Somewhere in southern Sicily a man at a remote café sighs, refreshed after a day of climbing hills, thanks to his new black support socks. Opposite him, his wife proudly thrusts her shoulders forward to accentuate her red Yoga T-shirt, even though she has the physique of a woman who loves double ladles of crème sauce more than exercise. Their seven-year old daughter laughs as she fiddles with a retainer that dangles loosely from a mouth, probably because she’s missing her front teeth. The girl calls out to her older brother, who is intent on angling a pair of glasses to try and catch the sun enough to spark-light a cigarette.
At least that’s what my wife, son and daughter guessed happened after thieves shattered a window in our rental car in Sicily and stole eight of our nine suitcases. We were 12-hours away from boarding our plane to go home.
What they scored was of limited value, but cost us more than $3,000 to replace: items like two retainers, three pairs of glasses and eight new bikinis (no, none were mine). While the video camera was worth some bucks, it was far more valuable to us than its monetary value alone. I was several years behind copying videos and stills off the hard drive on to my PC.
Despite watching countless hours of AFN public services announcements I let my guard down and got ripped off. It happened when we drove to a remote wildlife sanctuary near Siracusa, Italy. The only people we saw were two men using long poles to knock olives off trees. They were two miles from our stop, a parking lot at the entrance to the preserve. No one was working the entrance and no cars were parked there. It was the off season. We stopped with a hill to our left with a marsh at its base.
When we came back from our 20-minute walk our car’s rear window was smashed and our suitcases were gone, except for the bag holding our wet suits and snorkeling gear. The suitcase was plopped in the dirt on top of shards of glass next to the car. We think the theft started an hour earlier when we stopped for directions at a bakery. As we were talking to a young baker woman who used to live in the States, a disheveled man opened the front door without greeting anyone. The baker woman lost her smile, constantly shifting her eyes from the newcomer to us. We now think the man called ahead to comrades that tourists were on the way, and they grabbed some poles to knock olives and wait for us.
We think our then 11-year-old daughter saw another member of the team. After the theft, she told us when we first drove up she had seen a man wearing sunglasses and boots looking up at us while knee-deep in the marsh below.
As I shared our family misstep with friends, many of them shared their own embarrassing story. A common theme emerged. The thieves were continually watching tourists and were a lot more resourceful than we thought.
One friend shared when he parked a camper at a remote beach and went into the water for an early evening swim with his wife. They took turns watching the camper from the ocean. But in that time someone squirmed under the camper from behind, cut a hole in under carriage and looted it.
A second friend said his German TV production crew stopped for espresso in a small Italian town, constantly looking out the café window at their van. But when they went back out to their wheels, they were shocked to see $50,000 in equipment was missing.
They ran back into the café to ask for a phone number for the police. The owner told them there was nothing law enforcement could do, but for a $1,500 finder’s fee he might be able to get their gear back.
Fifteen minutes of phone calls and 15-hundred dollars later the video team had their equipment back.
A third friend mentioned sitting in a crowded Italian plaza savoring what tasted like ice cream but looked like a four-inch volcano on a plate. As he spooned his treat he noticed an attractive woman slip up to a man pointing a video camera around the plaza. As she talked to the tourist, a young man slid up behind the camera wielder, swiped his wallet, and ran into the crowd.
While you’re on vacation, it’s natural you’ll be looking for sights, not crooks. The thieves are looking for the tourists. Whether it’s Rome, Honolulu, Vegas or Los Angeles, if you look and act like a tourist you may as well be carrying a neon sign that garishly advertises “rob me “.
My Lessons Learned:
- Blend in with the locals.
- The time to think about a family protection plan is before it begins, not when you’re immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a beautiful new place you’ve never seen.
- Consider buying theft protection insurance.
- Men can become less of a pick pocket target by not putting their wallet in the back pocket.
- While planning a vacation in another country, research the criminal threat before you go. See what U.S. State Department security advisories are in effect at www.travel.state.gov and click the “See all alerts and warnings” link at the bottom of the page.
- Some threats are unique to different countries. For example, while on vacation in Italy, women should not walk with a shoulder bag slung over the shoulder facing the street (motor bike riders might drive by and grab it).
- Don’t leave valuables in your car or assume you’ll be safe for “just” a few minutes. Assume thieves are watching and waiting for you to drop your guard.