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Jan 23, 2006 | 22:51 GMT

Travel Security: Minimizing the Risk of Falling Victim to Crime

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a seven-part series on personal security for international travelers. Robbers, pickpockets, kidnappers and other criminal elements — not only in developing countries — tend to target traveling Westerners because of a general belief that their pockets are filled with cash or that they have access to large sums of money. Indeed, when traveling abroad, tourists and businesspeople often find it necessary to carry large amounts of cash or to frequently use ATM cards. To minimize the risk of being robbed — or worse — travelers can take several precautions. Perhaps the best way to avoid being robbed while in a foreign country is to maintain a low profile. Travelers who wear flashy jewelry or pull out a large wad of cash in public are walking advertisements for victimization. It is best to leave jewelry in the hotel room or, better yet, at home. If it is necessary to carry large amounts of cash, the best practice is to keep it in several locations, and not all in one wallet or purse. A moderate amount of cash, say around $50, kept in the front pocket can be handed over to an assailant should the traveler be confronted. The thinking is that a robber will take the money and run, and the whole confrontation will be over in seconds. The key in this case is to minimize contact with the assailant. When using an ATM, travelers tend to focus on the task at hand, not so much on those who could be lying in wait. This lack of situational awareness can lead to robbery or, even worse, to an "express" kidnapping, in which the victim is abducted and forced to withdraw money from his or her bank account using his ATM card until the balance is exhausted. Kidnappers who discover there is a large balance in the account have been known to hold on to the traveler until the account is depleted — often stuffed in the trunk of their car. To minimize this danger, many travelers choose to travel with a prepaid bank card — usually obtained at one's local bank — that has a limited amount of money in the account. Having the bank card's international assistance number in a secure location is helpful in the event an ATM card is stolen. The best location for ATM use is a secure location such as inside a bank or hotel lobby. Many hotels abroad also will process cash advances from the traveler's credit card account or exchange U.S. dollars into local currencies. Traveler's checks also can reduce dependence on ATM's altogether. The key to avoid using ATMs at risky times or in risky locations is to plan ahead, and have correct amount of cash needed for the day's or night's activities. An increasingly prevalent type of high-tech fraud at ATMs is "skimming." This crime involves placing a device that looks like part of the machine over the card slot. The device contains a card reader that records account information when the ATM machine is used, allowing cyber-criminals access to bank account information. In many cases a camera also is placed on the machine to record PIN numbers. The exchange rate in some countries — which can be artificially skewed in the host country's favor — could tempt some travelers to take part in informal currency exchanges on the street or even in established places of business that are unauthorized to change cash. Visitors who engage in such illegal practices put themselves at risk of being deported or — worse — being jailed in some cases. This practice also opens up the possibility of receiving counterfeit money, which further puts the traveler at risk of ending up on the wrong side of the law. Being caught exchanging money on the black market can give some governments a means to blackmail foreign executives, forcing them to commit industrial espionage on their companies or face the consequences. Exchanging money on the street also can put the traveler in close proximity with the local criminal element — often tied to organized crime. What starts out as an informal money exchange can easily end up becoming a kidnapping scenario. Generally speaking, if the exchange rate offered by someone on the street sounds too good to be true, it is. Maintaining situational awareness at all times — at home or abroad — is key to minimizing risks of all kind. While in a strange city, however, travelers can reduce the chances of becoming a victim while away from home by being aware of their surroundings and taking certain precautions.
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