What I learned after being robbed at gunpoint in Mexico

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When my family and I have robbed at gunpoint while on vacation in Mexico, money was hardly the first thought in my mind. It occurred at a cooking course outside of Oaxaca in southern Mexico recommended to us by family friends. One moment we were eating homemade mole, the next minute guys with guns rounded the entire course up in a storage cupboard, tied our hands with zip ties and demanded our valuables. But when we emerged — secure, thankfully, albeit traumatized and without many of our valuables — money meant everything, steering us through the rest of our vacation 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 securely in the hotel’s lockbox. After my wallet had been stolen, carrying a charge card separately from it was be a lifesaver. Only one of our family’s cell phones had been taken, so we were able to touch base with family and friends back home

‘One minute we were eating homemade mole, the next minute guys with guns rounded the entire course up in a storage cupboard, tied our hands with zip ties and demanded our valuables.’

Don’t miss: 75% of Americans have done this to cover a vacation But I also began to think of the things we did not think about or do, but perhaps should have. I hope what happened to us never occurs to you. And interviews with security experts confirmed that it likely won’t: That type of robbery is quite rare. Nevertheless, taking time to prepare is well worth it, they said, because there are loads of different ways to lose your stuff on vacation — from scams to getting pick-pocketed — the airline losing your bag, or you simply misplacing your things. “It is about minimizing your risk as much as you can,” said Rick McElroy, a security strategist at security firm Carbon Black. “You can not assume you’re never going to be a victim because random crimes occur.” Here’s how to prepare: Check official travel warnings and crime statistics When you’re at the very start of arranging a trip, consider where you’re going and consider the dangers, McElroy advised. The State Department puts out travel warnings for areas that you need to strongly consider not going to and alerts for more short-term dangers. (That information is found on the State Department website.) By way of example, there’s a travel warning for specific parts of Mexico, according to the State Department. In Oaxaca, the State Department claims that government personnel must remain in tourist areas, but it does not advise U.S. citizens what to watch out for. Then, at the packing stage, be intentional about what you’re bringing. “I tell folks, ‘You should pack your luggage as if 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 security. Take an inventory of your valuables for insurance purposes If possible, leave your valuables behind Before Going on vacation, and take an inventory of what you are bringing, said Elaine Montgomery-Baisden, chief underwriting officer of personal insurance at Travelers Companies Inc

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Homeowner and renter insurance policies should cover vacation theft, but the policies are subject to specific constraints, especially on cash, jewelry, computers and other higher-value things, which need to be insured separately, she said. You will need a police report and receipts for the items in question to create a claim with your insurance company, she added. Also see: Some cool insurance products are finally on the horizon Review your insurance coverage once a year — or before you go on vacation — and making sure to tell your insurance provider about any new jewelry or other items. You should also check that you have replacement cost coverage, meaning you’d find the price of the new item, without depreciation, Montgomery-Baisden stated.

‘Review your insurance coverage once a year — or prior to your vacation — 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 item to safeguard: your passport. Create at least one physical copy of your passport and, to be extra cautious, encrypt an electronic copy of it too, McElroy said. Don’t carry a big fat wallet around in your pocket Also consider “sanitizing” your wallet and/or purse of everyday items which aren’t needed on vacation, Coffey said. Should you lose your wallet or purse, you need to know what was inside, Coffey said; restricting what is in them also mitigates the possible 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 the Sephora store credit and several nearly-full coffee punch cards which I’ll never get back. Items like engagement or wedding rings and other jewelry might be worth leaving at home or locking up in a hotel safe upon birth, McElroy said. They’re items travelers are most likely to overlook because they are such everyday objects. Have a back-up checking account with limited funds Financial steps need to be taken too. It is good practice to establish and fund a bank account that’s separate from your main one, McElroy said. You can then have a debit card for that account out and, should anything happen, your other cards will be secured in the hotel safe and you won’t drop access to your main bank account. (And, in the unlikely event, you were forced to withdraw money from an ATM, even at home, you could use that card.)

‘It is good practice to establish and fund a bank account that’s separate from your main one. You can then have a debit card for that account out and, should anything happen, your other cards will be secured in the hotel safe.’

Coffey proposes a variation on this: Traveling with a secondary credit card which isn’t shared with anyone else. Having a “clean credit card” that’s never been used for emergencies is key, he said, because there’s no chance that it could be compromised and shut down. That card should be carried separately from your wallet, he said. Also consider how you’d get emergency cash if your wallet were stolen, Coffey advised. This could 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. Related: Something unromantic to get with an engagement ring: insurance Collect security precautions on your electronics Obtaining a phone stolen may cause a good deal of damage, particularly if it has banking apps or passwords on it. Travelers should put passwords for their devices, turn on the encryption setting — that will “help minimize what happens when somebody gets your device” — and turn on apps like Locate my iPhone, so that they can delete a phone’s data in the event of theft, McElroy said. Back up camera memory cards and anything on a laptop that’s being taken on vacation, 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. See more: How losing my phone in Cuba helped me reconnect with the world In addition, many people simply don’t know important phone numbers by heart because everything is saved on their phones, even though they need to, Coffey noted, so frequently back up the phone’s pictures, contacts and photos to the cloud. Some cellphone accounts will send you a code via text to regain access, Coffey said. And, although people find this tough, it’s better to not have passwords saved on the device, McElroy said. “Think of it as layers: first, I don’t like people knowing my four-digit pin; second, I know all my passwords,” McElroy said. “If people do get in they couldn’t get to things which are really important.” Also see: Lost Phones Cost Americans $30 Billion a Year

You are at your most vulnerable in the first hour or 2 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 is even worse when you haven’t arrived at the hotel yet. “If you lose your stuff, now you’re really screwed — you don’t have a home base, you can not 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 data, McElroy noted. That includes Wi-Fi at airports and hotels, where you should make certain to validate the hotel’s Wi-FI name, and making sure the web page where you enter the password is secure, he said. Also see: The sad reason half of Americans don’t take all their paid vacation 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 of your hotel room’s safe as essentially your home base, leaving half or more of your cash inside and taking out what you need each day. Keep backup credit cards in there too, experts said.

‘When it comes to your passport, there is something of a disagreement among experts about where to store them. Ultimately, there is no foolproof, 100% secure method. It can come down to personal preference.’

Lock up iPads and laptops left behind in the room alongside cash, McElroy said, since “a lot of cybercrime relies on physically obtaining access” to electronics. In regards to your passport, there is something of a disagreement among experts about where to store them. Ultimately, there is no foolproof, 100% secure method; it might just come down to personal preference. McElroy keeps it on his physical person unless he is going somewhere like the beach, and retains a copy in the hotel safe, but Coffey does exactly the opposite. Still, leaving the passport in your hotel lockbox does stop you from accidental loss, Coffey said, which is why he advocates keeping it in the safe. The typical traveler has “a higher likelihood of falling prey to a pickpocket,” he said. “Does theft occur in a hotel safe? Yes. Does it happen a lot? No.” Always be ‘street smart’ and attentive Do not use phones while out on the road, where they’re unlocked and easy to catch, McElroy said — wait to use them inside 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 the bag has strong straps. “Someone could come up with a pair of scissors and run, and then they have your entire purse,” McElroy said. Travelers should also be wary of draping bags on the back of their seats, Coffey said, and valuables should be carried in front pants pockets, as opposed to the back. “For security professionals, we just examine the world, it’s a risky place,” McElroy said. “You can choose to minimize those dangers and still have fun, or you might choose to live in a cave — but who wants that?”

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