Travel advisory

Travel It may be a small world, after all, but it remains a dangerous one, so travelers should take precautions | Scott Stewart

Travel advisory

Many Saturday Series reports have emphasized our souls, but this week’s is about protection of our bodies. Scott Stewart is vice president of analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company with headquarters in Austin, Texas. He is a former Diplomatic Security Service special agent and protective intelligence coordinator for Dell Inc. The practical security information applies to missionaries permanently living overseas as well as people living in the United States who rarely or never travel. —Marvin Olasky

Travel security: Being shrewd as a serpent

In this era of low-cost airfares, ecotourism, and adventure vacations, more people are exploring wild and remote corners of the world: Some are leisure travelers, but many are taking short-term mission trips. A generation ago, only a few intrepid souls dared to venture to mission fields far off the beaten path; earlier, it took missionaries weeks or even months just to get to their destinations.

So the world seems smaller today, but it remains as dangerous as it ever was. Christian travelers today may not have as much to fear from cannibalistic tribesmen and tropical diseases, but the threats posed by terrorists and sophisticated and heavily armed criminals are very real. The current global travel advisory by the U.S. Department of State serves as a reminder of this reality.

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While some of the dangers in the world exist near our own homes, these dangers are magnified while we are traveling—when we are strangers in a strange land, coping with a sense of otherness and not belonging, and visibly sticking out in a crowd. Furthermore, criminals tend to target traveling Americans because of a general belief that their pockets are filled with cash, or that they otherwise have access to large sums of money.

Thousands of Americans fall victim to criminals while they are traveling every year, but with a little education and preparation they could have taken steps to prevent an encounter with the criminals or at least mitigate the effects of an encounter. Because of my background and extensive experience as an overseas traveler, I have provided travel security briefings to missionary organizations, church groups, friends, family members, student groups, and short-term mission teams. I also lead an annual short-term mission group from my church, so I understand some of the ministry aspects as well.

Since the number of people I can brief in person is limited, I decided to put the content of my briefings into book form to reach a wider audience, and the result was Shrewd as Serpents and Innocent as Doves: A Practical Security Guide for Christian Travelers. I explainthat the situational awareness and threat recognition needed to avoid criminals are not super-secret skills that only highly trained experts can master. I also explain why listening to security advice and practicing practical security measures is not unbiblical and does not display a lack of faith in God’s protection. In fact, the Bible shows us that God can use such things to protect us.

I also help readers prepare for a trip. Many fine handbooks and travel guides talk about what you should bring with you on an overseas trip, but the crucial issue from a security standpoint is not so much what you should bring with you, but rather what you should not. Travelers often bring unnecessary items with them on trips that attract the attention of potential criminals and/or cause them considerable angst when the items are lost or stolen.

First thing to remember: Most Americans do not consider themselves wealthy, but those of us who can afford to travel overseas, whether on a mission trip or a vacation, have a standard of living that only the very rich in our destination country can attain. In practical terms, your watch, smartphone, laptop, and even your sunglasses may be worth more money than some of the people you will encounter during your trip make in an entire year. It is important to remember that when you are in a Third World country, items that you would not think twice about carrying in the United States might very easily draw the attention of criminals.

Also, a display of wealth will influence not only how criminals view us, but also how we are viewed by the people we are seeking to minister to—ostentatious displays of wealth can cause a rift that is very difficult to overcome. Therefore, the first rule to remember as you prepare for your trip is simply this: Try not to take anything with you that will draw undue attention to yourself.

The second rule is equally important: Do not take anything with you that you are not prepared to lose. This is not only because there are some things that are impossible to replace should they be lost or stolen—such as your grandmother’s engagement ring or your father’s gold watch—but because the emotional attachment you have to such objects may cause you to make irrational decisions if you are faced with the loss of the object. Remember: There is no object, no matter how expensive or emotionally significant, that is worth losing your life over—or the life of someone you are traveling with.

In many places, criminals are just interested in getting the goods and getting away. They are not interested in gratuitous violence, but at the same time they will not hesitate to shoot or stab you should you resist. If you give them the goods they are demanding, they will quite often not harm you. Unfortunately, when I was serving in Guatemala, several American citizens resisted robbery attempts and paid for their resistance by being beaten, shot, stabbed, and, in a few cases, even killed.

Of course there are places and cultures where gratuitous violence is the norm, and those places require special attention and greater security measures. But in general, if you leave precious items at home you remove the possibility that they will attract a criminal and you will not face the temptation to refuse to surrender them if you are threatened.

In light of these two rules, let’s discuss in detail how to minimize the risk posed by the items you will carry on your trip.

