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Tourists' valuables a steal for thieves

By Thurston Hatcher

(CNN) -- The train rolled toward Washington as a college-age student dozed off for an afternoon nap. When he woke up, his laptop was long gone.

As he discovered to his dismay, travelers loaded down with cameras, computers and cash can be enticing targets for thieves.

"You should always be aware of your surroundings, and always be conscious of the fact that no matter where you are, there may be somebody whose primary objective is to get the better of you and your wallet," says Steve Loucks, spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

While you don't have to travel in constant fear, you can take some simple precautions to avoid being victimized on your journey.

Rule No. 1 is the easiest.

"When I travel, I don't bring anything I can't stand to lose," says Melisse Gelula, associate editor with Fodor's Travel Publications. That means leaving pricey watches, jewelry and electronic equipment at home.

Take precautions

  • Take as few valuables as possible on trips.

  • Buy locks for your luggage.

  • Try to blend into your surroundings.

  • Don't carry your laptop in a computer case. Use a backpack.

  • Carry as little cash as possible, instead using travelers' checks or credit/ATM cards.

  • Make copies of all traveler's checks, credit/ATM cards and your passport. Leave one copy at home with an acquaintance and keep the other in a separate bag.

  • Separate money in different bags.

  • Avoid purses and fanny packs or carrying a wallet in your back pocket.

  • Use a money belt or neck or shoulder wallet INSIDE your clothing.

  • Use "bait" money to give a thief, so you can hang on to your real valuables.

  • Be careful about airport screening machines: Laptops and purses on conveyor belts are prime targets for thieves.

  • Carry on your valuables instead of checking them.

  • Keep luggage near you on trains or buses. Put it under your seat if possible.

  • Shelter valuables under you if you sleep.

  • Never leave anything in plain view in your car.

  • Avoid rental cars that display a logo or have special license plates.

  • Park in guarded, well-lit lots when possible.
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    Some items may be tough to do without. If you must take a laptop, Gelula advises against using an obvious computer bag that thieves will home in on. Instead, carry it in a regular backpack and wrap a sweatshirt around it for cushioning.

    As for watches, it's not uncommon in some countries for thieves to pull them right off people's wrists, Gelula says. So travelers may be best off wearing inexpensive watches or none at all.

    Your cash, credit cards, travelers' checks and passport should be kept very close to you in a money belt or pouch tucked inside your clothing, according to Rob Sangster, author of "Traveler's Tool Kit" (Menasha Ridge Press).

    Popular "fanny packs" aren't such a good idea, he says, because they advertise your belongings and are hard to protect. The same goes for leaving your wallet in your back pocket -- where it screams "steal me."

    Gelula suggests keeping your money with you in several places, so if some of it gets stolen you won't be penniless.

    And consider carrying "bait" money -- an extra wallet or pouch with a few bills and some old, expired credit cards. That way if you get robbed you can give the thief something and still keep your real valuables.

    Don't leave items out

    In hotels, don't assume that the lock on your door is sufficient protection for your valuables. Some hotels have safes in the rooms with combinations you can select, while others may have a safe at the main desk for guests' valuables. Use them.

    "I would not leave anything expensive out in the hotel room at all," Gelula says.

    Many hotels now feature passkeys and electronic locks that can be changed readily. They may be more secure than traditional metal keys, which a burglar might be able to copy and use to enter the room.

    On trains, keep your valuables close to you, especially when you're sleeping. Put your money into a backpack or slip it into your sleeping bag and pin it under you as you slumber.

    Loucks puts the strap from his bag around his leg when he's on a train.

    "If somebody tries to go for it, I'm going to feel it," he says.

    Use caution in airports

    Busy airports offer their own potential pitfalls, including the security checkpoints.

    Experts advise that you try to time your walk through the metal detector so you can keep an eye on your baggage. Wait to put it on the conveyor belt until the person in front of you has cleared the metal detector. And if you're with someone, have the other traveler go through first to watch for the belongings as they come out.

    Loucks even urges people to be wary in bathroom stalls, where someone could reach underneath, grab your bag and take off.

    The baggage you choose for your trip can reveal a lot about you, so you might want to skip the designer label that makes you look like a wealthy target. Also, get a lock for it and use it.

    Gelula prefers not to check any baggage, taking instead only what she can take on board.

    "Whenever you surrender stuff to people you're introducing a variable, so I tend to carry as much on as possible," she says.

    Wherever you are, do your best in dress and behavior to fit in to your surroundings. The stereotype of Americans, for example, is that they have lots of disposable income and therefore make ripe targets for thieves, Gelula says.

    Experts say it's not that hard to avoid being a travel victim.

    "Just be alert," Loucks says, "and use your common sense."

    • Carlson Wagonlit Travel
    • Travelers Tool Kit

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