Editor's Note: This is the fifth installment in a series in which Stratfor discusses the many facets of travel security. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6 and Part 7.
Part of the allure of international travel involves walking the streets and seeing the sights of an unfamiliar locale. Whether it is done for professional or recreational reasons, venturing out onto the streets of a foreign city is inherently risky for visiting foreigners.
Criminal elements in developed and developing countries alike tend to target travelers — Westerners in particular — because of a general belief that they carry or have access to large sums of money. Whether this belief is accurate or not is irrelevant; that criminals hold this belief renders a traveler a tempting target for criminal activity. Therefore, travelers can and should take a number of precautions to avoid being the target of street crime.
Minimize the Risks
A traveler should understand the culture in which he or she is traveling. What may be an appropriate response to a potential crime in one country may be completely inappropriate in another — a point to which we will return. Cultural differences notwithstanding, no amount of money is worth a person’s life. A traveler should concede his or her money or possessions during a robbery rather than risk violent reprisal from the culprit.
If a traveler believes he or she is under surveillance from a potential thief, an effective way to deter the criminal is by making eye contact. When doing so, a traveler should not act aggressively or maintain eye contact for more than a moment. If a suspicious person indeed has malicious intentions, he or she will likely move on to an easier target for fear of being made. A traveler should immediately move to a safe location if the criminal is undeterred by eye contact.
In fact, such safe locations should be noted while a traveler walks about the city streets. They should be secure locations that can be entered quickly — small cafes and shops are two examples of such locations. Most locals and proprietors will disapprove of and discourage a criminal’s attacking potential clientele. Banks, auto shops and some hotels are even better locations because they usually employ security personnel, who may even be armed.
Travelers can employ a number of other measures to minimize the risk of attack. Walking about unfamiliar streets while listening to music generally is inadvisable because it lowers a traveler's situational awareness. In many countries, an iPod or iPhone, for example, can equate to a month's wages for a local. In addition, exploring the streets in groups is better than doing so alone. Criminals may target a group in hopes of a larger payout, but they will usually avoid them because such targets increase the chances of a criminal’s detection.
When renting a car, a traveler should request an older model to keep a low profile. New and luxury cars, especially those driven by foreigners, are prime targets for car thieves and kidnappers.
Male travelers looking to commingle with female locals need to be aware of one piece of advice in particular: If beautiful women do not approach a given man in his home country, the chances are high that any woman who approaches him in his destination has ulterior motives. It is a common tactic, in places as different as Budapest and Miami Beach, for a beautiful woman to ask a Westerner to buy her a drink — at a highly inflated price. After receiving the bill, the victim will be forced, often by much larger men, to withdraw enough money from an ATM to cover the bill. In China, the "tea room" scam is a variation of this scenario. A young man or woman will ask a traveler if they would like to have a cup of tea, only to take him or her to a location where a pot of tea costs an exorbitant amount of money. Many travelers will neglect to ask for prices beforehand, something that should always be done when traveling.
Prostitution, aside from generally being illegal, also can facilitate crime in many countries. Prostitutes can be used to lure a victim into a location where kidnappers or thieves are waiting, or they can drug victims in order to rob them, so good judgment should be used when accepting a drink from a stranger.
One way to have an effective countermeasure to criminal activity is to make an ally or friend wherever possible. When dining at a restaurant or bar, a traveler should have a conversation with the bartender or waiter. Courtesy goes a long way in many cultures, and if a traveler falls victim to criminal activity, he or she benefits from having someone who knows or remembers him or her. In parts of Africa, for example, a kind word to a bus driver can engender a sense of responsibility for a traveler’s well being.
In cases of kidnapping or violent assault, a traveler must be able to decide at a moment’s notice whether to fight or submit to an assailant. So many factors come into play in such scenarios that it is difficult to generalize a standard procedure — training of the target, at what point in the attack cycle the assault was identified, and the type of force employed against the target. The intent of the assailants is also important. The dynamic of locations in which kidnappings occur frequently or where hostages are killed for political theater is much different than that of locations where express kidnappings are the norm. In short, there is no standard for countermeasures for an attack; they should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Perhaps the best way for a traveler to avoid being targeted for a crime while abroad is to maintain a low profile — wearing casual clothing, inexpensive jewelry, shoes and bags. Donning flashy accessories or pulling out large amounts of cash will invariably draw attention to a traveler. If a traveler must bring along large amounts of money, he or she should keep it separated rather than in one wallet or purse. A moderate amount of cash — the equivalent of $25-$50, for example — kept in one’s front pocket can be handed over to a thief without incident or regret, keeping the duration of the confrontation to a minimum.
Foreign travelers tend to focus on their vacation or business trip when they should be thinking about their inherent vulnerability. Many countries in the world can be overwhelming for travelers, so a few minutes of observation can ease their state of mind. They should find a place to survey their security environment, particularly in situations where they are spending money.
Travelers need to exercise extra caution when withdrawing money from ATMs, especially when location makes a difference. The best place to use an ATM is in a secure location, such as the inside of a bank or hotel lobby (because many banks are surveilled by criminals, travelers should put away the money they withdraw before leaving the building). 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 ATMs. The key to avoid using ATMs at risky times or in risky locations is to plan ahead and to have the correct amount of cash needed for the day’s or night’s activities.
Another way for a traveler to mitigate the threat posed by withdrawing cash — not to mention that posed by express kidnappings — is to travel with a prepaid bank card, acquired from his or her own bank with a small, finite amount of cash. Also, having the bank card's international assistance number in a secure location is helpful in the event an ATM card is stolen.
An increasingly prevalent type of fraud at ATMs is known as "skimming." This 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 is used, allowing cyber-criminals access to bank account information. In other instances, a camera 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 engage in informal currency exchanges on the street or in established places of business that are unauthorized to exchange cash. Visitors who participate in such illegal practices put themselves at risk of deportation or incarceration. This practice exposes the traveler to the risk of receiving counterfeit money, which in turn puts the traveler at risk when he or she tries to use the money. It is not unheard of for business executives, having been apprehended exchanging money on the black market, to be blackmailed by foreign governments, who force them to commit industrial espionage on their companies.
Moreover, exchanging money on the street can put the traveler in close proximity with the local criminal element, which is often tied to organized crime. What begins as an informal money exchange can easily evolve into a kidnapping scenario. If the exchange rate offered by someone on the street sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
There are inherent risks involved when a foreigner wanders the streets of an unfamiliar city. However, travelers can reduce the chances of becoming a victim by being aware of their surroundings and taking certain precautions.