Money: Stop thief: How to avoid a `dip'

The bewildered, jet-lagged traveller is a tempting target for bag-snatchers and muggers - but a little forethought will prevent thieves from ruining your holiday. Robert Liebman wises up

If your pocket is picked this summer at a major British airport or train station, you may have been "dipped" by Latin American thieves who travel to European capitals every year for the sole purpose of pickpocketing.

Countries export thieves, and they also export methods of thieving. Youths on motorbikes who snatch handbags and scoot off into oblivion have long been a speciality of Italy. Recently, claims managers at the travel insurance specialist Options have been seeing this form of highway robbery in France, too.

Jacqueline Pearson, a claims manager at Home and Overseas, notes that handbag-snatching is now also being perpetrated by youths on in-line skates. These thieves are younger than their motorbike counterparts and, not restricted to roads, can approach from behind or from either side.

Ms Pearson says: "Our claims processors have started seeing an upsurge in muggings, particularly in Madrid and Barcelona, and we are also getting more claims from people who have been robbed after being sprayed. We saw a lot of this a few years ago, then it got quiet, and now it seems to be back."

Did you lean against a freshly painted wall or fence? Did a bird leave a messy deposit on your jacket or shirt? To gain access to your jacket or shirt pocket, or, more generally, to luggage or other parcels you may be carrying, spray-stain crooks want you to believe that your clothing has been stained. And to make the claim more convincing, they may even apply a stain themselves, spraying paint or smearing mayonnaise or some other substance on to your clothes.

A seemingly kind stranger draws your attention to the stain and, having been joined by other benevolent passers-by (aka accomplices), offers to help. When the mess has been attended to, you walk on, minus your camera or wallet or flight bag.

Meanwhile, the eastern Mediterranean is buzzing with another old scam that changes locations like malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Andrew Blowers, managing director of Options, says: "Travellers in Tunisia should be alert if they are approached by a group of children, often with a deformed child in the front pleading for money. In Turkey gypsies who try to sell you `lucky' heather and trinkets have walked away with cameras and wallets."

This form of theft has several variants, and even if you are fully alert to the pending danger, there may be precious little you can do if you are the unfortunate target.

At its crudest, a large group of children with or without adult relatives and other assistants simply swarm their mark and grab whatever they can - camera, bum-bag, shoulder bag, shopping-bag, handbag, wallet. Even if the victim tries to resist one or two of his attackers, the rest carry on regardless. Most victims are usually too distracted and too heavily manhandled to react effectively, especially against children. Some "marks" are too stunned to react at all.

Less aggressively and slightly less flagrantly, Gypsy and pauper thieves swarm their mark begging for money. One thief wields a newspaper, which he applies horizontally against the mark at neck or waist level. The newspaper is a shield to block the mark's line of sight. Under benefit of newspaper-induced darkness, with the distracted victim further handicapped with blocked vision, the thief can more easily dip into pockets and slice bum-bag and camera straps. "Cutpurse" is a revealing synonym for "pickpocket".

Such thieves are not fussed by full daylight or crowds. Indeed, the Louvre in Paris has been notorious for this kind of theft.

Italy has been suffering a surge in all forms of robbery, directed against natives and tourists alike. Visitors staying in self-catering villas may face a difficult decision at night: lock the windows and door and sacrifice ventilation in an area that can be suffocatingly hot, or open the windows and risk burglary.

Have you ever wanted to swim, but had no one to watch your valuables? A couple on the blanket next to you solve this very problem by asking you to keep an eye on their camera, wristwatches and other valuables while they swim. You oblige, and later, when you want to swim, you ask this obviously trustworthy couple to return the favour. You return to discover that they are gone - and so are your valuables.

Afterwards, you may curse your bad luck for having parked next to thieves. In fact, you may have been deliberately selected by professional robbers targeting people who are not part of a larger group.

No one can totally defend themselves against travel thieves. Travel insurance is essential. Storing valuables in the hotel safe, keeping spare cash and a second credit card separate from your main credit card, maintaining constant physical contact with your belongings, and incessant vigilance, are among the many crucial tactics to adopt.

For women and men alike, security belts and bags offer better protection than wallets wrapped with rubber bands, and bum-bags - which are easily picked, in any event. Thieves can easily slice most straps. If your bum- bag strap is severed, the bag can easily be made off with. Not so with a wallet that you carry underneath your shirt.

For women who don't want a cord or strap showing around their necks, security wallets are made that attach to brassieres. Shoulder-strap models, ankle wraparounds, thigh tubes and other ingenious types are available.

Waterproof security bags provide protection against the water- and land- based con artists. Mark Baker, of the water sports retailers Ocean Leisure, says that different devices are made for wallets, credit cards, cameras, mobile phones and other electronic devices.

Many visitors to London are robbed on the Piccadilly Line as they journey to Heathrow to go home. Thieves love underground stations and train lines serving the airport - that's where tourists abound, along with their passports, credit cards and other valuables. Remember this scenario when, your trip nearing its end, you use the foreign equivalent of the Piccadilly Line.

Home and Overseas 0171-434 3002; Options 01252 747747; Ocean Leisure 0171-930 5050

If you Have Been Robbed...

Andrew Blowers, managing direction of Options, advises you to do the following:

Always report the incident to the police and ask for a copy of their report. Some police departments in the US do not issue copies, so in that case note the officer's number and the incident or docket number.

If a bag goes missing during a flight, obtain a Property Irregularity Report from the airline's service desk before you leave the terminal.

If you are robbed at the airport prior to departure and time does not allow you to get to a police station, seek advice at your airline's desk. If you do not have time for that, notify the local police - local to where the robbery occurred - by fax, within 24 hours of the incident occurring.

If you are robbed in a hotel, report the theft to the hotel security department and also to the local police. Do not rely on the hotel to forward your report.

Check your household insurance policy. Some policies cover items such as cameras outside the home as well as in it.

Make sure you fill in the insurance claim form completely as well as correctly. According to Mr Blowers, 60 per cent of claim forms have to be returned to sender because they have not been completed properly. "A surprising number of people simply do not answer all of the questions, or fail to sign the form," he says.

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