When a bag containing my laptop and smartphone was stolen in London, it was something of a shock to me – but not to any locals. The bag, a simple library bag, was under the table in a Baker Street restaurant, comfortably at my feet, as there was nowhere else to leave it. The thieves, it seems, worked as a pair. One caused a distraction, even as I was engrossed in a conversation with friends. With all this happening, I certainly didn't notice his partner in crime snatching the bag from my feet. By the time I noticed, they had well and truly gone.
As the restaurant was about to close, police offered to meet me at my accommodation. They finally arrived five hours later, at around 2am. After recent cutbacks, in which many stations have closed, the British police force is now spread very thin. Nonetheless, they took my report, and confessed that the problem was very common. “London's very lively,” said one. “It's one of the cities in Europe most notorious for its thieves.” The others, he suggested, were Rome, Barcelona and Prague.
None of those have crime rates as bad as, say, Cape Town or Caracas – but while such places have high crime levels, they don't have especially high tourism levels.
In most of the world, crime has decreased over the years. Throughout the US, for example, violent crime has fallen by 32 per cent since 1990 (and 64 per cent in the largest cities). But while violent crimes are down, you must guard against lesser (but still traumatising) crimes such as robbery. Among the cities adored by tourists, some are known for their distinctive crime scenes, among them:
HO CHI MINH CITY
The Motorised Bag-snatch: Two years ago, a colleague – travelling by motor-scooter on these scooter-heavy roads – had her purse snatched by a rider next to her, who immediately sped away. The next morning, our guide was calmly confident that he could retrieve her bag. He phoned the nearest police, and yes, it was at the station, complete with smartphone. “They just want the cash,” he said. “They want nothing that can track them. Bags always end up at the station.”
The Sneak Attack: In Europe, it is often a more sophisticated operation, in which phones and laptops are flown abroad, erased and re-sold overnight. A day after my own bag was taken from the floor of a cheap restaurant, a woman told me that her handbag was once stolen from a chair at the Ritz – so nowhere is completely safe. However, the hot spots include Stratford (where the Olympic Village area remains busy) and the huge Westfield mall at Shepherd's Bush.
The Pickpocket: Rome is infamous for its thieves, though an Italian friend thinks that it doesn't deserve such ill repute. “I can think of dozens of places in Italy that are far worse,” he says, singling out Naples. Still, Italy's robbery rate is not as bad as, say, England or Wales. Robbery, however, involves physical confrontation – not pickpocketing, at which Roman thieves excel. Per capita, the world's worst crime nation is Vatican City, with 1.5 crimes per citizen – thanks to the thieves from across the border who congregate to relieve tourists of their wallets.
The Conspirators: Prague is littered with signs saying “Beware of Pickpockets”, car break-ins (don't leave your valuables on the seat), and gangs using clever diversions, including posses of sweet-faced schoolchildren. Tourist areas such as Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square are magnets for pickpockets.
The Gangs: Among US cities, the Capital ranks 21st in violent crime (1178 per 100,000 people during 2012, compared to, say, 2123 in Detroit). Its robbery incidents, however, are among the nation's worst, especially in the south-east of the city. For the record, San Francisco ranks 80th, and New York City is 96th.
Of course, as you would have read in Traveller, those cities are all worth visiting. When you are there (or anywhere else), it is worth taking a few precautions.
■ Dress like a local, not like a tourist.
■ Take out travel insurance. You probably won't use it, but take it anyway.
■ A money belt might be a nuisance, but it is the safest place for your valuables. Don't pull out your wallet in public. If you must take a handbag, hold it close.
■ Be especially careful on crowded trains, buses and subways.
■ Make sure you take down your phone's IMEI number (as printed on the original packaging) and your computer's serial number. Police might be ineffectual, but it should still be reported.
■ In some countries (eg. France, the Czech Republic), visitors are required to carry their passport at all times. In such places, a photocopy of the passport, kept in your hotel, will make it easier to replace.
Have you ever been a victim of theft or robbery while travelling? What precautions do you take to protect your valuables? Post your comments below.