someone is giving you the weird vibes, that is 100% a warning sign! Somehow, someway we have a built in danger radar that’s accurate almost all of the time. And if it’s not, no biggie, it’s better to be safe than sobbing into the police chief’s shoulder.
Don’t get comfortable
I’d been living and traveling in Italy, mostly solo, for three months. I was comfortable. Train and bus travel was second nature to me and I hadn’t experienced even an inkling of threat.
Hordes of people who hadn’t showered in weeks? Yes. But criminal threat? No. Because of this, and without even realizing it, I let my guard down. And there was someone there to take advantage.
Know common scams
Being familiar with common scams at your destination is a huge part of staying safe. If you know what to expect, you can’t be fooled.
If a stranger ever approaches you and asks for directions, or asks you to fill out a survey, or literally anything else that will distract you for a few minutes, stay alert. Chances are there’s an accomplice taking your wallet or stealing from your purse while you’re distracted.
The list of ways you can get robbed in a foreign country is long so I won’t list them all here, but you can start with these articles:
- 9 Common Scams in France
- 7 Common Scams in Italy
- 15 Common Travel Scams (that apply to lots of places and many I’ve seen myself)
Avoid large crowds
Given these are opportunistic crimes, large crowds make you an easy target. Places like outside popular tourist attractions, inside crowded trains or train stations, busy streets, etc. all invite criminals.
It’s easy to steal from people (I assume) when you’re packed into a bunch of people and can’t tell if someone is just bumping into you or stealing your wallet. And the chance of seeing who dunnit is almost zero.
Watch where you travel
Though you should avoid large crowds, you should still make sure you’re not completely alone somewhere. By this I mean, avoid walking down empty alleyways and streets by yourself, and other places that make you an easy target.
Stow it, don’t show it
This is a phrase popular in the city I grew up in for hiding your valuables in your car. If a thief doesn’t know what you have, they won’t steal it. To avoid getting robbed abroad you’ll also want to avoid:
- Flashing your cash where people can see it – Count out your money in your purse if you can instead of pulling out big wads of money for what you need.
- Wearing lots of shiny jewelry
- Showing off new purchases until you get back to the hotel room
- Keeping your cell phone and wallet sticking out of your back pocket
Know that getting robbed abroad can happen to you
As someone who is hyper-aware to a fault, the fact that this happened to me tells me one thing: when given the opportunity, the bad guy will take it. I left my window of vulnerability open for a measly few minutes and, lo and behold, there was someone there to take advantage.
No matter who you are, getting robbed abroad can happen to you. Do not think for a second that you are above this. This is how these criminals make their living; this is how they survive. They are putting way more effort into robbing you than you are into not getting robbed.
How to prepare for getting robbed abroad
I’m not saying this is 100% going to happen to you, but I am going to say the possibility is high. Don’t let that discourage you from ever traveling, but do let that be the reason you take the proper steps ahead of time.
In other words, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Here are a few things you can do to lessen the sting of getting robbed abroad, if that ever happens to you:
Considering travel insurance?
Travel insurance has personally saved me when I got robbed abroad and it’s saved me a ton of times since.
Travel insurance may be an additional cost that you think you’ll never have to use. But that’s the essence of insurance, no? And when you do have to use it, you’ll rejoice like you’ve never rejoiced before that you had the foresight to get it.
Oftentimes when you travel (though policies differ) travel insurance can potentially cover your personal belongings in case of theft. The total monetary value of what was stolen from me on the train that day was over $3,000–my MacBook Pro being among the goods. And guess what? I got every penny of that back. And all with an insurance plan that costs less than you might assume.
For more information if you’re considering traveling insurance, check out that link. I’ve since had to use it for medical emergencies, canceled flights, canceled trips, and it’s still good for so much more.
Unfortunately, things can and do go wrong when you travel. World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and more.
Back your stuff up
One of the worst things to come out of getting robbed abroad is the fact that I did not back up my computer before my ill-fated train trip. Every photo I’d taken in the last ten years, including all the ones I’d just taken in my three months in Italy, months of wedding planning, years of college coursework, important documents (I assume?), etc.
I never backed any of it up. It was all gone forever. Even after all these years, that’s the wound that hasn’t healed. Throughout this whole ordeal I kept saying to myself, “It could have been worse. It’s just stuff. They’re just things. At least I wasn’t hurt.”
