By Jessica Fishman
Don’t Panic [like I did] if Your Valuables are Stolen Abroad
There I was, sitting at a restaurant patio enjoying chorpian, basking in the sun, and anticipating the adventures to come. All was well in Buenos Aires only three days after arriving and I couldn’t have been happier that my choripan tasted so good. I reached down to grab my purse from under the table to look at my phone and take another picture of my brother making a silly face as he stared at nothing… Wait! Where’s my purse?
Panic strikes! I looked down and my purse is gone. My heart began to beat faster as I quickly jumped from calmed and contented to freaking out. I stood up and searched around the table, thinking, surely I’m just blind and my purse is actually right in front of me. As the truth seeped in, my panic skyrocketed. I not only had my phone in that beloved purse, but both of our passports (which I ironically thought I was keeping safe in a zipped pocket), my wallet with cash, cards, and my Washington state ID, my Swiss Army knife, and my handwritten travel diary that had followed me throughout Europe and the United States.
So, what do you do when so many important things are stolen and you find yourself without any form of identification in a foreign country? I’ll admit that not everything that I did in the hours to follow was particularly helpful, but in the craziness of it all, I did manage a few things correctly.
First, don’t go running down the street looking for your bag. I did that… it didn’t help-just wasted time. Likely, as soon as you are robbed, the thief will stash your purse, wallet, backpack etc. into another bag so that it would be unidentifiable while walking down the street. The sad truth of the matter is that you will not get your stolen item back and you certainly won’t find it by simply running down the street on the verge of tears.
Do go to the police! While I was frantically running through the streets of Buenos Aires, my brother had the restaurant call the police. In retrospect, this was both a huge waste of time, and a smart thing to do. The police will not get your things back; they pretty much told us that they wouldn’t even try. At the police station, we were fortunate enough to run into a man that spoke both English and Spanish and helped translate for us just out of kindness (oh yeah, did I mention that neither my brother nor I spoke Spanish?). At the time, going to the police felt like a mistake. It took forever and we knew that they would do nothing about it. However, we got a police report, which ultimately was worth it. The police report made going through borders and getting our new passports much easier. So although going to the police may seem like a waste of time, I would actually recommend it!
After we spent a couple of hours with the police, we rushed to the US Embassy. Our trip would have been completely ruined if we couldn’t get new passports. We had both flights and border crossings into Chile planned in our itinerary, and we had no idea if we would be able to continue as planned. When we got to the Embassy, we were horrified to find out that they were closed. We had missed it by 10 minutes. Now what do we do? We had a flight the next morning and there was no way that we would make it!
Defeated and still in shock that this was happening to us, we decided to go to an Internet café and cancel our cards and phone service. For US citizens, the prospect of losing your phone, and thus your access to the outside world, is rather unsettling; however, in many foreign countries Internet cafés are everywhere and having access to the Internet and a phone is actually incredibly accessible. Canceling cards is easy. You simply look up the phone number on your banks website and report a theft. Then ask them to cancel the stolen cards and send new ones to your address at home. This way, no one can purchase things and continue to steal from you, and when you get home, you will already have new cards. Cancelling phone service is just as simple. Search for the number online and simply tell them to suspend your line. Then no one can make international calls or use data, which is incredibly expensive to use abroad.
While at the Internet café we also checked on our flight in the morning. A small stroke of luck hit when we saw that it had been delayed until the afternoon. If getting new passports at the Embassy only took a few hours we might still make it.
The next morning we got up incredibly early and decided to get to the US Embassy an hour before they opened in order to ensure that we would be first in line. To our sheer horror, when we arrived, there was already a line that extended all the way down the block. Surely we would miss our flight. We asked someone if the monstrous line was the line we needed to be in. When we told the officers that we were US citizens, they ushered us past the line and told us to go to window 15. We passed up line after line with our magical window 15. It turned out that the lines were for Argentinian citizens hoping to get visas to the US, but US citizens in need of emergency passports took priority. The process of getting our new passports took about two hours. They printed out passports that looked exactly like real ones. These “emergency passports” last for one year. They cost $160 but you can exchange it for a real one that lasts for 10 years when you get home with no charge.
Our schedule was tight, but thanks to the random plane delay, we were able to make it to the airport in time and catch our flight to El Calafate. A day after my most valuable possessions had been stolen and, to our surprise, everything actually felt okay. Luckily my brother still had his debit and credit cards so we were not without money. Besides the large monetary losses that we suffered, we were otherwise fine and could continue our trip without problems. What had seemed like the end of the world only 24 hours earlier, turned out to simply be a lesson learned the hard way.
If you find yourself in a similar situation while traveling in a foreign country, don’t worry and here are some tips to help you get through it:
- The US Embassy is great! They are fast and make it easy for you to continue with your travels. Losing your passport is NOT the end of the world. Make sure to check their hours soon after you’re robbed and make sure you’re in the right line.
- Make sure you cancel any cards or phone service so that you don’t rack up any charges that you aren’t responsible for. Even if someone does manage to use a credit card before you get the chance to cancel it, the fact that you report the theft and cancel the card will make it much easier to refute the charge later and get it removed.
- Go to the police. It may feel like a waste of time, but having the police report will help in the long run and make you feel more secure while crossing borders just in case someone is confused by your emergency passport.
- If you actually lose all forms of money or credit cards and are left stranded with no money at all, you still have a few options. You can try to get a hold of someone in the US and ask them to wire you money through Western Union. Or you can ask them to FedEx a debit or credit card with money in the account. If none of those are options for you, go directly to the US Embassy. They will fly you home to the US immediately. However, the flight will be expensive and they will make you pay for it in the end.
- For every one person that tries to take advantage of you, there are even more people that are willing to help. When you are facing the worst, remember that strangers are not evil and there are so many kind-hearted people that will do everything they can to help. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, even in a foreign country where it might seem intimidating or scary.
- DON’T freak out! Everything will be ok! In the end, my trip was able to continue without any further problems. I was much more cautious about potential theft for the rest of the trip and I learned some really valuable lessons. It was actually my travel notebook, the one item with no monetary value, that I was saddest to see go. Everything else was replaceable.
- Always make a copy of your passport and carry the copy NOT the original. Leave your valuables at the hotel or hostel and travel light while exploring.
- Don’t wear flashy clothing or jewelry that would attract the attention of street criminals looking for targets.
- When you sit down keep you purse or backpack on your body. Or, when sitting at a restaurant, slip the strap of your bag around your leg. Just don’t let go of it at any time. It might feel safe to simply stash it under the table by your feet but there are tons of street criminals who have mastered the art of stealing things without you even noticing…believe me, I learned that one the hard way.
- To ensure that you are not left stranded in a foreign country with no money, bring two credit or debit cards with you while traveling. Keep one on you and leave one at your hotel.
- BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Hopefully you will never find yourself victim to a crime while traveling abroad. If you do find yourself in a bind with no phone, no passport, and no money, take comfort in the fact that YOU WILL BE OK! Besides, while the experience may have been pretty awful, it was actually a valuable lesson that I will carry with me throughout my future travels; ultimately making me a more experienced and aware traveler.