Travelmag Banner
Archives
Search
 Features

A guide to world crime


Personal safety is a constant priority in every individual’s life, but even more so when one is traveling and outside a familiar environment.

When looking over a potential destination “Is it Safe?” is quite likely to cross our mind before “how expensive is it?” Or “how is its weather?”

As someone who in the last decade has covered large portions of all six inhabited continents as a solo traveler I have come across all sorts of innovative, ingenious, unscrupulous and of course illicit ways that a visitor can be cheated out of his or her money or belongings.

After looking through all my various experiences and tips you might be somewhat surprised by the fact that I’ve never been the subject of a violent crime, and I attribute that to a bit of good luck on a few occasions, the fact that I’m somewhat physically imposing (nearly 190 centimeters high and 105 kilos wide), and most importantly adhering to common sense rules such as not wearing overly expensive clothing items or keeping to well-lit areas after dark.

Please keep in mind that any and all bad guys (or girls as the case maybe) fully realize that a violent crime against a foreign visitor is almost sure to bring immediate and severe heat from law enforcement authorities, and thus it is best to be avoided, but unfortunately “petty crime” is another story altogether and in many parts of the world an afterthought for the police and such.

As mentioned before I almost always travel alone, but I think you’ll agree that most of the cons and crimes listed below could target any and all unsuspecting visitors, no matter their age, gender or nationality. Although there is some truth regarding “safety in numbers” in my opinion the best protection against mountebanks is using common sense and/or having a reliable local with you.

Eastern Europe

A region of the world which in less than a generation (beginning in 1989) has undergone a total economic, political and social transformation—though the fall of Communist regimes has brought about greater freedoms and a given rise to a small click of “nouveau riche” in the countries of the region (excluding Belarus), it has also deprived many of the safety nets (including guaranteed jobs for the young and reasonable pensions for the elderly) provided by the totalitarian State.

Tourist hotspots of the region such as Krakow, Prague and Budapest are also preferred locations for shysters.

When public transport is available taxis should be avoided since many have their meters “cooked” and some who have not tampered with the meter will literally go out of their way to insure a hefty final tally—in Bucharest a common scam involves taxi drivers picking up novice foreign visitors in the international airport, main train station and/or bus terminal, then taking them to a handful of hotels and pensions around the city that are “all booked” and then dropping the passengers in the main square…and you guessed it the hotels and pensions are in cahoots with the crooked drivers.

Pickpockets are unfortunately a worldwide worry, but in this region’s crowded places (such as markets or bus stops) there are teams of two or three individuals who can quite suddenly deprive a visitor of his or her wallet or passport—often a quite unassuming person (in my case an elderly man in Krakow wearing glasses and looking quite lost) stands in front of the targeted traveler and impedes any movement forward, and then suddenly from behind a hand reaches into the prey’s pocket (or depending on the circumstances pockets).

This region is home to millions of disenfranchised Gypsy (Romany) families and though clearly the minority; a few fit the stereotype of the adroit gypsy thief. One female gypsy operating near Prague’s famed Wenceslas Sq. was so skillful that she could literally empty your pocket by just coming within speaking distance and without any visible use of her hands or touching the target’s pockets.

Crooked cops or border officials looking for a bribe through motley inane excuses and reasons are also a common occurrence in the region, but when the traveler is obviously not guilty of any wrongdoing he or she should immediately threaten to contact his or her embassy—this almost always acts an effective repellent.

In this region of the world leaving one’s property (however menial) unattended can result in its swift and permanent disappearance—it happens quite often with hygiene products (like toothpaste or shampoo bottles) in hotels and pensions or anything put in a communal fridge.

Americas

Despite having the world’s biggest economy, the U.S. constantly ranks as one of the world’s most crime-ridden and pernicious nations. Sundry factors contribute to lawlessness in America, be it the striking gap between the “haves and have-nots,” to the country’s huge consumption of narcotics, or the liberal gun laws which allows a significant portion of the populace to arm itself.

That being said I myself have spent many years in some of America’s most notorious urban jungles (e.g. Miami, D.C, Boston and Las Vegas) without ever falling victim to any sort of crime.

Keep in mind that resisting an attack or robbery in America is fraught with more risk than most other countries (chances are that you attacker is quite desperate, addled by drugs and carrying a gun), so appeasement is the best option.

