When my family and I got robbed at gunpoint while on holiday in Mexico, cash was hardly the first thought on my mind.
It occurred at a cooking class outside of Oaxaca in southern Mexico recommended to us by family friends. 1 minute we were eating homemade mole, another minute guys with guns rounded the whole class up in a storage cupboard, tied our hands with zip ties and demanded our valuables.
However, as soon as we emerged — secure, thankfully, albeit traumatized and without lots of our valuables — cash meant everything, steering us through the remainder of our holiday and back home.
Decisions borne of sheer luck turned out to make a huge difference. Our passports, which we usually carry with us, were nestled safely in the resort’s lockbox. After my wallet was stolen, carrying a credit card separately from it was be a lifesaver. Only one of our family’s mobile phones had been taken, so we were able to touch base with family and friends back home
‘One minute we were eating homemade mole, another minute guys with guns rounded the whole class up in a storage cupboard, tied our hands with zip ties and demanded our valuables.’
But I also started to think about the things we didn’t think about or do, but maybe should have.
I hope what happened to us never happens to you. And interviews with security experts confirmed that it likely won’t: That type of robbery is quite rare. Even so, taking the time to prepare is worth it, they explained, because there are plenty of other ways to lose your stuff on holiday — from scams to getting pick-pocketed — the airline losing your bag, or you simply misplacing your things.
“It’s about minimizing your risk as much as you can,” said Rick McElroy, a security strategist at security company Carbon Black. “You can’t assume you’re never going to be a victim because random crimes happen.” Here’s how to prepare:
Assess official travel warnings and crime statistics
When you’re at the very beginning of planning a trip, consider where you’re going and consider the dangers, McElroy advised.
The State Department puts out travel warnings for areas that you should strongly consider not going to and alerts for more short-term dangers. (That information is found on the State Department site.) By way of example, there’s a travel warning for certain parts of Mexico, according to the State Department. In Oaxaca, the State Department claims that government personnel must stay in tourist areas, but it doesn’t advise U.S. citizens what to look out for.
Then, in the packing stage, be intentional about what you’re bringing. “I tell folks, ‘You should pack your luggage as though you’ll never see it again,”’ stated Kevin Coffey, a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective-sergeant and travel security consultant who speaks to Fortune 500 companies about travel safety.
Take an inventory of your valuables for insurance purposes
If possible, leave your valuables behind before you go on holiday, and take a list of what you are bringing, said Elaine Montgomery-Baisden, chief underwriting officer of personal insurance in Travelers Companies Inc
Homeowner and renter insurance policies should cover holiday theft, but the policies are subject to certain constraints, especially on cash, jewelry, computers and other higher-value things, which should be insured separately, she said. You’ll need a police report and receipts for the items in question to make a claim with your insurance company, she added.
Review your insurance policy once a year — or before you go on holiday — and making sure to tell your insurance carrier about any new jewelry or other items. You should also check that you have replacement cost policy, meaning you’d get the price of the new thing, without depreciation, Montgomery-Baisden stated.
‘Review your insurance policy once a year — or before your holiday — and making sure to tell your insurance carrier about any new jewelry or other items. Create at least one physical copy of your passport and encrypt an electronic backup.’
Another crucial thing to safeguard: your passport. Create at least one physical copy of your passport and, to be extra careful, encrypt an electronic copy of it too, McElroy said.
Don’t carry a Huge fat wallet around in your pocket
Also consider “sanitizing” your wallet and/or purse of routine items that aren’t needed on holiday, Coffey said. Should you lose your wallet or handbag, you should know what was inside, Coffey said; restricting what is in them also mitigates the potential damage.
This rings especially true to me. I did not “sanitize” my wallet before my Mexico vacation. When we filed a police report, I found myself drawing a blank. Not to mention that the Sephora store credit and lots of nearly-full coffee punch cards that I’ll never get back.
Items like engagement or wedding rings and other jewelry may be worth leaving at home or locking up in a hotel safe upon birth, McElroy said. They are items travelers are most likely to overlook since they’re such everyday objects.
Have a back-up checking account with limited funds
Financial steps will need to be taken too. It’s good practice to establish and fund a bank account that’s separate from the primary one, McElroy said. You can then take a debit card for that account out and, should anything happen, your other cards will be locked in the hotel safe and you won’t lose access to your primary bank account. (And, in the unlikely event, you’re forced to withdraw cash from an ATM, even at home, you could use that card.)
