The old snatch and grab can leave you traumatised, says David Hill.
It happened in Cuzco, Peru's ancient Inca city. My wife Beth and I were ambling towards a restaurant, along a street full of stalls selling pottery llamas, wooden llamas, fabric llamas, straw llamas.
Locals gazed at our pale skins and long noses; smiled politely; glanced away equally politely. Against a wall just ahead, a slim young guy also gazed, then averted his eyes.
We passed him, our eyes on the stalls. Hey, a knitted llama!
Suddenly, a blur of movement, and Beth staggered. "He's got my purse!"
The young guy had snatched it from her hand and was already sprinting down a narrow alley opposite. I did the most stupid thing possible, and set off after him. After 20m, I stopped. The alley was dark; anyone could be waiting ahead. I came back to where Beth stood shaking, while stallholders clucked around her.
We lost about US$50, and the same in brightly coloured Peruvian soles. Luckily (make that sensibly) our passports, credit cards and other cash were in the hotel safe.
You'll all know similar stories. The crowd of kids accosting, pleading, tugging. The "accidental" jostle or smeared ice-cream, followed by profuse apologies, pattings and wipings. The legit-looking clipboard and questionnaire that let smiling strangers get up close. In each case, a wallet, bag, purse is targeted.
We talk of snatched bags and picked pockets as though they're an adventure; a traveller's tale like rude waiters. In fact, whether violent or subtle, they're a trauma, an invasion that can leave victims shaken, fearful and cash-strapped.
One website estimates more than 100 such incidents happen every day in most tourist
cities. So what can you do to avoid being one in that 100?
Online advice is obvious and sensible. Don't put valuables in backpacks or back pockets.
Keep bags in front of you, especially on public transport. Carry cash in trouser side pockets where you can feel it against your skin. Have spare credit cards and copies of passports.
Carry a small amount of cash to hand over if the perpetrator looks violent.
With the help of frequently-travelling friends, I'll suggest a couple more:
● Try not to look too much like a tourist. We all know the Americans with loud jackets, louder shirts, huge cameras. Blend in, if you can.
● Try not to move too much like a tourist. Walk purposefully. If you need to stop and consult maps, choose a secluded corner or shop interior.
● Know the local currency. Be familiar with what notes look like and what they're worth. Fumbling with strange cash in public makes you a beacon shrieking "Target! Target!"
● Know some local language. Exclaiming "No, thank you ... Stop! ... Police! ... Thief!" in a loud voice puts a crim in an unwelcome spotlight.
● Use crowds — sensibly. They're places where pickpockets can operate. But they also provide security. Having people around you makes a grabbed bag less likely. And if the people are part of your travelling gorup, maybe decide in advance who's going to watch whose back.
● But the best piece of advice regarding bag-snatchers or pickpockets recalls 18th-century highwaymen. In stories, they always demanded "Your money or your life!" If you encounter thieving that turns ugly, remember that it's always possible to earn more money.