Tricks Of The Travel Trade

By Mykel Hawke and Kim Martin

Photo by Nicole Geri

Most people today do some sort of traveling. Many folks travel a lot, and just about everyone, sooner or later, will have to travel. Be it across state lines or across the globe, there are always those who will seek to exploit the traveler's ignorance.

Like it or not, when you go somewhere new, there are things you can't and won't know. And even for the seasoned traveler with lots of experience in a certain place, the fact that you don't reside there means something could occur or change while you're away, or someone could take notice of your repeat returns and actually exploit that as a way to take advantage of regular patterns.

This basic tenet is a principle of military tactics—when you are static you have the advantage of fortifying your security and knowing your environment, but when you're mobile it's impossible to make every step of the journey safe from vulnerability, so vigilance is your best defense and preparation is your best offense.

The sad fact is that when you travel, you're open to being taken advantage of, so you simply must be aware and do what you can to make yourself a hard target. Most criminals are looking for the easy pickings, not those that present a problem.

The first thing you should do before traveling is a recon or intelligence gathering. Thanks to the Internet, most of this can be done online before you leave. A great place to start if you're going overseas, is to look at the US State Department's (DOS) Travel Advisory for the country you plan to visit. Often they will have warnings about certain crimes, crime areas, criminal groups, and even some types of crimes that are prevalent, such as ATM robberies or car thefts.

The next place to check for dangers, such as shady places and dirty tricks, is to study some travel sites about the place(s) you want to visit. I have often been amazed at how a certain method of crime gets to become common practice by the crooks, likely because a technique works, they share it, and it's the technique of choice until folks figure it out and it no longer works. Then they try something new. So just because you know the tricks to look out for, don't assume that you know them all. Stay on guard.

Once you look at the most dangerous things that can happen, you have to look at the most likely things. Look at the weather, how it might delay or detour your travels and what dangers that change might expose you to.

Consider vehicle/vessel malfunction, what alternatives exist, and their risks. And even consider lodging issues and what the backups are, how to access and secure them. In developed countries these issues are easily sorted, but in developing or under-developed nations, these small details could be life changing.

Last bit for recon, check the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to see not only what shots you need to get before you go, but also to look for what unusual diseases are currently prevalent where you are going. Read up on the causes, the signs and symptoms, how to avoid them, and when to seek medical help. Make sure you know what the treatment should be in case someone tries to sell you bad medicine or give you a false diagnosis. And, of course, know where the hospitals are and how to call for help, how to get medical care, and have a medical evacuation plan set up. Consider insurance and even repatriation of remains should the worst happen.

COVID: The Coronavirus has brought a whole added dimension to health considerations while traveling. Unfortunately, by all indications, it is something the world will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. No matter how you personally feel about it, whether you take the vaccinations and boosters or wear a mask, remember that you will not be on home turf or familiar territory when mixing in public places and with masses of people. You will be exponentially more at risk for exposure. And, besides COVID, there is a plethora of other, equally dangerous respiratory-type viruses and infections that can be found on surfaces and vaporized in the air. These kinds of illnesses tend to be highly contagious and could easily take you down in a hurry and set you back while on a trip. With that in mind, at the very least, it would be advisable to get the most up-to-date information on what variants and local spikes are present where you will be traveling.

In general, if you have enough time in advance of your departure—a week or more—do what you can to boost your immunity. Drink plenty of water to be well hydrated, get your fruits and vegetables (vitamin and nutrient content), get good rest and sleep, and consider supplements, especially those with zinc and vitamin C.

After your prep and recon, you have to make ready. Start by breaking down every step of your trip and looking at what could go wrong, have a plan for how to avoid it, and then make a plan for a countermeasure if it happens anyway.

It starts at the airport, seaport, train station, bus station, or drive to destination once you exit the safety of the transport and begin to interact with the local people.

Immigrations, customs, and border authorities are usually a safe zone in most countries, but the less developed ones may harbor your first danger of the bribe versus the fine issue. Usually, there will be information online to prepare you for those things. For our purposes here, we will focus on the commonalities of travel dangers most likely to be experienced.

Helpers: One of the first encounters are usually folks waiting for fresh meat. They offer help with bags, taxis, hotels, you name it, there is someone offering to help. Best to have a plan, know the names, and use only the official entities available; even if it is slow, it's better slow and safe, than suckered and sorry.

Luggage: Shortly after the wave of helpers is the luggage issue. Try not to travel with more than you can carry on your back and/or pull with one hand so that one hand is always free to fight or what have you. If you're traveling heavy, have a plan to put your family or team members to work as lifters or security.

Money: This is always tricky business. Make sure you know the local money and current exchange rate before you go. Try to get some at an exchange before you enter the country, but if not, usually it's safer and easier to get money from an ATM inside customs—the rate can be a bit higher, but it's safe and easy.

Taxis: This is one of the best means for bad guys to try to do bad things, as your senses are being overwhelmed and so much is happening so quickly. Be sure to state your destination and get a price before you step in, and make sure to keep your bags in sight at all times. If they are put in the back, make sure they are locked up. It's a common trick to almost close the trunk, and while you're in the cab and haggling with the cabbie, his accomplice is gently unloading your bags to steal them. Also, be aware of the roofie blow, as sometimes a cabbie will turn around and blow powder into your face, like Rohypnol, so you pass out, get robbed, stripped naked, and left on the streets with nothing and no memory. I always sit behind the driver to reduce the ability to do that or any other maneuver. I pull out my weapons/knives from my bags as soon as I clear customs so I can be armed before I leave the safe zone in the airport should they try some act of violence against me during that vulnerable transition.