And while yes, it really was just stuff that was stolen, most of it immediately replaced, it’s what was on the computer that continues to upset me. Photos, memories, sentimentality, videos to possibly blackmail your friends later, and do you have any idea how hard it is to get Apple to give you back your iTunes purchases? You’d honestly think I was demanding military secrets. I still don’t really know what the Cloud is, but I do now have three external hard drives I outright abuse with backups.
Invest in anti-theft bags
I realize my entire bag got stolen, but petty theft takes many forms. Pacsafe makes a ton of theft-proof bags that include lockable zippers, slash-proof materials, and straps you can straight-up clip around a train car armrest. Check out:
- Pacsafe Metrosafe LS350 Anti-Theft 15L Backpack
- Pacsafe Vibe 20 Anti-Theft 20L Backpack, Dark Berry
- Pacsafe Daysafe Slim Crossbody – Everyday Anti-Theft Slim Crossbody Bag
- Or just check out the whole Pacsafe collection here because I want them all…
In addition to the items listed above, I have many more travel safety recommendations. Check out my post on the must-have travel safety items you should bring on every trip.
Have duplicates and separates
Before your trip, make color photocopies of your passport (the inside first page with your picture), your IDs, and any other important documents you’re bringing with you. Getting your passport stolen is going to be a nightmare come true but having these copies will help you get back home.
Also don’t keep all of your important documents, money, credit cards, etc. in one spot. Don’t keep all of your cash in one wallet. Keep some in your suitcase, in the case in the room, in a different bag, in your shoe, wherever. Keep a backup credit card in the room safe in case your wallet gets stolen.
Separate all of your important stuff so that if one piece gets stolen, you didn’t just lose everything. Luckily in my case I had my passport and my wallet in my purse which was actually in my lap when my backpack got stolen.
Keep copies of your prescriptions handy
I’m specifically referring to the fact that my glasses were stolen in my backpack and, being legally blind at the time, I had to get new ones made while in Italy.
Getting my prescription sent to me in Italy from the U.S. was a real pain in the ass, but helped by the fact that the Italian optometrist took one look at my over-the-top prescription and told me there must’ve been a mistake. Did she not see me being led down the street by my arms?
The same goes for if you have any prescription medicines in a bag or purse that gets stolen. If it is something vital you need to replace immediately, having your prescriptions readily available could be lifesaving.
What to do after getting robbed abroad
Look, you can do everything right and still fall victim. But what you do after this happens is important. Don’t simply chalk it up to travel-related collateral damage and go about your day. Even though the chances of getting your stuff back is about as slim as they can get, there are still things you can do to help yourself out.
Understand you’re probably on your own
This is such a sad statement to make but, honestly, people just don’t want to get involved. I can definitely understand this side of it too, so just know that it’s most likely going to be completely up to you to get done what needs to be done.
After realizing my backpack was gone, I immediately jumped out of my seat and ran up and down the train car looking in everyone’s lap, above their seats, and under their feets. I yelled, “Did anyone see anything?!” as I ran through the train looking through every row, crying all the while.
Did anyone act like this was not part of their usual morning train ride? No! Because it probably was, let’s be honest. Everyone remained still in their seats, facing straight ahead like I didn’t exist.
I know they saw what happened. All other seats faced mine/the exit and their eyes were open. Clearly, they just didn’t want to get involved, even though I was a young, solo female traveler actively getting robbed. No one on that train would even make eye contact with me… except for one man, who, because of this, I obviously assumed he dunnit. I was on my own.
Probably, but not definitely
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely those out there willing to help out a stranger and I’ve had those experiences too.
Like the time I got detained in Venezuela under the suspicion that George W. Bush had sent me down there to tamper with their election (true story) and a little old non-English-speaking Venezuelan woman I’d never met came to my rescue.
Or the time I got so lost while driving in Italy and an older couple I met at a gas station got in their car and led me to where I needed to go.
Don’t assume you’re alone before asking for help if you get robbed abroad. Humanity is not completely lost! Just be prepared to handle your own sh*t.
Immediately make a list of what was stolen
This is how I even surprised even myself. After sitting back down I immediately took out a pen and an old envelope (the thief did leave me with a couple things) and proceeded to write down every single thing I knew to be in my backpack: laptop, iPod, eyeglasses (son of a bitch), cosmetics, tampons (how dare you!), clothes and underwear, jewelry, among others. (The actual list was much longer.)
How did I know to do that? How did I remember every single thing in my backpack during a crisis? Adrenaline, my friend. My favorite hormone–she never lets me down. That list was used in my police report and later in my insurance claim where I would get it all back in the form of monetary compensation.
