Keeping Your Valuables Safe

Recently, whilst interacting with a Facebook travel group I’m a member of, I came across the sad story of a traveller who had a camera stolen from their luggage.  The theft occurred sometime between checking their luggage in for a flight and retrieving it at the other end.  It’s fair to assume someone working for the airline or the airport was responsible, but we’ll never know.

Whilst this is the first time I’ve heard of this sort of thing happening during a flight, thefts from bags on buses, trains and vehicles, or those left unattended in a hotel room or in storage somewhere, aren’t all that uncommon.  There are however, a few basic steps you can take to protect your belongings:

  • luggage-locksNever leave your luggage unattended at airports, bus or train stations, restaurants and so on.
  • See your luggage on and off buses, trains, vehicles and boats. Bus, train and ferry stations across Indonesia are usually very busy places. Uniforms are almost unheard of so it’s hard to tell who works there and who doesn’t, making it easy for thieves and scammers to slip in and out of the crowds. Many an unsuspecting tourist has had their luggage stolen by thieves posing as baggage handlers.
  • Don’t hand your bag over to anyone. See it on the bus yourself, watch it being loaded and keep your eye on it until the luggage hatch is shut or it’s been strapped down on the roof and only take your seat when the driver makes his last call for passengers.  Ideally, if you’re travelling with two or more people, assign one person as the luggage minder whilst the other claims your seats.  If the bus makes a stop, get off and watch your luggage.  Sure it sounds tedious, but think of it as an opportunity to stretch your legs.
  • If you’re travelling by taxi or hire car, the same rules apply. Don’t take your seat until the boot is shut and if the driver stops for any reason and opens the boot, get out and watch. And never, ever put your handbag or daypack in the boot – they’re easy targets.  Stories abound of travellers having their stuff disappear in this manner so vigilance is the name of the game.
  • Keep your valuables with you…as far as practical. I add the last bit because sometimes, like if you’re spending the day at the beach swimming and snorkelling, it’s just not practical to take them along. The risks of taking them may actually be greater than the risk of leaving them in your room, for instance. You need to make a judgement call.  But there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to leave valuables in luggage you’re checking in for a flight (as the person I told you about earlier has found out the hard way).
  • Be wary of using overhead luggage compartments on any public transport. It’s all too easy for someone to remove or raid your bag whilst you’re distracted looking out the window, reading a book or sleeping. The best bet is to put the bag under the seat in front of you or between your feet and put your leg through the strap. And make sure it’s plenty hard to get to if you’re planning on sleeping.  Plenty of travellers have had their bag raided whilst they slept on a plane or bus.
  • When using your camera, always put the strap over your neck or around your wrist. It makes it much harder for someone to make a snatch and grab. Once you’ve taken your photo, put the camera away.
  • Never leave your bag or valuables out in the open, such as on a table, where they are an easy target for a snatch and grab.
  • A small daypack or over-the-shoulder bag is a better option than a carry bags which are easy targets for bag snatchers. Ladies, leave your handbag at home.  In crowded place, wear your daypack on your chest rather than your back. Thieves have been known slash a bag open with a knife whilst it’s on an unsuspecting tourists back.
  • If you’re on foot, always carry your bag on the opposite side to an adjacent road or laneway to deter drive by bag snatchers. Yes they do happen, usually by scooter mounted thieves.
  • Make sure all your electronic items are password protected. So if a thief does get hold of your stuff, they won’t be able do too much with it.

If you can’t keep your valuables with you, here’s a few tips:

  • Leave non-essential valuables at home. Before you pack it, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?”
  • Never, ever leave your valuables lying around in plain view. That’s just asking for trouble.
  • Use the safety deposit box in your room, if there is one. They’re not 100% theft proof but they will deter opportunistic thefts.
  • Some establishments will place your valuables in their hotel safe. Sometimes you’ll be given a large envelope in which to place your items – seal it, write your name and room number on it, sign across the seal and get a receipt. Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with this method but to each their own.
  • Always double check your room is as secure as possible before you leave it. Make sure all the windows are closed and latched and double check the door is locked behind you.
  • Use luggage locks on your bags.  They’re not foolproof but they do add another layer of defence.
  • Consider purchasing and using one of the many luggage anti-theft products on the market. We use a Pacsafe Backpack & Bag Protector.  It’s basically an adjustable, wire mesh locking device that fits over a backpack and is fastened to a permanent fixture or a fixed piece of furniture like a pillar or bed frame.  As an added measure, we put the rain cover over the backpack but under the Pacsafe which prevents little fingers from getting into the exterior pockets.