‘It’s good practice to establish and fund a bank account that’s separate from your primary one. You can then take a debit card for that account out and, should anything happen, your other cards will be locked in the hotel safe.’
Coffey proposes a variation on this: Traveling with a secondary credit card that isn’t shared with anybody else. Having a “clean credit card” that has never been used for emergencies is key, he said, since there’s no chance it could be compromised and closed down. That card should be carried separately from the wallet, he said.
Also consider how you’d get emergency cash if your wallet were stolen, Coffey advised. This may involve a precautionary call to your bank to iron out those details. Some banks may have the ability to get a credit card sent to your hotel, he said.
Collect security precautions on your electronic equipment
Getting a phone stolen may cause a whole lot of damage, particularly if it has banking programs or passwords on it. Travelers should set passwords for their devices, turn on the encryption setting — which will “help decrease what happens when someone gets your device” — and turn on programs like Find my iPhone, so they can delete a phone’s data in the event of theft, McElroy said. Back up camera memory cards and anything on a notebook that’s being taken on holiday, Coffey said.
I second that. Our Mexico vacation followed my sister’s high school graduation. Both sets of photographs, captured on our family camera, are all gone. Obviously, we really wish we had backed those up.
In addition, many individuals just don’t know important phone numbers by heart since everything is saved on their phones, though they should, Coffey noted, so frequently back up the telephone’s images, photos and contacts to the cloud. Some phone accounts will send you a code via text to recover access, Coffey said.
And, although people find this tough, it is better to not have passwords saved on the device, McElroy said. “Think about it as layers: first, I don’t like people knowing my four-digit snare; instant, I know all my passwords,” McElroy said. “If people do get in they could not get to things that are truly important.”
You are at your most vulnerable in the first hour or two
The moment a traveler lands in a new nation is “the vulnerability point,” a time to be particularly careful and aware of your valuables, ” Coffey said. It’s even worse when you have not arrived in the hotel yet. “If you lose your stuff, now you’re really screwed — you do not have a home base, you can’t check in with a credit card because you have lost everything,” he said.
Though the length of your trip, be careful about obtaining free Wi-Fi, which hackers can use to steal your information, McElroy noted. Including Wi-Fi at hotels and airports, where you should be sure to verify the resort’s Wi-FI title, and making sure the web page where you enter the password is protected, he said.
The hotel staff has ‘boots on the ground’ information
A hotel concierge can usually advise travelers unsafe locations, McElroy said. Make sure to stay somewhere that’s reputable and has doors that lock. Think about your hotel room’s safe as essentially your home base, leaving half or more of your cash inside and taking out what you will need every day. Keep backup credit cards in there too, experts said.
‘When it comes to your passport, there is something of a debate among experts about where to store them. Ultimately, there is no foolproof, 100% secure method. It may come down to personal taste.’
Lock up iPads and laptops left behind in the room alongside cash, McElroy said, since “a lot of cybercrime relies on physically getting access” to electronic equipment.
When it comes to your passport, there is something of a debate among experts about where to store them. Ultimately, there is no foolproof, 100% secure method; it might just come down to personal taste. McElroy keeps it on his physical person unless he’s going somewhere like the beach, and keeps a copy in the hotel safe, but Coffey does the opposite.
Still, leaving the passport on your hotel lockbox does stop you from accidental loss, Coffey said, which is why he recommends keeping it in the safe. The typical traveler has “a greater likelihood of falling prey to a pickpocket,” he said. “Does theft happen in a hotel safe? Yes. Does it happen a lot? No.”
Always be ‘street smart’ and vigilant
Do not use phones while out on the street, where they are unlocked and easy to catch, McElroy said — wait to use them within a restaurant or the hotel. Also be careful about how much you drink and bringing out or displaying flashy jewelry. For women who carry out purses, make sure that the bag has strong straps.
“Someone could think of a pair of scissors and run, and they then have your whole handbag,” McElroy said. Travelers should also be wary of draping bags on the back of their chairs, Coffey said, and valuables should be carried in front trousers pockets, rather than the back.
“For safety professionals, we just examine the world, it is a risky place,” McElroy said. “You can opt to minimize those dangers and still have fun, or you might choose to stay in a cave — but who wants that?”
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