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If you lose everything

What to do after credit card theft abroad


Imagine that you are in rural China and you lose your wallet with all your money, credit cards, passport and other documents, with mobile phone and laptop to top it all. You do not speak Chinese and cannot find anyone that speaks a language that you understand...

The first thing that you should have done, and can do now, even if you are not planning to go abroad soon, is to scan your passport, and driving license and together with encrypted details of your credit and/or debit cards (name as on the cards, number, expiry date, security code, PIN, and emergency contact telephone number) send yourself an email and move it to an archive, so that any time, from any computer anywhere in the world, you can access them and get the needed information. Look at the facilities of Dropbox or Evernote that allows you to access your notes, scans, and files from anywhere. One way of displaying credit card details is to change them in a way that you can remember, for instance, adding, or deducting a certain value from each digit, and breaking up the number into parts that you can send to different email addresses. You can do that to the expiry date and security code also.

The second thing that you should do is to keep copies (reduced in size, if more convenient) of the passport and cards information, along with some cash in a couple of hidden places. You could hide them in the baggage, some sewn into the lining of a jacket, trousers, dress, or shorts. Certainly, this would be a good place to keep the passwords to the email accounts and whatever apps you decide to use.

The third thing that you should do, to prevent losing your cash, card and documents, were you approached by thieves demanding your valuables, is to carry a small decoy wallet, with a little cash and an old expired credit card. You can then give that away without any resistance, and hopefully the criminals will think that was all you had. Many people put items of value in bum-bags (waistpacks). They are easy to steal, with or without force (in crowded places, with some jostling they vanish in seconds), and thieves will assume that what they are after is inside them. If you are wearing jeans, keep your “real” money and documents in one of tighter front pockets. Avoid wallets: they are bulky and easy to detect: loose notes and a copy of the passport should be all you need to carry in most countries.

You and I know that these things only happen to other people, but it has happened to me on more than one occasion! One day, having flown from snowy St Petersburg, in Russia, to Moscow, I asked my hotel to dry-clean the pair of trousers I had been wearing and were quite soiled from the slushy pavements of the North. The hotel thought that it might be better to wash them, and the result was that they shrunk to a ridiculous length making them unusable. Fortunately, or so I thought, I had brought another pair, but when I put it on I realized that it belonged to earlier days when my legs were much thinner, and although wearable they were very tight.

I went for a walk in the centre, on a nice sunny day. Although, I did not carry a camera like the average tourist, I had a small map in my hand, and stopped often to look around. This was in the mid-90s, and it was very easy to spot a tourist from his clothes and shoes. I noticed a couple of young men looking at me from some 50 metres away, and suddenly 10 or more children, 8 to 12 years-old approached me asking for money, surrounded me, grabbed my arms and one put his hand in the pocket where I had my small wallet. It was just a credit card holder that in my tight trousers produced a bulge that was noticeable from the outside. Obviously, I was singled out by the young men in the distance, who gave the signal for the children to attack, and attack they did because my right arm ached for a few days.

I was lucky! I wore an expensive watch that they did not noticed, and I carried my money (some $200) in loose notes in one of my back pockets. They assumed that all my valuables would be in the wallet. I returned to the hotel, and phoned the credit card companies to cancel the cards. I do not know if they were ever used fraudulently, as I never suffered any loss.

If the unthinkable happens, contact the police and ask for a copy of the report (you will need it for insurance purposes); then find a computer, either in your hotel, or in an Internet café, and print out the documents that you scanned and the credit card details (if they were encrypted, there is no danger of leaving traces in a strange computer). Hopefully, you still have your phone. If not, it would be helpful if you had taken the trouble of buying an extra SIM card with sufficient credit to call home a few times, and still have it hidden somewhere. Then, you could borrow a phone and use it with your own SIM card to call home.

Next, call the credit card emergency number to cancel the card(s) to minimize eventual card fraud, and have them expedite new card(s); and contact the nearest Consulate office. Meanwhile, family or friends might be able transfer money immediately via a specialist firm like Western Union or Moneygram. Charges, commissions, and poor exchange rates might cost you in excess of 15%. Depending on where you are you could receive the money from within 10 minutes, to 24 hours, or more. Your own bank could transfer money from your account, within a day or so, but will be even more expensive.

Then, sit tight and wait for the card or the cash to arrive, and hope this is not a weekend! It is essential that, before you leave, you know how your bank(s) deal with emergency cash transfers. Some banks only provide the facility in the home country. Among those that look after you abroad is American Express, and for the UK market, Lloyds Bank. The easiest way to get emergency cash, when the bank makes the service available abroad, is to be given a security code that can be used instead of the actual card. New cards could take up to a week, or longer, to arrive depending on the country you are visiting. Some Consulates may lend you some emergency cash, but don’t count on it. They should also deal with the issue of emergency travel documents.

Plane tickets are more easily replaced, if you have them copied before you depart along with the credit card and passport scans.

One added problem that you can only deal with after arrival at the country you are visiting is the possibility that the entry stamps, or arrival cards that you are obliged to keep may have gone with the passport. In other countries, e.g. former Soviet Republics, you had to declare the cash you brought in and on departure show the receipt that enabled authorities to ensure that you were not exporting more than you brought in. If you could not produce the receipt all your money would be forfeited! Trying to scan copies after arrival and uploading them to join the rest of the documentation would be a good idea, even if I am not sure that the export of currency mentioned above would be facilitated without the originals.

Before you travel get all the scans and information together and store them somewhere safe and easily accessible on-line. Include all the emergency telephone numbers, including those of friends, family, and local Consulate and Embassy. If they are kept solely in your mobile phone or laptop, and these go missing also, you will really be in a lot of trouble!

Here is a list of precautions to take:

  • Scan passport, driving license, airline tickets
  • Make a note, (encrypted) of each credit or debit card details
  • Name as on the card
  • Card number
  • Expiry date
  • Security code (on the back: last 3 digits)
  • PIN
  • Emergency telephone number for each card
  • Your bank(s) emergency telephone numbers
  • Family and friends telephone numbers (it’s easy to forget them under stress)
  • Embassy and Consulate telephone numbers

Hide, preferably sewn into clothes:

  • Passwords for email address, or apps where you left all the above information
  • The telephone numbers above, in case you cannot access a computer immediately
  • Some cash (ONE or TWO large denomination notes) easily acceptable in the country you are visiting.

I nearly forgot the most important: take travel insurance!

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