Nothing is 100% infallible but in my opinion the Pacsafe is the best mobile deterrent device on the market.  It would be a very determined thief with plenty of time and the right tools to cut through the high tensile wire to get past the Pacsafe defences.  We might only use it a few times each trip but it’s a nice bit of security to have when we need it.

Pacsafe have a number of other equally robust security products on the market so it’s worth checking out their website.

When it comes to money, there are a few additional things you can do:

  • Don’t keep all your money in one spot. Spread it around your luggage and between you if you’re travelling with someone else.  Whilst a thief might find one stash, they’re unlikely to find them all.
  • Strip your purse or wallet down to the bare essentials. Leave all those store cards and any extra credit cards at home.  It’s much easier to hide a thin wallet or purse.
  • Never pull out a wad of cash or bulging wallet in front of anyone. Flashing cash around puts a target on your back and undermines your ability to haggle for a bargain. Just keep enough cash handy to meet your immediate needs and top up as required.
  • Wear clothing with nice deep pockets, preferably with a zip, Velcro or buttoned flap. It just makes it that little bit harder for a pickpocket.  It almost goes without saying that you should never get around with your wallet or cash protruding from your pocket.
  • Speaking of wallets, consider using a money pouch instead. A money belt worn around your waist underneath your shirt is a strong deterrent against pickpockets. If the idea of wearing a money belt sounds a little uncomfortable, a key chain attached to your purse or wallet will suffice. Use a strong safety pin to attach the chain to your pants if you’re not wearing a belt. Even a piece of cord looped through your wallet and pinned to your pants is better than nothing.

So what should you do if something is stolen?

  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Unless you or someone else actually witnessed the theft, you can’t be sure who the culprit was.  On public transport it could have been someone masquerading as a bag handler rather than an employee.  Many guesthouses, particularly at the budget end of the scale aren’t particularly secure, meaning it’s not hard for a would-be thief to gain access into your room.  And sadly, that person could just as easily be a fellow traveller as anyone.  Yes, travellers have been known to steal from other travellers!
  • If applicable, report it to management. Just don’t be surprised if they deny that a member of their staff was responsible or even that the theft occurred at all, perhaps insisting that you’ve made a mistake. Naturally you’re going to be upset and frustrated but refer to the point above and keep your cool.  Ranting and raving will get you nowhere and will just make an unpleasant situation worse.
  • If the theft occurred in a guesthouse or hotel, you’re probably going to want to move out but you could have a battle getting your money back if you’ve prepaid. Another reason why paying as you go is a good idea.
  • If you haven’t paid up front, don’t move out without paying your bill. I know this will be a bitter pill to swallow if you genuinely believe a member of the staff or management themselves was responsible, but they will send the police after you and this will land you in a whole heap of trouble you don’t want.
  • Think twice before you go naming and shaming the business all over the internet and with other travellers you meet along the way. Remember, this is people’s livelihoods you’re messing with so be absolutely sure about the facts before you go calling them out.  A better approach for all concerned, may be a general warning and sharing some of the tips we’ve included here.
  • Report the theft to the local police at the earliest opportunity. Some travellers have reported scepticism by some police when reporting a theft, a reluctance by them to fill out a report, or taking a painstakingly long time to do so.  But stick with it and make sure you get a copy of the report before you leave because you’ll need it if you intend to make a claim against your travel insurance.  (You do have travel insurance right?  Because you wouldn’t be silly enough to travel without it…)
  • Report the incident to your travel insurer at the earliest opportunity.

Most of these tips just come down to common sense.  And they apply everywhere, not just Indonesia, which is no more or less prone to petty crime than the next place. But you do need to understand that Indonesia is still a developing country where much of the population live below the poverty line.

As a foreigner, no matter whether you’re a backpacker travelling on a shoestring or someone doing it in style, in the eyes of the average Indonesian, you’re rich!  It’s also highly likely you don’t speak the language, you’re not as savvy as a local and you won’t be sticking around.  That makes you a logical target for a petty criminal.  Don’t get careless and make it easy for them.

Whilst all this may sound a little intimidating, don’t let it put you off. Overwhelmingly, we’ve found Indonesian’s right across the archipelago friendly, welcoming and honest.  Throughout our travels around Indonesia (and other parts of Asia for that matter), we’ve never had anything stolen other than a mobile phone that was accidentally left in a taxi in Ho Chi Minh City.  In case you’re wondering, the driver later tried to ransom it back to us but since it was an old phone, we told him to go to hell!