I HAVE BEEN ROBBED, SCAMMED, or pickpocketed at least eight times while traveling abroad. And before you immediately click out of this tab thinking, “Then you aren’t a very credible source now, are you?” I should mention that all eight robbings, scammings, and pickpocketings happened from the time I started traveling internationally at age 16 until I was 22. I’m 28 now, and I haven’t had the slightest problem since — and this has not been for a lack of traveling.
The reason for the sudden change was a simple change of perspective on getting robbed, scammed, swindled, conned, duped, or defrauded. When I first started traveling, I viewed being parted with my money or belongings as something that was happening to me. It was something that mean, unscrupulous, or greedy people were doing — I was just the victim.
After the eighth time, as I called home and asked my dad to wire my $900 so I could eat until the bank was able to send my credit card replacement overseas, I realized: I am the common factor here. This is my fault. And by thinking of my many robbings as my own fault, I quickly made sure it would never happen again.
Taking responsibility vs. Victim blaming
Obviously, this is a slippery slope. By saying that I am the person who caused these robbings, I was effectively putting the responsibility for crimes committed against me on my own shoulders. This is not a good thing to do, particularly when it comes to theft and violent crime: the legal and cultural blame should always be shifted to the perpetrator and never to the victim.
But from a personal standpoint, I had to admit that I did not have the power to shame an entire world full of criminals. Massive issues like global poverty, economic injustice, and cultural alienation are all at play when it comes to crime, and if I wanted to stop being robbed, I couldn’t do very much to fix those issues. I wanted to travel. There were going to be criminals in many of the places I wanted to travel to. I could not do anything to stop that.
So the only other option was to accept the responsibility myself. I had to admit that my six-foot-three, 230 pound frame made me stand out, and that my aw-shucks, pass-the-cornpone Midwestern face made me seem like a pretty great target for would-be criminals. Once they commit the crime, it’s on their shoulders. But by acknowledging my role, I could limit my risk. Basically, if I could lie to myself ahead of time and pretend that their crime was my fault, I would likely be able to prevent future crimes from happening.
The first thing you’re able to do when you decide that getting robbed is your own fault is to start to identify why it’s your fault. It means figuring out what the risky behaviors are and limiting them.
Before the change, for example, I never kept my hands in my pockets in crowds. If someone brushed past me, I never shifted my weight so I could feel the contents of my pockets resting against my leg. I would conspicuously flash my nice camera in less-than-reputable places, and I wouldn’t take care to walk home at night with a friend.
Once I took responsibility, I became instantly more aware of my surroundings. I tried to rely on gut feelings to get me in and out of situations I didn’t like, and I began educating myself ahead of time on what scams were common in my destination, what to look out for, and which neighborhoods and areas to avoid or to at least be very cautious in.
You can definitely be too cautious
Of course, there’s such thing as being overcautious. If you didn’t want to expose yourself to any risk, you would just stay at home. But risk management is important when traveling abroad, especially since a crime — particularly a violent one — can ruin a trip. And if something does happen, it’s important not to blame yourself afterward: sure, there may have been things you could have done different, but those are the things that you learn from.
My experience in getting robbed — and in knowing other people who have gotten robbed — is that the robbings/muggings/scammings are usually pretty predictable. They got into an unmarked cab. They went to a bad part of town. They said something stupid to the wrong person. But that doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen when you’ve done everything you can do to prevent them. In the end, it all comes down to chance. You were unlucky. Learn from it and move on.