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A Cheap Broad’s Travel Tips: A Cautionary Tale

Somewhere on the second level of the Eiffel Tower, a hand slipped into Sue Drumright’s purse and deftly removed her wallet; after descending to the ground, Sue noticed it missing. After a frantic search through her jacket pockets and backpack, Sue returned to the ticket booth where she had last seen her wallet. Eiffel Tower staff (who were, by the way, incredibly helpful and supportive during this entire episode) escorted Sue and me to their administrative office, where they told us that security is a constant battle and that professional thieves mine the Eiffel Tower every day for big profits. Even as the security officer was telling us this, a French tourist walked in with a multi-zippered bag strapped to his chest, which had been pilfered literally under his nose without him noticing.

A wonderful receptionist helped Sue make international phone calls to her credit card companies. Chase Bank was easy to contact; they put a security question on Sue’s card so that anyone who tried to use it would be unable to complete a transaction. I won’t mention the name of the other card issuer except to say the first two words are Bank of and the last word rhymes with Shmerica. After going through voice-mail hell, Sue finally was able to talk to a live person at Bank of Shmerica, who told her to call another number for California banks. Even though Sue was assured that number was active 24/7, when she dialed it she got a recording telling her to call back during business hours (1 p.m. in Paris = 4 a.m. in California).

Once more the Eiffel Tower receptionist dialed Bank of Shmerica’s phone number. When she reached a live person, Sue explained she was overseas and that the California phone number was not being answered, and asked that she be transferred to someone, anyone, who could put a stop on the debit and credit cards. She also asked for assistance with emergency cash since both her funding sources had been stolen. Sue was transferred to yet another phone number, which no one answered (it not being business hours in California).

In the long run, it turned out to be a good thing that Bank of Shmerica was totally incapable of making the necessary transaction to stop the cards and issue new ones. Sue had been on the phone at the receptionist’s desk for 45 minutes when, mirabile dictu, a security officer walked in clutching four wallets that had been dumped in trash cans on the second level of the Eiffel Tower in the last hour. Sue’s was one of them. The cash was gone, of course, but the credit cards were still there.

We hugged the security officer (who remained stoic despite two middle-aged, weepy women being so effusive). We hugged the receptionist and told her if she ever wanted to visit California we would provide her with a free vacation. As we walked out of the security office, two Japanese girls walked in. The expressions on their faces told us the same thing had happened to them.

When Sue got back home, she had a call from the fraud department of Chase Bank waiting for her. The pickpocket had copied the numbers from the stolen cards and $4,000 in fraudulent charges had been run up on that allegedly secured Chase charge card, mostly in African nations. Chase has stopped that card and is going over the charges. No word yet from Bank of Shmerica.

Of course no one expects this to happen when they’re on vacation, but obviously it does. Tourists are easy marks for thieves. You’re having fun, you let your guard down for just a moment — and there goes your wallet. How can you prevent it? The best way to keep your money/cards safe is to make thieves look for an easier target.

— Wear a money belt under your clothes (preferably under your pants). Don’t just shove cash into your pocket or purse.
— Always keep a hand on purses/bags. Never set them down on the floor (i.e. in a toilet stall) or hang them over the back of a chair, or set them behind you while you study a train departures board.
— Keep your wallet in a zippered compartment inside a zippered bag (and keep those zippers zipped).
— Do not put your wallet in a hip or shallow pants pocket.
— If you have locks on your bags, use them (except when you’re checking bags at the airport).
— Don’t wear expensive jewelry or clothing that screams, “I’m wealthy.”
— When withdrawing money from an ATM, have a travel companion stand behind you, facing away, to watch for anyone who shows an unhealthy interest in your activities.
— Be especially wary in crowded areas (which virtually all tourist attractions are).

So what should you do if your debit/credit cards are lost or stolen while on vacation? That toll-free number on the back of the stolen card isn’t available to call, and it might not be any help anyway if your issuing bank doesn’t offer 24-hour customer service (many smaller banks don’t) or if you are calling from outside the US. But each major credit card has 24-hour global assistance numbers you can call collect. Visit their websites and make note of the numbers for the places you’ll be traveling.

Visa: http://usa.visa.com/personal/security/get-help-now.html

MasterCard: http://www.mastercard.us/support/lost-card.html

American Express: http://www.americanexpress.com/lacidc/en/travel/travelservices.shtml

Don’t keep the phone numbers in just one place (i.e. your cell phone, in case it gets stolen or lost too) — leave a copy in your luggage, with your traveling companion, in a coat pocket, or with a trusted family member/friend at home, along with a photocopy of your passport.

We weren’t prepared for thieves to strike — but you can bet we’ll be better informed and cautious next time. Yes, bad things can happen on vacation, but that possibility shouldn’t stop you from traveling — and if it does, know what to do so you can minimize the damage and get back to having fun.

Barbara Rice is a native Igonian. Upon discovering the Beatles at age 9, she picked up an atlas and figured out how far England was and how long it would take to get there (5,371 miles, 12 hours). Though gainfully employed, she regards work as a necessary evil to finance vacations. In her spare time she looks up cheap airfares and daydreams about her next trip. She never did meet Sir Paul, but she knows where his office is.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.