A French couple arriving at Rio de Janeiro's international airport last week were approached shortly after landing by a friendly French-speaking man who identified himself as a taxi company employee and offered the pair a ride into town.
The couple, who'd come to Rio to attend a four-day conference on air safety, were led outside to a car with a waiting driver, according to local media reports. After traveling some distance, the two men pulled out guns and demanded money and jewelry.
The husband and his wife handed over their valuables and then bolted from the car, but the 45-year-old woman was shot in the head and killed by one of the robbers as she was running across the road.
Police and security experts say airport-related crimes such as this are all too common and, generally speaking, could be prevented if travelers would keep a few safety tips in mind.
For one thing, travelers shouldn't let their guard down simply because they are approached by someone speaking their language, warned Sgt. Vince Garcia of the Los Angeles Airport Police Bureau. Criminals realize a familiar language often creates a false sense of security, and they take advantage of that, he said.
"We do have quite a bit of bandit [cab] activity at this airport," Garcia said of LAX. "I'm talking about all nationalities. They often approach their own native people and ask them in their language if they're looking for a cab."
Most victims lose items that can be replaced, but not all of the criminals have robbery on their minds. Several years ago, a young girl and her brother arriving from Central America were met in the international arrivals area of LAX by a man speaking Spanish who asked if they needed a taxi. "They said yes and he told the girl, 'Why don't you come with me and we'll just come back and pick up your brother,' " Garcia said. "They got in a car and took off. The next morning she was found wandering the streets of San Fernando Valley. She'd been taken to a motel and raped at knifepoint."
Tom Winfrey, a public affairs representative for Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that owns and manages LAX and other area airports, said new arrivals should only use taxis and shuttle vans that bear a decal issued by the city's Department of Transportation. As for departing passengers and meet-and-greeters, he and Garcia said all of the airport's parking lots are monitored by video cameras and patrolled by security personnel on foot, on bikes and in cars.
Despite the cameras and the patrols, Garcia encourages all departing passengers to use a door-to-door shuttle service instead of a parking lot. While the surveillance equipment is enormously helpful in prosecuting criminals, he said, they can't by themselves prevent crime. And police officers aren't always there when you need them.
Experts also suggest that air travelers pass through an airport security checkpoint as soon as possible, as doing so greatly reduces the risk of an armed assault and more often than not separates the traveler from the common criminal.
Case in point: Two months ago a robber walked up to a man while he was using a urinal in the international departures terminal at LAX and demanded money, Garcia said. The victim, who didn't speak English, did not do as he was told and was pistol-whipped. Police apprehended the assailant a short time later. However, had the victim, an outbound passenger, been in the secure area, it's improbable an armed robber would have gotten to him.
Nick Catrantzos, director of corporate security of the Los Angeles office of Kroll Associates, an international intelligence and investigation firm, encourages travelers to head away from any commotion--whether at the airport, on a freeway or at the workplace. "You always want to move away from trouble rather than toward it. As simple-minded as that may seem, you'll find people keep moving right into the line of fire."
He gave as an example the recent shooting rampage in Atlanta's financial district that left nine people dead and 13 others wounded. "In the headlines the next day, a guy was quoted as saying he walked straight to where the shooting was taking place," Catrantzos said. "What he should have been doing is going in the opposite direction."
In his book "Travel Can be Murder: A Business Traveler's Guide to Personal Safety," Santa Cruz-based personal security expert Terry Riley tells readers to maintain a low profile inside airports. Because Western business travelers are often seen as plum targets, he urges travelers to minimize the amount of time their passports are displayed.
Most of all, experts advise travelers to pay attention to their belongings, as theft accounts for more than 90% of crimes reported at airports worldwide. That means keeping a close eye on your possessions until the moment your plane leaves the ground, said Officer Joaquin Mendez, an eight-year veteran of the L.A. Airport Police Bureau.