Two other popular nearby destinations; Jamaica and Cuba, each present a different set of potential scams and hassles.

Jamaican souvenir vendors are notorious for handing tourists an item and then refusing to take it back (of course demanding an outrageous amount for it) and then causing a huge scene and hassle if no cash is offered, so please don’t hold an item unless your willing to buy—though there are lots of decent natives who use their private auto as a means of supplementing their income, crooks also pose as drivers, so it would be best to arrange transport with a certified travel agent or taxi service.

Though entire island (especially in and around the capital, Kingston) has a very high crime and murder rate, the various “posses” gunning it out over territory and profits have a tacit agreement amongst themselves as far as not targeting tourists, but consult with local as far as “no-go zones” that exist in Kingston and some other parts of the island.

Cuba’s economic woes which keep it from having a wide variety of consumer goods for sale ironically enhance the security situation on the island, as even those who have cash really can’t do much with it.

The prospect of profiting from a credulous foreigner and the country’s most famous export (cigars) is still too tempting for some to pass up and during a visit there you will quite likely be told of fabulous deals on boxes of the Cuba’s premium cigar, Cohiba. You will also be told that the cigars have been procured from the factory by a friend or relative who works there and is allowed to take some for free on a regular basis, but those even vaguely familiar with genuine Cuban cigars know that buying 25 genuine Cohibas for 20-30 dollars (the price usually asked by street peddlers) is downright ridiculous.

Although the cigars sold on the street are usually decent smokes they are usually rolled on a rural tobacco farm and then brought to the tourist centers (especially Havana and Santiago) for sale to tourists. The only authentic stogies are on sale at authorized dealers and keep in mind that any passenger trying to take more than 2 boxes of cigars out of Cuba will be subject to scrutiny by customs officials and if you’re carrying fake Cohibas they will be confiscated.

Havana’s fabled old town is somewhat hazardous after dark, as most of its streets are unlit, and young hoodlums have been known to target tourists (and especially their cameras). The Cuban government makes a point of appointing lots of police patrols to this area thus giving those with bad intentions little time to carry out their acts.

Cuban currency exchange offices and bars and restaurants frequented by tourists are notorious for giving too little change to their patrons, so please make sure to check if you have gotten back the correct amount as soon as the cash is handed to you.

Asia

Though for Americans the term Asia usually implies the “Orient,” and to Brits “Asians” are those from the Indian sub-continent, in reality Asia is comprised of not only those two regions, but also most of the area labeled as the Middle East as well.

Much to the chagrin of most Turks and especially denizens of Istanbul (who are infatuated with the notion of  being a part of Europe), I must include your country and city under this heading, since except for a small slice of the former Constantinople no other part of the country is technically in Europe.

Istanbul’s touristy areas (especially Aksaray) are home to small gangs of thugs whose MO is staging a sudden confrontation amongst themselves on the street whereby one of the parties involved is pushed towards the unsuspecting tourist causing him or her to fall down and make way for other members of the gang to pounce on the victim’s belongings.

A new scam carried out by shop owners, taxis and even exchange houses has to do with outdated and worthless banknotes—for many years the Turkish Lira was issued in notes worth millions and hundreds of thousands of Lira, but recently Turkey issued a new Lira which is worth roughly 1.3 to the American dollar and all those old notes with the countless zeros are now useless, but since both the old and new currency look a lot alike (all feature the countenance of Ataturk), it’s quite easy for a foreigner to get duped into taking  worthless notes.

Turkey serves as a crossroads between East and West and is always teeming with visitors from various regions of the globe, yet there are unscrupulous non-Turks who strike up friendships with visitors with the goal of committing robbery—be strongly advised against taking any food or drink from a “friend” while in this country. That great intrepid traveler, Rolf Potts had his own firsthand experience with a “Mickey Finn” while in Istanbul.

Though Iran’s global image has been taking a beating for nearly three decades, informed and intrepid travelers still find the country and its people a gem to a visit.

The country is well-known for its seminal carpets and nearly every city or town in Iran offers a wide variety of authentic ones, but like any lucrative trade this one also has its share of charlatans and hucksters. More and more machine and Chinese-made carpets and rugs are being passed off to uninformed tourists as handmade Persians. In Iran or any of the other lands with a major carpet industry (from Morocco to Kashmir), it’s well-advised to only shell out big bucks for your desired piece after consulting with a native cognoscenti, since a carpet connoisseur in this region is the equivalent of a wine connoisseur in France and held in high esteem.

