8:08 PM EDT, September 10, 2013
About 10 years ago, in sweet, magical Barcelona, Spain, I was walking down the bustling and heavily touristed La Rambla when about six guys in their late teens or early 20s, clustered on the side of the pedestrian way, hollered something at me.
My Spanish is moderate at best, so I made some marginal attempt to beg their pardon in Spanish, which immediately outed me as an English speaker and possibly as an American.
The six of them sprung up with large smiles, saying in rough English that they wanted a photo with me. They clustered around me as one draped an arm around my shoulder and, curiously, raised his leg onto my lower back. Another did the same from the other side and a couple of them crowded in behind me.
They smiled and oozed enthusiasm, but instinct told me I was about to get my pocket picked. At the risk of upsetting my new Spanish friends, I pushed them away, hard, barked a curt "no" and walked away.
I explained the scenario recently to Robert Siciliano, a personal-security expert, and he agreed that, yes, I was more than likely a target for a theft, albeit good-naturedly. Then again, that's how much of the world's milder forms of crime work: You're goaded into distraction and dropping your guard, then, poof, the wallet is gone.
The good news was that I got away unscathed. The bad news is that Americans make for some of the most convenient crime targets while traveling abroad.
That fact has been accepted as gospel for years, but after noting that my travel-writing colleague Rick Steves stated as much in a recent column, I wondered two things: Are we really such ripe victims and, more important, why?
Siciliano, who has written four books about personal security, didn't hesitate in explaining.
"We stick out," he said. "We're boisterous in so many awful ways, and that brings unwanted signals. Those signals say, 'Come and get me.'"
Siciliano said our common shortcomings include failure to educate ourselves in languages other than English; not researching local customs and the cities where we travel; wearing clothing that identifies us as foreigners (English words and baseball caps mostly); and an assumption that it can't happen to us, coupled with an uncertainty about how to react when it does.
"We have a certain arrogance about us that's known worldwide," Siciliano said. "We think we're so smart, and sometimes it's the brightest guy the room who is the easiest to scam because he thinks he's so smart."
I told Siciliano that what he described sounded like a syndrome rooted in the notion of "American exceptionalism," which amounts to a belief that our country is singularly unique and often is coupled with a belief in our superiority.
"Capital Y, capital E, capital S," Siciliano said.
What happened to me in Barcelona was attempted only, he said, because it works, often with Americans. Part of our disadvantage comes from those types of crimes being relatively rare here. Yes, we have more than our share of violence and muggings, but crime rooted in distraction and coordination is less common. That said, Americans living in big cities are more conditioned to be wary of strangers, which might be what helped me in Barcelona.
John Rendeiro, vice president of global security and intelligence for International SOS, said Americans aren't necessarily more vulnerable to crime than other travelers, but we might be at increased risk because we are unaware of how pickpockets and scams tend to work, he added.
While Rendeiro was boarding a train in Madrid several years ago, he said, a well-dressed older man asked if a coin on the floor of the train was Rendeiro's. Rendeiro was immediately suspicious that it might be the opening shot of a distraction crime. Sure enough, a hand quickly reached into the train car as the doors were about to close and into his front pocket, where he was carrying his wallet.
Rendeiro said he had his hand on the wallet on the outside of the pants, which was enough to thwart the attempt.
"If my hand hadn't been on it, he would have had it," he said.
Rendeiro had an advantage from a lifetime of travel, which included 21 years at the State Department. Offers of assistance, a request for (or offer of) directions and requests to take a photo may all not be what they appear. Then again, odds are they indeed are innocuous exchanges. The key is to be aware and prepared for any possibility.
"Any time you leave your home environment, you won't have the cultural awareness you have at home," Rendeiro said. "When people get close to you, and they're good at what they do, your wallet can be gone before you have any idea."
All this isn't to diminish the joys of travel. The point is this: Travel with humility and an open mind. Accept friendliness, but if an internal alarm rings, listen to it. Be confident, be aware and make an effort to blend in with locals.
"I don't worry about anything when I'm traveling," Siciliano said. "I am aware, I am alert and I know my options. I know what I'm getting myself into, and I'm confident in myself and my abilities."
I'm right there with him, and that is one reason I'd gladly get on a plane for Barcelona tomorrow.
Keep essentials — credit cards, ID and cash — in a front, not back, pocket.
Wear purses over the shoulder beneath a coat.
Don't draw needless attention to yourself. Avoid wearing flashy jewelry, and minimize the clothes that scream "I'm not from here." That can include baseball caps, clothing bearing English words and "travel clothes" such as zip-off pants and vests with 30 pockets that you don't use. In some countries it can even include khakis.
Trust your intuition. If someone seems to be paying you unwanted attention, it's probably not for a reason you want. Be polite and move on.
Be aware. Take note of what's ahead and, especially, what's behind. If you feel you're in danger, cross the street or go into a coffee shop.
Be confident. Strong, confident body language speaks volumes. Don't be afraid to look a stranger in the eye, but don't feel the need to let the eye contact linger. Just make it long enough to acknowledge the other person and move on.
Rendeiro suggests carrying a "dummy wallet" with a small amount of cash in places where robbery and pickpockets are a serious problem.
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