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The Mind of a Thief: How to Protect Yourself While Traveling

Travel Safety
by Jason Policastro Feb 18, 2009
A closer look into the mind of a thief, and how to protect yourself while traveling.

AS READERS FAMILIAR to Matador know, no matter how savvy a globetrotter you are or how in-tune with the local culture you try to be, international travel is not without its risks. The fact is, there are people out there who make a living preying on folks who have the means to move about the globe.

Frequent travelers have heard all the warnings before: “Don’t leave your bags unattended! Always stick to well-traveled streets! Don’t carry too much cash!”

But what about some deeper insight? How can travelers get inside the mind of the international petty thief or pickpocket, understand what makes them tick, and think creatively to keep themselves from being victimized?

Dr. Barbara Oakley is an associate professor at Oakland University in Michigan, and is the author of Evil Genes, a nonfiction thriller that explores themes of morality, genetics, and brain research. The book was partially inspired by Oakley’s travel adventures, which include rubbing elbows with KGB agents as a translator on Soviet ships.

Recently I was able to connect with Dr. Oakley via email to gain some insight into the workings of the international criminal.

Nature vs. Nurture

Petty criminals are often regarded as folks who have suffered from a rough upbringing and, therefore, have almost been forced to turn to a life of crime in order to get by. However, Oakley contends that this passive attitude can be dangerous.

“Our schools and universities indoctrinate students with the idea that a poor environment is the sole cause of criminal behavior,” says Oakley. “This conditioning is used by criminals to their advantage.”

If a criminal has been caught in the act, says Dr. Oakley, they will try to appeal to your sense of altruism and empathy for you to let them go. They could accomplish this through crying, saying they’ve never stolen before, or telling a sad story about their life or family.

If you’re a reasonably nice person, you can completely let your guard down.

“Some thieves have been trained since they were children to think about robbing ‘rich Westerners’ as something that’s a fully justified activity,” says Oakley. “Knowing this kind of information can help you to be more alert to the kind of physical cues that can alert you in situations of possible immediate harm.”

Watch out for eagles and chameleons

So you think that scruffy looking teenager with a staring problem in the seat opposite yours is eyeing up your iPod? Maybe you should pay closer attention to the little old lady whose bags you helped load into the overhead compartment. According to Dr. Oakley, these two fit into two thief sub-categories: eagles and chameleons.

“Eagles are thieves in great shape, who swoop in to grab their loot,” says Oakley. “Poor countries generally don’t have expensive forensic luxuries like fingerprinting, so if caught, a teenager can give a false name, be released, and go right back to a train or bus station to steal again. (An example of an eagle in action in Chile can be found on YouTube – here)

The chameleon’s approach is more subtle. These are the con artists or masters of disguise, and they may victimize you without you even realizing it.

“The chameleon may be a very good-looking man in a nice suit that gently slips his hand in your pocket as he moves past you in the aisle, or a nice-looking young woman who trips and falls against you,” says Oakley.

Their methods are no less insidious. When caught, the chameleon will often try to employ psychological techniques to get themselves off the hook. They’ll appeal to your sympathy through any means available to them.

“They’ll even cry, which can get your mirror neurons going–you feel sorry for the thief because you actually feel the feeling that the thief is simulating,” says Oakley.

What Can You Do?

Here are some expert tips straight from Dr. Oakley to keep in mind in your travels.

  • Security guards keep a wary eye on known thieves, who generally can’t be thrown off public property. Thus, it can be a good idea to follow the eyes of security guards in a train station or other public place, to see who the guards are watching.
  • It can be a good idea to wear sunglasses if you are dozing on a bus or train. That way a thief cannot tell whether you might be observing him.
  • Always look suspicious individuals in the eyes. There are neurological reasons for this–following the eyes means you are hyper-aware of someone. Looking at a potential thief in the eyes can scare him off, because he suspects you know what he’s up to.
  • Thieves are often just looking for the opportunity to get close to you–perhaps simply by asking for the time. You mustn’t let them get close. Often thieves act in pairs–the first buddy will see where you look to ensure things are safe when approached by the other buddy, and as you are distracted by the other buddy, the first buddy will move in to grab your wallet.

Community Connection

For more on preventing dodgy travel situations, please reference How to Survive Dangerous Border Crossings, and for an emotional look at one traveler’s experience with tragedy on the road, read Jon Brandt’s The Great Bus Heist.

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