Wallets, cash and credit cards

Most people carry far more in their wallets than they need to—or should. In fact, many people are not even aware of everything that is in their wallets. There is a current series of TV commercials for the Capital One credit card that has the tagline “What’s in Your Wallet?” Unfortunately, many people cannot answer this simple question. Honestly, if your wallet were stolen right this minute, could you make a detailed list of everything that is in it? Would you be able to quickly notify your bank and credit card companies of the theft? If not, read on; this section is for you.

There are people I know who have wallets several inches thick, and I am not talking just about women; we men are just as guilty. Such a wallet is, unfortunately, a criminal’s treasure trove. Not only can criminals benefit from whatever cash and credit cards are in that wallet, but they can also frequently get enough information to do far more substantial damage to your bank account.

This is especially true in cases where people keep credit card and ATM PIN numbers written down in their wallets. If a criminal gets your wallet and he gets his hands on your credit and ATM cards, why make his life any easier by providing the PINs, too? Please don’t write PIN numbers down.

To compound this problem, many people will also have their bank account numbers listed in the wallet (or have a check with the account number on it) and people, as creatures of habit, tend to use the same PIN numbers for multiple accounts. Please do not use the same PIN numbers for multiple uses, especially sensitive things like banking and credit cards.

People also frequently make the mistake of keeping their Social Security cards in their wallets. The Social Security card is a document that, along with your driver’s license—which will in all likelihood be in your wallet—could allow someone to easily assume your identity. This crime is far worse than a simple theft. It is a crime that that can cause victims years of legal anguish.

If you need to show your Social Security card for some reason, like starting a new job, do so, but then take the card home and leave it in a secure location. You should also be careful not to write your Social Security number down in your wallet. Instead, you should memorize and safeguard it.

What, then, do you need in your wallet for an overseas trip? One thing is your health insurance card. Another is your driver’s license if you are going to drive, though obtaining an international driving permit is a good idea if it is accepted in the country you are traveling to in lieu of your U.S. license—especially countries where authorities may not be able to read your English-language license. If you’re not going to drive abroad, simply leave your driver’s license at home—it is one less thing to replace if your wallet is stolen, and your passport is the only identity document you really need to travel.

As far as credit cards go, you should carry no more than two and maybe an ATM card. One of the two credit cards should be a Visa or MasterCard, and the second can be another card such as an American Express Card or Discover (though a Visa and a MasterCard is also a good combination). It is important that you learn in advance which cards are accepted in your destination country before you leave.

If there are not many ATMs in your destination country or city, or if you have a credit card that allows you to take cash advances from an ATM, you should consider leaving your ATM card at home. Why carry (and potentially lose) something you can’t use or don’t need? If you do decide to take an ATM card, you should ensure that the account your ATM card is connected to only has a limited amount of cash in it (like your checking account) and not your entire life savings. If you are the victim of an express kidnapping, your abductors will likely keep you until the account linked to your ATM card has been drained. They have been known to keep victims locked in car trunks for days in order to drain the account linked to the ATM card.

One other thing you will need to do is make a list of the card numbers of the credit/ATM cards you are taking with you and the phone number for reporting a stolen card to each of your credit card companies. Make sure that the phone number will work outside the United States. In many instances, the toll-free numbers listed on the back of a credit card to report a lost or stolen card will not work from overseas locations, so you will need to find a number that can be dialed from overseas.

You should also write down the numbers of any traveler’s checks you are talking with you and the contact number to report lost or stolen checks on this same list. (In the world of credit cards, traveler’s checks are becoming increasingly hard to use, so make sure they are accepted in your destination country before purchasing them.) Take one copy of this information with you on your trip, but keep it separate from your wallet so you won’t lose it if your wallet gets lost or stolen. Since it has credit card numbers on it, it is sensitive, so guard it carefully. Do not include the card security code number (sometimes also called the card verification code or card verification value) on this list. Leave another copy of this information in a safe place back home with someone who you can call in case you lose your copy of the list in addition to your wallet.

And while we are speaking of wallets, I believe personally it is a very bad idea for men to carry theirs in their back pockets. Even in the United States I carry a front-pocket wallet and money clip—I always thought it would be terribly embarrassing for a so-called security expert to get pickpocketed. Front pocket wallets or money clips are far harder for a pickpocket to get to than a wallet kept in a back pants pocket. Women should also consider foregoing their normally large wallets for their trip and carry a smaller billfold.

It is also an excellent idea to divide up your money into different bundles—one bundle with large bills and another bundle with your smaller, spending cash. You should then keep these two bundles in different pockets or places on your body. That way, people watching you pull out a wad of bill to purchase something will not be able to see your large bills. I personally keep my spending money in my left front pocket and my larger bills in my right front pocket, but large bills can also be kept in other secure places like an ankle pouch or a pouch under your shirt. Also, if a thief sees you pull money out of your left front pocket to buy things, he will consider it logical for you to pull that same wad out and hand it to him if he robs you.

