Being pickpocketed while traveling abroad is stressful, but it needn’t ruin an entire trip.
Once, upon arriving at my hotel in Paris, I went into my carry-on bag to fetch my wallet to provide a credit card at the front desk and found it missing. Retracing my steps, I could piece together that it had been lifted from my carry-on in a pile-up on the escalator at Gare du Nord as I was transferring from the airport train to the Paris Metro.
It’s a feeling I never want to experience again—that knot in your stomach when you realize you’ve just lost all your cash and credit cards just as you’ve arrived in another city halfway around the world. I’d made a rookie mistake by taking cash out of a very visible ATM at the train station. I was an easy mark—the fake pileup is a common pickpocket scam in major European capitals. Here’s what to do should you find yourself without your money in a foreign country.
Keep an Emergency Stash
I’ve long kept a credit card in my carry-on, separate from my wallet, which saved my bacon on that trip. I was able to use that card for my purchases in addition to getting a cash advance from an ATM. It’s always a good idea to keep a separate card and perhaps some cash in a separate location. You don’t necessarily need to invest in one of those hidden money belts, but tucking a credit card or some emergency cash into another bag’s pocket or a sock can be a lifesaver in an emergency.
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Check Your Credit Cards
Credit cards have good security features these days, making them less useful to pickpockets. Pickpockets are typically just after cash—particularly in Europe, where credit transactions require a PIN. Many card issuers allow users to freeze and unfreeze cards via their mobile apps, so canceling cards isn’t the day spent on the phone that it used to be.
A spokesperson for American Express notes that cardholders can call collect or connect via live chat to manage their card accounts when traveling abroad. AMEX can also send a replacement card to the traveler at their location in as little as two business days (charges may apply). Travelers who have their cards added to a mobile wallet like Apple/Google/Samsung Pay will receive their new card as an instant update, although that may be less useful in destinations where mobile pay hasn’t yet been widely adopted.
Call the Police
It’s not likely the police will be able to recover your money and cards, but they do need to know when and where the theft occurred (even if you’re unsure). This helps local governments decide how to spend law enforcement budgets. Detailed information like the approximate time and description of the event can help law enforcement review camera footage and even identify the perpetrators (although it’s still unlikely any money will be recovered). In Europe, travelers can dial 112 for emergency assistance in English, French, or the local language.
It’s also important to contact the police if your wallet has a GPS tracker like Tile, or if your mobile device is stolen. For your own safety, it’s not advisable to attempt to recover stolen property on your own, but do let the police know you may be aware of your property’s general location so they can assist.
Call the Nearest Embassy or Consulate
The U.S. Embassy (in capital cities) or Consulates (in other major cities) can assist U.S. citizens who have been victims of crimes abroad. They can replace lost or stolen passports, provide general information on dealing with the local police and the legal system, and help travelers find accommodations or arrange flights home. In extreme circumstances (i.e., you’ve lost all your money and have exhausted all other options), they can also arrange for emergency loans for repatriation to the United States or medical support.
It’s also necessary for embassies and consulates to be aware of crimes involving U.S. citizens, so even in relatively straightforward cases where you can replace your credit cards and resume your journey, it’s still helpful to call and notify them of the theft.
It’s worth noting that consular officers generally provide informational assistance. They generally cannot deal with the local authorities on your behalf, but they give general information on how the process works. They’re not the police, and they’re not lawyers, so they won’t investigate crimes, provide translation services, or represent you in court (but they can tell you how to get those matters addressed).
Don’t Stress Too Much
Being pickpocketed while traveling abroad is stressful, but it needn’t ruin an entire trip. After my incident in Paris, I made some necessary arrangements, then did a little shopping and had a nice dinner and a glass of wine to shake off the day’s stress. The next day, after all, I would still be in Paris.
When you need to use an ATM while abroad (even when at home) only use ones inside a bank, this ensures the machine hasn't been tampered with and fewer people will see how much money you have withdrawn. Always best to have money and passports, etc., in an RFID pouch around your neck and tucked under your clothes - just don't go to it while out in public!
The article quotes advice from Amex, a card that is not that widely accepted in Europe.