Travel: The worst ways to lose your wad

Tip-offs about how to avoid the rip-offs that thieves and tricksters use on innocent travellers and tourists
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS STORY began a month ago, when three men attempted to rob me at Krakow bus station. When I reported my escape in these pages, dozens of readers got in touch with their own scare stories. (K T Mahon of north London ticked me off: "You must be getting slack. I couldn't believe you would travel without your passport on your person.")

Everyone agrees that the confused tourist is the softest target of the lot. Several readers report variants of the unpleasant trick involving rogues squirting mustard or worse on clothing and "helping" the victim clean it off.

Steve Sheppardson of Bromley reports an experience in Manhattan: "We were sitting on a bench at the South Street Seaport and I had a large camera bag slung over my shoulder. When a group of half a dozen teenagers ran past and around us, I held tightly onto the cameras but thought of it as youthful high spirits.

"Five minutes later, after we had moved on, somebody pointed to the back of my jacket and held their nose - when I took off the jacket, the back was covered in a wet, sticky, sweet-smelling mess. At this point we got lucky - an assistant from a bookshop we had been in earlier came out, invited us in to clean up and warned us of what had happened: the kids we saw had squirted my back with something like liquid detergent that sticks and makes a mess. In the confusion, many people would put their bags down to take their jacket off and are then off-guard while something is snatched."

What must be the gentlest version of this kind of incident happened to Jane Sinson of Leeds in the centre of New Delhi: "We were standing near an entrance to the Palika bazaar when two young men walked up to us. One drew attention to a very large piece of bird dropping on my sandal and some on my foot. They took me to a very conveniently located shoe cleaner and told me it would be 150 rupees (pounds 3) to clean the shoe and wash my foot.

"The young men were unaware that, although white, I speak Hindi as I have Indian relatives by marriage. I let the shoe cleaner do his work with the young men there, and offered him the going rate of 50 rupees. They tried to protest, at which point I spoke to them in Hindi. They realised they had picked the wrong person, but it is clearly a scam they are playing on unwary tourists, possibly picking on females without a male with them."

In contrast to this relatively innocuous tale, Andrew Telford of Surrey writes: "The first time I stayed in Kingston, Jamaica, I was told that if I saw a pole with a hook coming in through the patio ventilation grille trying to hook out loot while I was asleep, not to grab it as it would probably have razor blades set into it."

Most of our readers' rage was contained within Europe - especially Spain. This account from David Shamash of Oxfordshire is typical: "My wife and I were driving our UK-registered car into Barcelona recently when the car in front stalled at the lights when they went green - the driver got out and in the ensuing confusion (as we found out later) knifed our back tyre. Naturally we pulled over to investigate the puncture and in the few seconds we were out of the car my wife's handbag was lifted. The police told us that it was a common scam.

"Incidentally, having found out how much theft there is in Barcelona, I warned a friend who was there last month. His car survived, but he was accosted and kissed and embraced by two women in the street who succeeded in lifting his spare cash from a buttoned shirt pocket."

And Ita Kelly of Hampshire reports an incident that appears typical of many readers visiting Madrid:

"We made the mistake of consulting a tourist map just near the entrance to the Plaza Mayor. A few minutes later a young man walking towards us and dropped some coins at my husband's feet. In the ensuing confusion, a pickpocket took all our money which was inside my husband's buttoned- up back pocket. All this happened in the space of seconds and my husband didn't feel a thing. Luckily the credit cards were in my handbag so we didn't suffer too much inconvenience but we were left feeling angry and paranoid for the rest of our stay. We have not been back to Madrid since."

From a reader in Washington DC, a warning arrives about Amsterdam: "The train from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Central Station is particularly plagued by gangs of thieves who often work in pairs. One thief distracts the victim, often by asking for directions, while an accomplice moves in on the victim's momentarily unguarded handbag, backpack, or briefcase. The thieves time their thefts to coincide with train stops to make a quick exit.

"Within Amsterdam, thieves are very active in and around the Central Train Station, the red light district, in restaurants, and on public transportation."

Railway stations in Italy can be hazardous, too, according to Barry Sheppard of Brighton: "I was in Florence and preparing to move on to Venice. I had been to the station to check train times and was walking back towards my hotel when two young women, one with a baby in her arms, approached and thrust a newspaper under my eyes. They jabbered away, pointing violently at a photograph in the paper; I had no idea what they were on about and excused myself with the usual nods, smiles and shakings of head and moved on. Seconds later something made me feel for my wallet which, of course, was gone.

"Naturally, the women were nowhere to be seen, but a man was hurrying towards me waving my wallet aloft!

"My first reaction was that this was somehow all part of the scam. He turned out, however, to be a Florentine who had seen what was happening and had managed to grab the wallet back from the women before they could hand it over to their minder. All it cost me was a Campari and soda."