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Travel and You

Thieves Still Plague Travelers Waiting for Planes

October 04, 1987|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles

Telemarketing scams are receiving the spotlight, but other kinds of thievery still plague the unwary traveler.

Thieves around the world, for example, still employ a variety of "distraction-extraction" techniques at airports and other terminals to separate you from your wallet, purse, luggage, briefcase, etc. The trend seems to be more toward theft of carry-on items than wallets and purses.

"People have become more wary about wallets and purses, so those kinds of thefts are down," says Capt. Bernard Wilson, acting chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police. "But they're not as vigilant sometimes about briefcases and things they have to put down while making phone calls, eating, checking reservations, etc."

Chain Reaction

Baggage thefts have become more organized, Wilson said. "There are small groups of thieves who go from airport to airport during peak travel periods. They've refined their techniques and are going more after briefcases, attache cases and small, expensive items."

Some of the distraction methods being used are spilling something on someone, asking directions, dropping something or bumping someone. In each instance, while you're reacting to the situation you're also being relieved of some possession by a second person; he then passes it on to a third person who may slip it into a newspaper, shopping bag, coat, etc.

"We've had cases of someone spilling coffee on a traveler and offering to help clean it up, dropping books or luggage on the floor, and even someone purposefully getting caught in a revolving door," Wilson said.

"Another trick is to drop a bunch of coins on the floor. People often bend down to help pick up the money, or at least stop to look at the rolling coins."

The process of distraction can work so well that even when you anticipate such a maneuver, your attention is momentarily diverted. Wilson described a demonstration in which he played the traveler and another officer was the thief. "I knew he was going to do it, but I still don't know when my briefcase was taken. A woman came up and asked if she could borrow a pencil. She walked away and when I turned around my briefcase was gone."

In another demonstration, made for TV, Wilson enacted this scenario: "I was making a phone call. My briefcase was on the floor to my right, so a woman came up on my left and asked if I had change for a dollar. As I was fumbling for change she said, 'Nice tie.' When I turned around, my briefcase was gone."

In these situations the reaction of most people is to look for the missing thing in the belief that they have misplaced it. "This gives the thieves more time to disappear," Wilson says.

Among those often targeted are solo travelers and parents with young children.

Other than normal precautions, such as keeping your possessions in front of you and in full view, Wilson suggests using a cable bicycle lock in cases when you have many items to be concerned about. "You can lock various items together, which means a thief has to take everything. Use of such a lock also shows a thief that you're aware of the potential danger."

The best defense against luggage thievery, as well as almost any kind of travel misadventure, is to use four basic rules of good security: Know your adversary, keep a low profile, stay alert, don't be predictable.

Knowing your adversary means realizing that thieves abound in crowded and hectic travel terminals. Keeping a low profile entails not making yourself out to be more of a target than otherwise by wearing expensive clothing and accessories, or by flashing a wad of money or credit cards.

Staying alert means realizing what pitfalls may be part of any situation or place you're in. The element of predictability applies primarily to not doing the same things at the same time each day when you're in one place for a time.

"The most important thing is really to have a heightened sense of awareness about potential dangers and an understanding of the typical mode of operations of thieves," said Tom Cash, senior vice president of American Express Travelers Cheque Division. "Projecting an aura of being in control is also important, as thieves always look for easier targets."

Push Luggage Cart

One mistake some travelers make, Cash said, is in tugging luggage carts behind rather than in front of them. "Someone can just take something off the top of your cart. When feasible, always push the cart in front of you."

However, many carts are designed to be pulled behind you, Wilson said. "This means that you don't have a good view, so it's a good idea to put smaller items where larger ones cover them."

Another common time of risk with luggage is when you set your bags down to look at magazines and books in airport stores. Not only are your bags out of your hands, but you are concentrating on the reading material.

"Thieves are aware that many travelers carry items of value in their carry-on bags, so they go after these bags," Cash said.

Wallets and Purses

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