A Tourist And Her iPhone Are Quickly Parted

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - A Busy Street Cafe
Busy Cafe’s – Your Guard Is Down, So Thieves Go To Work

We had barely set foot in Barcelona. Just there long enough to get off the Norwegian Epic, take a taxi to our AirBnB place, drop off our bags, and head to a café for some coffee and Internet. It was done so slickly, so smoothly, we didn’t realize Lori’s shiny new iPhone 6+ was missing until thirty minutes after we left when she wanted to retrieve it for some picture-taking at the Barcelona Cathedral.

We consider ourselves pretty savvy travelers, and with the amount of time we’ve spent in Europe I guess we are. The celebrity guide book authors have no shortage of advice on how to avoid having sticky fingers attaching themselves to your belongings. We’ve been diligent, constantly aware of our surroundings, locked our backpacks, and more (though we’ve drawn the line at wearing those money belts, i.e. inside-the-pants fanny packs). Before you say, aha! at our snubbing of money belts, know that it wasn’t a hand slipped into a pocket or purse that happened to us. It was far simpler, which–of course–makes it all the more clever on his part.

We found a nice, private bistro table for two next to a column toward the back of the café. We caught up on emails and a bit of work, and I had just finished posting this past Thursday’s blog. Lori had been doing likewise: catching up on emails on her iPhone. Between her and the column a guy politely walked up and laid a sign on our table that said something in Spanish like, “Please, I’m hungry, can you spare some change?” These beggars are the bane of tourists everywhere. Generally we don’t encourage them by giving them money; we’re a little more sympathetic to the ones who come by trying to sell something–a rose, a snippet of fragrant herbs, anything–than the greasy, annoying guys who panhandle the streets all day, then buy a bottle of liquor, a pack of cigarettes, and hop on their scooters to go home (we’ve seen this in practice).

At first we said, “No, sorry,” but he persisted, so we tried the ignore tactic. He lingered a little longer than normal, which should have been a big red flag, so our waving him off and tense “No”‘s felt increasingly awkward. Suddenly, to our relief, he turned and left. And with it, Lori’s iPhone.

If you’re getting creeped out thinking that the guy’s hand was slipping into her purse while all this was going on, I said it was much simpler. Lori had laid her iPhone on the table after she checked her emails. When he laid his “I’m hungry” sign on the table, he neatly laid it over her phone. As he lingered, his other hand was pilfering the phone under the paper. It was that simple, though it’s conceivable the same tactic would have worked with the other hand opening and routing around in her purse, except that it was on the floor between her feet.

To prevent this from happening again, to us or to you, here’s an analysis of how the whole ruse worked:

  1. We were freshly arrived in Barcelona, excited about our arrival and the start of a new adventure. Our guards were down.
  2. We sat at a table, adjacent to that column, affording a way for the thief to block the view of what he was doing from the side.
  3. We–Lori and I both–were not careful in advertising all of the stuff we were carrying with us: both our iPhones, my Mac, etc.
  4. By employing the ignore-him-and-he’ll-go-away tactic, we gave him plenty of time.
  5. After the encounter, we were simply relieved to be rid of him; it hadn’t occurred to us that we’d been robbed.
Here’s how we have to change our behavior to ensure we aren’t robbed this way again. We will need to be constantly diligent, especially when we’re excited, tired, or otherwise distracted by…whatever. It’s always better to sit in the open, or against a wall, and we should be especially careful of displaying our stuff. And once we’re done with something–phone, wallet, etc.–it should get put securely away. If a beggar lays a sign on our table again, we’ll promptly, courteously remove it. We’ll immediately gather our belongings, and if, after the first “No” they don’t depart, I’ll stand, more forcefully say “No” and promptly check for all of our belongings. Even after they split, we’ll continue to take inventory.
The most valuable thing this guy stole from us was our ability to be polite to the people who beg at your tables. They’re a nuisance, for certain, but I imagine the majority of them are not thieves but truly destitute people. With all that’s written about pickpocketing in Europe, you might say it was statistically inevitable that we’d eventually be victims. Let’s be clear on this: Europe is a safe place to travel. We’re immeasurably glad he didn’t take her iPhone, or any of our stuff, by violent means. And it seems worth pointing out that the only other time we’ve been the victim of theft while traveling was on a trip to Disney World way back in 1990: someone broke into our hotel room and stole our video camera, the real loss being the images of our son’s first real Christmas.

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