I liked Barcelona. I really do. Compared to the rest of Spain, this Catalonian city is filled with rich Gaudi influences, magnificent architectures, cheap beers and not-so-cheap tapas. Barcelona was also my first getaway into Spain before I made my way down south into Portugal.
And it was in Barcelona, that my phone almost got stolen right under my nose.
You see, I consider myself as a very paranoid traveler. I tend to over think every possible worst case scenarios, and took every single precaution to overcome then-said possible worst case scenarios. I wasn’t expecting myself to be a target, I really don’t. This experience really caught me off guard, and the fact it could happen to anybody is unnerving.
Pickpocket in Europe is of nothing new, in fact it’s a well-known problem in most destinations in Europe. In Rome alone I met five travellers who had their belongings stolen off from metros, public buses and local attractions. While I was in Paris, I was traveling with two others who both had their phone and passport stolen off respectively.
Their preferred ways of operation? Working in groups, and lots of distractions. Distraction is the key to everything. A simple cover, a tap on the shoulder. Anything works as long as they had your attention elsewhere for a few seconds. They also comes in all shapes and sizes, preferring tourists as their main target. This is a great article on how pickpockets operate in Europe.
But back to the story of how my phone almost got stolen, I would first like you to meet Tim.
I met Tim at a hostel in Barcelona, and decided to go for tapas the very next day at one of the recommended neighbourhood. The neighbourhood itself was very touristy, and the tapas bar we found was very expensive but we decided to stop by anyway for fried calamari. When it was time to pay, we set off to the bar – and here’s my main mistake. I placed my phone on top of the bar counter (should have kept it in my bag!), fished out my purse and placed my sunglasses on top of it. While Tim was paying off his meal, I felt a short tap on my shoulder and a guy in his mid 20s came over and started a conversation :
“Hey, where are you guys from?”
And within that five seconds, of me turning my attention to the guy on my left I heard a small clutter on top of the bar counter. It definitely caught me off guard and confused for a few second, but then it hit me – my phone was missing. All was left, was my pair of sunglasses.
At that point, I could actually hear the ringing in my ears; a sharp drop in my stomach. “This is not happening to me“. I couldn’t care less about my stupid phone, but the memories inside are irreplaceable. All it took was five seconds of stupidity, and some stranger who tried to strike a conversation.
For some reason, I had a hunch, and that hunch was proven right when I immediately grabbed the closest guy to my right. He was the closest suspect on scene. No one else was within that close proximity except for Tim, the bartender (who’s attending to Tim) and the two strangers.
I knew right there and then, that those two guys were partners. The one who asked questions came immediately to the other guy’s side following my outburst, but at this point all I could think of was my precious data.
And throughout that whole commotion, Tim (bless him!) noticed something sticking out under his arms and voila – it was indeed my phone. If it weren’t for Tim’s amazing observation I’m sure those two guys would have gotten away. That was a really, really close call.
Sadly, they also left unscathed. They literally walked out of the bar and left. No remorse, no apologies, no nothing. That left a really bad taste for Barcelona, and being an almost victim was not so nice.
The story doesn’t end here because shortly after my phone incident, Tim caught another pickpocket who tried to run away with his camera at the Gothic Quarters. The guy started off friendly, making small conversations and what not, and the next thing I knew Tim caught him trying to make a move – and that was not cool. Luckily he had his camera strung to his belt anyway so the culprit didn’t get away. I had no idea why we were both targeted on that day, but that caused us to remain extra vigilant for the rest of the trip.
Lessons learnt? Don’t talk to strangers. Period. Especially not when someone’s being extra friendly for no reason. And keep all your belongings with you at all times.
The whole incident definitely served as a ground reminder for extra precautions. Here are some travel tips for unwanted occurrence:
1. Always have a travel insurance!
I seldom travel without an insurance, and my belongings are always insured (especially my electronic gears!). Insurance is also great for flight delays and medical emergencies. Just be sure to choose one with 24/7 support help line, and emergency evacuation/repatriation (because, you know. It’s a very expensive process to transport bodies between countries…just saying).
World Nomads is my favourite, as it offers the most flexible option but also the most expensive. When I was in the UK I really liked the Post Office’s insurance, as well as Insured and Go. Both worked really well during my trips to South America and Europe. For the Malaysian travellers, I’ve tried AXA before and found it to be okay.
Do you have a favourite travel insurance? Let me know in the comments below!
2. Document your belongings before your trip!
This is particularly helpful, especially if you need proof of ownership for stolen belongings. Most insurance policies require these evidence; you can either take photographs or videos of your belongings before your trip. Be sure to highlight all of your expensive gears with their serial numbers. Proof of purchase is also important, so keep all of your receipts!
Take notes of your documentation as well – particularly your passport, visa and bank card numbers (especially if you need to cancel these later on). Have all of this prepared, and send you family members a copy of your insurance policy and important documents.
3. Create a habit of backing up your precious data at all time.
Dropbox and iCloud is a great platform to save your travel photos on the go. So just in case your phone’s gone missing, at least you still have your precious photos stored somewhere.
4. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!
Keep your cards, money and travel documents separately! Store some notes in your socks if you have to.
If you’re only doing sightseeing, avoid taking your passport with you. Instead, carry a coloured copy. I try not to carry too much cash with me as well, because once they’re gone – they’re gone. Keep your valuables locked separately in storage lockers, and while you’re at it remember to bring your own padlocks!
5. Last but not least, don’t panic.
I’ll have to admit, the way I acted was very embarrassing (I mean, I was bordering assaulting a full-grown man at the bar). But if your belongings are missing, take a deep breath. It’s not the end of the world.
The next step is to lodge a police report (very important), contact the embassy or your bank (for missing passport and bank cards) and notify your travel insurance. If you need emergency money, get your family members to wire transfer via Western Union. You can find Western Union agencies worldwide – it was a lifesaver when my card went faulty in Vietnam.
Pickpockets comes in all shapes and sizes, and it could happen to anybody. The whole incident definitely left a bad taste for Barcelona but I came out unscathed, with a newfound friendship to keep too. If shit happens, remember it’s not exactly the end of the world. Solve the problem accordingly and don’t let the experience holding you back from enjoying the holidays. I hope this helps, and safe travels!