This is my #1 piece of advice for after getting robbed abroad. The only time you’ll remember everything is immediately afterwards. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Same thing goes if it’s your purse that got stolen, or your wallet, or your suitcase, whatever.
Cry publicly and don’t give a damn about it
Cry loud and cry hard. During a time when there is nothing to be done, giving in to your emotions is the only thing that feels good. Let it all out. Don’t suppress them. Don’t care what everyone around thinks of you. They suck anyway. Don’t try to “stay calm.” Let it go. Just freak the f*ck out–it terrifies people.
Find the nearest police station
Unfortunately for me, I was in the middle of nowhere and don’t actually know at which stop the thief got off. My only hope was to keep on to my destination: Rome’s Termini Station, also known as Hell on Earth.
Don’t do it in hopes of catching the bad guy–he’s long gone. Do it so you can submit an insurance claim later. And do it because you were taught from an early age that the police are your friends and you can’t think of anything else to do at the time. Yes, getting robbed abroad turns you into a toddler who’s lost at the mall. (Fun fact, Rome actually has a Carabinieri museum.)
Besides, you’d be better off with 1983 Inspector Gadget spearheading your investigation anyway. (Appropriately enough Inspector Gadget was created by an Italian cartoonist. I wonder where he got the idea for a bumbling fool of a detective? Hmm…)
Remain assertive in your pursuit of justice
The polizia in Rome may laugh at you and send you on a wild good chase through the massive train station looking for the police office (it was honestly a game to them), but don’t give up.
That’s what they want and probably why a large number of petty crimes go unreported. Have you ever tried to cancel a gym membership or switch cable companies? It’s much like that. The more we let crime just happen, the more it will happen.
All the rumors you’ve heard are true; this kind of crime happens all the time. And because of this, the police simply don’t care anymore. (The argument of whether they ever cared in the first place is a valid one that I’d be willing to discuss with you.)
While I was filling out my report, two other groups of people came in to also report getting robbed. Unfortunately, you’re not a special case. (Worth noting: Rome’s Termini Station is one of the robbiest places I’ve ever been.)
Don’t expect sympathy, just concentrate on filling out the proper paperwork for insurance purposes and plotting your revenge.
Let the police chief embrace you
You’ve had a really bad day and you’re all alone. You’ve just been made a fool of by the civil servants who are supposed to be helping you in a time of need. You’ve finally filled out the police report and then you watch as the officer takes it from you, laughs, then throws it into a pile on a desk and walks away.
Don’t get me wrong; I completely understand how “petty” my ordeal is and how his days are chock full of crying fools like myself. But to not show even a bit of empathy? Why are you a cop?! It’s because of the uniform, isn’t it? I knew it.
I stood there crying, knowing I was about to have to take another solo 2-hour train ride back to my apartment in Tuscany (ok, first world problems I get it). But just then, the police chief, a tall, kick-ass woman, appeared and laid into the jerk officer who just laughed at me. She apologized profusely for his behavior. Then, in contrast to everyone else I’d come into contact with that day, she opened her arms and hugged me. I told you there are still people out there who want to help.
Remember important names, places, numbers, passwords
I wouldn’t be seeing my husband for a couple days after that and not only was talking to him the only thing I wanted to do, it was also hella necessary. The police chief asked if there was anyone she could call for me and, miracle of all miracles, I remembered the name of my husband’s hotel in Nettuno. She called for me and I was able to talk to him, a small gesture but worth its weight in MacBooks.
(She also offered to buy me a train ticket to help me get back home. Whoever this woman is, she’s a full-on angel in my book. There should be paintings of her on the ceilings of Roman churches. Maybe someday there will be.)
Talking to my husband helped me calm down but it also served a greater purpose. The perp had just stolen my laptop… where I saved all my passwords and account numbers. To my bank accounts, my emails, my social medias, my Apple accounts, and every single other place where you need a password to get in or an account number to move money.
I had to act fast–my computer had already been gone an hour. I was able to tell my husband all of my account logins and passwords so he could change them all from where he was, potentially saving me a load of hassle.
Learn from this
Learn from your mistakes so you don’t make them again. It’s really the only good that can come from getting robbed abroad. Make note of what you did wrong, what you did right, how you think that could have been avoided, and what you would do differently if that were to happen again.
Have you ever been robbed abroad?
Share your experience below.
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