Rideshares: Much the same as with taxis, but with services like Uber and Lyft, while there are some added benefits—such as flexibility, availability and, in some cases, cost—there are additional precautions to take. First, by all means, use their official apps, which have safety measures built into the process. Try to request your ride in the company of others so you’re not alone while waiting and, if possible, choose a visible and populous place. Make sure you verify the make, model, and license plate of the vehicle, and follow all the directions in the app. Ask the driver: “Who are you here to pick up?” This way, you are not giving out your name unless they already have it. If it’s an option, share the details of your ride with someone else. If, at any time, your gut is telling you something is not right, use the 911 emergency feature in the app or separately on your phone. Finally—and this applies to other transportation as well—do not ride alone if you feel unwell.

Hotel: This is another time when you can get hustled or robbed, depending on the type of hotel. The usual tricks here are to steal money out of your stash but not all of it, or to take a credit card imprint but leave the card, or tell you places to go where their accomplices are ready to hustle or rob you.

Rooms: Hide your valuables in good places. Do not always trust the hotel safe or front desk safe. Do not keep all your valuables in one place. Sometimes, I hide mine inside vents, inside box springs, behind the fridge, anywhere I think a crook or a crooked maid is unlikely to look. Make little trip wires that let you know someone has moved something. For example: a small plastic water bottle cap by the corner of the fridge; if they move the fridge, they're unlikely to notice it or won't think it was pre-positioned. You come back from dinner, see it moved, and you're alerted.

Vehicles: Be sure to check your vehicle thoroughly before you leave, be it a rental or a company vehicle. Sometimes these are rigged to break down and you are forced to pay for recovery services, or they are set up to fail so criminal elements can trail you and then be there to offer “help” and rob you. If on your own, make sure you have a spare tire, and always keep an eye on your vehicle when away; keep your most valuable items on you at all times.

Parking Lots: Sometimes there will be kids aimlessly hanging out, but often they are used as decoys, early warning, or even scouts. They may ask to guard your car while you're in a shop, then as soon as you go in, they let their buddies know and you come back to an empty car, the kids nowhere to be seen. This is especially important if your car is loaded, the kids see that and they are marking you for a robbery.

Restaurants: Often restaurants are fairly safe as a static location, their business depending on your safe experience. But be ever aware of snatch-and-grab thieves, so secure your bags to your body or table or chair. Be wary of pickpockets, people seeking to steal your identity through Wi-Fi or chip readers that are designed to pick up the low level RFID info off your cards. Best to use good firewalls on laptops and phones and good bags with wire mesh RFID blockers.

Trips: If you go out on a pre-arranged trip, these are usually safe—again, as the operators’ business depends on your safety. However, there may be parts of the trip where you're dropped to have some time to explore or shop or go out on your own. Here are a few things that you can be on the lookout for while you're out and about…

Distress Requests: This is a common ploy these days…a stranger asks for help and then assaults you or, like you, pretends not to know what is happening but meanwhile actually targets you for a robbery.

Panhandlers: This is a slippery slope. If you give to one, they may ask for more, and others may see and follow suit. Before you know it, you are mobbed. Best to just keep the money to yourself.

Animals: Be careful with animals. Some places have no concern for them, other places take it seriously if you harm one, even if it's a stray. And beware the scammer who claims you just hurt their animal and you need to compensate them or they will call the police.

Bars: Always size up the bar by its patrons and cleanliness. Unless it's filled with tourists, indicating it's safe, best to leave local bars to locals.

Streets: Pay attention to street names and the look of the streets. Don't take shortcuts through dark alleys—does that even need be said? But always pay attention to main roads, and if you get lost, take the way back that you know and is safe, even if you're tired. Nothing worse than being tired and lost in a dangerous place.

Authorities: Sometimes the police can be trusted, sometimes they cannot. And sometimes criminals will impersonate a cop or other law enforcement, so make sure you look at the whole picture when you deal with a policeman. A nice uniform but a pair of dirty sneakers may be a sign they're a fake.

TIP: Have a photocopy of your passport hidden in all your luggage and keep a few spares around. Having a copy of the info page can help prove who you are, get you into the US Embassy a lot faster, and get you a temporary replacement in just a few hours versus waiting a few days to get verified and issued a new passport.

The Bottom Line: Look for normal so you'll spot the abnormal. Example: You approach a cabbie, he should ask where to and not just say get in. He should say twenty bucks, or you ask and he answers the expected amount, not let's go or we'll see. If he takes your bag, watch him put it in the trunk and close it firmly, not leaving it almost closed. If he says sit there where he can "roofie" you, then slide behind him. Etc. Etc.

Tricks and scams will always be around and constantly evolve, but if you stay vigilant by remaining alert in each moment during high-risk exposure periods, most of the time you'll catch the trick and be able to prevent or respond as needed. Safe Travels!

NOTE: Special thanks to the book Green Beret Pocket Guide, Safety & Security by Brian Morris.