Travelers should learn to spread the wealth

Valuables: Don't keep money and credit cards in one spot. What's handy for you is also handy for a thief


April 25, 1999|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Chicago Tribune

Spread your risk. Advice from your stockbroker? No, it's advice for travelers who have a propensity to carry their traveler's checks, cash and credit/cash cards all in one handy, can't-forget-where-they-are place.

The bad thing about stashing your valuables in one spot is that if you get robbed or have your pocket picked, which can happen anywhere, the thief takes all -- your vacation along with the money. The same nightmarish thing can happen if you lose your billfold or purse or fannypack.

Don't put all your valuables in one place, advised Richard Lefler, vice president-worldwide security for American Express. "I generally carry cash and travelers checks in different pockets and credit and charge cards in my wallet. By not having them together, should I lose one, I'm not necessarily out of business," said Lefler, a former Secret Service agent whose 20-year stint included assignments at the White House and on Vice President Walter Mondale's detail.

"I also encourage people to use hotel safe deposit boxes. The key to the whole issue is distributing your risk," Lefler said in a phone interview.

Travelers do worry about protecting their valuables when they're on the road both at home and abroad. In a Global Travel Safety Survey taken in April for American Express by Research International of London, 74 percent of 1,950 travelers from 13 countries questioned said they worried about the safety of their possessions while traveling.

Although these travelers may worry about safety, many don't take the time to think how they're going to safeguard their stuff. Even though people's level of awareness of safety issues may be heightened through the media, they don't always act to protect themselves.

For starters, said Lefler, travelers need to unpack their wallets and purses before they start a trip. "A lot of times there may be credit cards, charge cards, jewelry and other items that you don't need to take. So why risk taking it with you if you don't need it?"

A second thing that's essential, Lefler stressed, is to make copies of your travel documents -- itinerary, passport, airline tickets and traveler's checks numbers -- and carry them in your luggage and briefcase. If you lose something, you can refer to your copies when you report a loss.

Lefler also emphasized the importance of not relying on any one single payment system while traveling. "I carry a combination of cash, traveler's checks and credit cards. If there's a particular problem -- if I can't get to an automated teller machine -- I have other means available to me."

A recent article in the New York Times reported that sales of traveler's checks were on the decline -- American Express sales fell to $25 billion in 1997 from $26 billion in 1996 -- as more and more travelers turn to ATMs.

But, as readers of the Times pointed out in letters about the article, ATMs don't always work. Or, if you need cash in a hurry and you can't find a machine, you're in a jam. Thus, as Lefler and others suggest, traveler's checks and plastic -- credit cards, cash cards and debit cards -- are great fallbacks.

In the American Express survey, one in nine travelers said he or she had a problem getting cash from an ATM when traveling internationally. Some 49 percent of the American survey said they were jittery when using ATMs outside the country.

My suggestion: Use ATMs during daylight hours and near a bank that's open should you need help in case the machine eats your card.

The travelers abroad who use ATMs love them because they get a better exchange rate than they do on traveler's checks or cash and because there's usually no fee involved in the transaction.

Lefler cautioned ATM users about a scam that has surfaced in London and New York. Some sophisticated thieves have developed a mechanical contraption that allows your card to be inserted into the machine but locks your card in there. "So you go ahead and enter your PIN while a member of the criminal group shoulder-surfs to pick up your PIN. Then the machine won't give money and it won't give you back your card. When you go to report the problem, the culprits remove their mechanical device, and capture your card. Then they drain whatever they can from your account."

Whatever travelers do, said Lefler, they should heighten their awareness when they go on the road. In addition to leaving valuables at home along with copies of their documents, travelers need to keep their eyes open. "You need to look around and assess what's happening around you. In general, people can be very much off into the wild blue yonder and can be totally unaware of what's happening around them even if it does represent a risk to them."

Lefler said travelers easily can be victimized by professional distraction theft groups who focus in on two things: The person who clearly appears to have valuable items, and the person with a low level of awareness.

Among the safe-trip tips offered by American Express:

* Never leave luggage unattended.

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