Despite its vast natural wealth Iran suffers from a high rate of unemployment and thus petty crime is a nuisance—a favored method of pickpockets is using a small knife to slit a hole in a victim’s pocket (usually the back ones) and use the opening to snatch whatever is inside. The crooks that carry out such robberies are quite adroit and the prey never feels either a blade or hand on or in his or pocket.

This crime often occurs outside banks or exchange houses where the likelihood of the victim carrying a lot of cash is very high. “Snatch and run” robberies in which a lady’s purse is taken forcefully by someone on a motorcycle is also one of the more common crimes in Iran.

India is a land where the great majority of more than one billion citizens live in abject poverty and thus more than a few folks are eager to make a quick buck from a foreign tourist that they view as rich and gullible. Being shortchanged when paying for something is entirely too common in India, as are greedy guesthouse and hotel owners who use a “late check out” as an excuse to gauge more cash from their guests before their departure—make sure to clarify the proper check out time with the manager well before your departure.

While walking the streets and alleys of Indian towns a tourist is likely to be approached by dozens of beggars, fakirs, healers, etc. Simply ignoring such people or a polite but firm “no” is usually enough to ward off any further harassment.

In some parts of India (especially Agra) and Thailand’s bigger cities tourists are quite likely to board a “commissioned ride,” which is when the driver of a rickshaw or taxi suddenly veers of course to take you to a souvenir or jewelry shop, and then explains this by saying that the shop pays for his fuel and all that is required of you is a quick look inside the sponsor’s establishment. Some drivers can become quite agitated and sclerotic if the passengers refuse to disembark and you may have to find yourself another mode of transport right then and there.

Africa

Though Africa tends to have both a relaxed and magical feel for visitors who also discover that the “dark continent” has almost as many feel good factors as the tragedies   (e.g. AIDS and malaria) that the global media always trumpets, being constantly hassled and/or hustled by locals is also unfortunately a fact for tourists (though less so for those on organized group tours).

Unemployed young men working as “touts” and unlicensed guides is quite a nuisance in most of Africa. Though many seem knowledgeable or are at least smooth talkers, it’s best to simply ignore their gambit as nearly all intend to cheat their clients in one way or another. Fake travel tickets are one of the main risks posed by the aforementioned group—while in Africa make sure to buy your plane, bus or train tickets directly from the company itself, as any money given to a “tout” or “guide” to procure the ticket will almost always be stolen and you will end up with a fake and worthless ticket.

Scams in Africa often tend to be elaborate and well-planned. A tout will inform you of a travel agent friend of his which is offering a special package deal to an exotic locale (Mauritius for example), and makes a phone call to that “agent” who then goes on to tell you all the fine details of the package (i.e. flight time and number, hotel name and location….all of which is factual) and asking you to give the tout a deposit (anywhere from 10 to 50 percent to insure a booking). If a deposit is given to the tout he will usually just disappear with it for good!

Some mountebanks go so far as to open a seemingly real “travel office”—in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, many touts in the downtown area would lead their prey to a small room in the area filled with postcards and posters from all over the region, and eventually the “manager” would show up and spell out the various great deals his agency was offering, but in reality all the prices were about 20 to 30 percent above the standard rate, and if a duped traveler came back later to complain, he or she would either find the “office” closed or the “manager” away for a few days—even if the “manager” were to be found he would simply excuse the excessive surcharge as the tout’s commission.

Changing money on the street is never a good idea, but in a place like Zimbabwe where runaway inflation means that neither the ATM’s nor the exchange houses have enough local currency on hand alas it is often the only option. In Harare a common scam involves someone quoting travelers in the downtown area a better than average exchange rate and giving them what seems to be a roll of local currency in a zip lock bag, then suddenly another man approaches the prey and starts a commotion regarding the fact that the visitor has just committed an illegal act (which is true), and that he is responsible for reporting this violation to the police, in the midst of all this commotion the trapped tourist often panics and runs away, perhaps simply throws away the zip lock bag or just tries to pay off the seemingly  enraged man. However this pasquinade ends, the poor tourist is in for another rude awakening if he or she opens the bag and finds that what appeared to be rolled up bills were in reality a stack of blank papers shielded by two real banknotes on top and bottom.

Arya’s personal website is www.hetrippin.com

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Editorials