Read the signs... distracting behaviours can signal that thieves are at work.

Read the signs... distracting behaviours can signal that thieves are at work. Photo: iStock Photos

Travellers are leaving nothing to chance in a bid to outwit thieves and scammers. But at what cost, asks Nick Galvin.

Unwary travellers have been falling victim to scams and swindles from light-fingered locals ever since Moses conducted tour groups around the Middle East. Strangers in a strange land are always liable to attract the wrong kind of attention - they're out of their comfort zone, probably don't speak the local language and are quite possibly lost.

Underpants with zippered pockets are claimed to be "100 per cent pickpocket proof". 

There are thousands of ruses (many of them variations on just a few classics) designed to part you from your valuables before you even realise it. Almost everyone who has travelled overseas has a "rip-off" story to tell.

Often the scam involves distracting your attention while an accomplice lightens your pocket. Perhaps you will be splashed with a soft drink or worse and the "concerned" stranger helps you clean up; or maybe someone will stop suddenly in front of you in a crowded street; or you may be surrounded by young kids shouting at you and brandishing newspapers to hide the hands in your pocket.

Then there's the widely reported railway scam. You've just plonked your bags in the carriage and sat down when someone beckons you urgently to the window. As you are distracted, an accomplice makes off with your belongings.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australians last year reported 892 stolen passports (more than a third of those were in Spain).

So how do you avoid becoming a victim? It makes sense not to flash your cash when travelling and to keep your valuables as close to you (and inaccessible to others) as possible.

David Lowson, the product manager at outdoor and travel store Paddy Pallin, says classic items such as money belts and neck wallets still sell steadily but increasingly, customers are also going for more sophisticated "theft-proof" items.

"Bags have mesh built into them and they have steel wire though the shoulder straps so they can't be cut off you and even the zips have Velcro over them so you can't just open it and grab something quickly," he says.

Meanwhile, a US company, the Clever Travel Companion, is selling underwear with concealed pockets. The firm's men's and women's tops and underpants with zippered pockets are claimed to be "100 per cent pickpocket proof" (although dropping your trousers just to access your credit card is not a good look).

However, there must be balance between avoiding rip-offs and being so paranoid you miss out on experiences. The best advice is, be aware some people may try to take advantage and be cautious while not letting it ruin your trip.

Leanne Thompson, a Sydney artist, has travelled extensively in Australia and Europe and believes having faith in humanity is as important as being alert. "I trust everyone and I've never had any trouble," Thompson, 45, says.

"My sister thought it was the end of the world in Florence when I disappeared with a young Italian on the back of his Vespa to go to his 'other' shop when there wasn't a skirt in the size I wanted. I ended up with a very nice little brown suede miniskirt."

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