I also try to keep my credit cards in a separate bundle with the hope that any potential thief would be happy with the small bills wad and leave my credit cards and large bills in peace. I would also attempt to give up my big bills separately from the credit cards if a thief insists on more than my small bills, but generally I try to ensure that I have enough in the small bills wad to keep a thief happy without allowing them to hit the jackpot. Couples traveling together should consider dividing their money and credit cards between them so that if one is victimized or loses something, the other will have some cash.

Obviously, if confronted by a thief the objective is to try to get him to take as little as possible and leave you alone. But if the thief is not satisfied with the spending money wad, give up the big bills and even the credit cards if forced to. Again, the cash is not worth getting hurt or killed for.

Leave all your club membership cards and other unnecessary wallet clutter at home. They will not do you much good overseas and could even get you into trouble. I know of a case in Mexico in which an individual was the victim of an express kidnapping while on vacation. He was the CEO of a company and had business cards in his wallet noting such. When the criminals examined the victim’s wallet, they unexpectedly found themselves with a big fish, and they then decided to hold him for a far larger ransom than just the contents of his ATM-linked checking account.

Now, not all thieves are in the Third World, and we have plenty of them in the United States. I would therefore encourage you to consider implementing many of these wallet suggestions in the United States, too—especially knowing what is in your wallet, minimizing what you carry, and not carrying Social Security cards and PIN numbers.

Other Items

Sunglasses: Instead of the expensive Ray-Ban, Oakley, or Maui Jim sunglasses, consider getting a cheap pair of sunglasses. You can get glasses that will protect your eyes from UV light for less than $20.

Jewelry: Chains, earrings, rings. Is there really any need for you to wear that thick gold chain or large dangling earrings? Both of these items (like sunglasses and cameras) are very tempting for snatch and grab criminals. I know a woman whose ear lobe was ripped open when a criminal on the back of a moped snatched a dangling gold earring from her ear.

Wedding rings: These are often good to have, especially for a woman looking to avoid any unwanted attention from the opposite sex. But if you have a large, expensive band with diamonds or other precious stones, or a band with a lot of sentimental value, you might want to seriously consider buying a plain band to wear instead. You should also leave your diamond engagement ring and other rings at home.

Cameras: Unless you are a professional photographer, you might want to consider whether you really need to carry that very expensive camera on your trip. If you do decide to take it with you, make sure you back up any important photos that may be on the memory card. You should also check to see if the theft or loss of the camera would be covered on your homeowner’s insurance policy.

Purses: Like wallets, purses can be real treasure troves for thieves. Carefully review your purse to see what is in it and, like your wallet, weed out all the unnecessary items. Thieves will commonly slit a purse strap (like a camera strap) and take it or just try to grab it and run. I have also encountered many cases where purses and backpacks were slit open with a razor blade and their contents removed. I normally recommend that if women really think they need a purse they take a small purse that can be clutched tightly to the front of their body. Purses and backpacks are natural targets for thieves, and women should seriously consider placing their important things in their front pockets or placing them in an ankle or inside-the-shirt pouch. If you carry a purse or fanny pack, do not lay it on the floor in a restaurant or hang it on the back of your chair.

Travel documents: When you handle your passport think to yourself that you are handling a wad of $100 bills, because you are. On the black market, a stolen, genuine U.S. passport can fetch up to several thousand dollars. You should make a couple of photocopies of your passport. If you have a safe place to keep your real passport, do so and carry the copy on your person (if that is legal in the country you are to visit). The other copy should be kept with the trusted contact who has your credit card information so that you can refer to it in case your real passport and the copy you carry on you are lost.

Electronics: Laptops, tablets, iPods, and mobile phones can in many ways serve as de facto electronic wallets. Again, do you know what’s in yours? The old American Express commercial used to warn travelers, “Don’t leave home without it.” In today’s world, many travelers find it hard to leave home without at least a laptop, mobile phone, and tablet or e-reader. Some also tote iPods in which sensitive information has been stored.

Laptops and other electronic devices have become essential travel accessories because of the vast amount of information they can hold in a relatively small space. For this reason, they—or just the information they contain—make a prize catch for anyone with hostile intentions. Travelers should take precautions to not only physically safeguard these devices but also the information they contain. This allows you to mitigate the potential adverse effects of a compromise and can save you from a serious headache. While the loss of a laptop is bad, the loss of the information on it can be even worse if identity or financial thieves can use that information.

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