Protecting Against
Theft And Loss

The rather unpleasant subject of theft and loss needs to be addressed by all travelers before it happens. It’s not about living in constant fear of getting robbed, quite the contrary. Instead, it’s about a conscious effort to tackle what can be done, and learn to deal with what lies beyond our control. And to transform a distressing event that could potentially ruin us into nothing more than an annoyance.

Why Bother?

In the summer of 2015, two Swiss climbers returned from a day at the Cerro Ventana crag in Argentina’s picturesque Patagonia. The nearby quiet town of Bariloche is known for its chocolate and wooden architecture reminiscent of Switzerland. 

But this wasn’t their lucky day. A couple of thugs pulled a gun out and robbed the two unlucky visitors. Literally stripped down to their underpants, the pair was rescued by the local climbing community. True story.

bariloche patagonia argentina hiking trekking
The last place you'd expect to get robbed. Bariloche, Argentina.
bariloche patagonia argentina hiking trekking
The last place you'd expect to get robbed. Bariloche, Argentina.

Without turning to paranoia, this a question we have to ask ourselves. What would you do in the event of losing all your physical possessions in one go? Everything. Bags, cash, cards, ID, electronics. Or even only the much more mundane and common loss of your smartphone.

The good news is that with just a little preparation we can greatly reduce both the physical and psychological damage if our luck runs out too one day. Every traveler and nomad should run such a security audit at least once a year.

Reducing Risk
Of Theft And Loss

While it’s impossible to fully eliminate the danger of theft and loss, there are a few rules of thumb that can tip the odds in our favor.

  • Use common sense. Don’t be surprised if you get robbed walking around alone and drunk at 2am in La Paz wearing an alpaca jumper you just bought on the gringo trail. Again, true story.
  • Ask the locals. They sometimes exaggerate the threat. But until you can take an informed decision, heed their advice.
  • Female travelers, listen to what local women have to say. They are acutely aware of risks that might be invisible to you.
  • Remain alert when using public transportation and in crowded places. Night buses and trains, big stations, subways and crowded bazaars is where travelers are typically relieved from their possessions. Same precaution rules apply for bars and night clubs. 
metro theft usbekistan
The Tashkent metro is probably safer than a lot of Western cities, but a modicum of caution always applies
metro theft usbekistan
The Tashkent metro is probably safer than a lot of Western cities, but a modicum of caution always applies
  • Consider using a money belt for your passport, at least one back-up bank card, and some cash. Wear it whenever you can’t leave these items somewhere safe. A money belt is a tough nut to crack for pickpockets, and much harder to forget or leave unattended then a bag or purse.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket. Leave some cards and cash in different places.
  • Is it safer to leave valuables in your accommodation or take them with you? A delicate question. Generally, family-run businesses such as private AirBnBs, B&Bs and small hotels are trustworthy. After all, their reputation is on the line. Big anonymous establishments and party hostels, less so.
  • Take the habit to systematically hide your valuables when you leave them behind. Inside your backpack’s frame for example. It’s a great way to reduce opportunistic theft.

Beefing Up The Security
Of Your Bank Cards

Reducing your financial risk starts by using all the security features offered by your financial providers. If you are a savvy traveler and use the no/low-fee neobanks and app-based payment systems, you might be able to fine tune security yourself. No need for contactless payment? Block it. You have good mobile internet and an option for location-based security? Use it. Withdrawal limits? Set them. If, like the neobank Revolut, you can create virtual cards, use them exclusively for internet purchases, and block that function on your physical card.

Finally, your last line of defense should be a list with all the relevant information to lock your cards quickly over the phone if necessary, and subsequently recover access to your banking apps.

Travel Insurance:
When You Really Need It

Most travel blogs recommend you take out insurance. Unsurprisingly, they usually then proceed to direct you towards affiliate links. We have a less biased opinion:

  • If you are already covered through your credit card or travel health insurance, then great.
  • Otherwise, and if you follow a budget approach, don’t bother. Your gear and other possessions are not that valuable anyway. Over time it’s simply not worth it for long-term travelers, backpackers and nomads.
  • Only take out travel insurance if you carry expensive equipment and cannot afford to replace it. For example, a freelance cameraman lugging around cameras and electronics worth tens of thousands.
  • Read the fine print. What exactly are you covered for? What are the exclusions? Do you still have the receipts for a claim? What’s the deductible? How much will you get back factoring in depreciation? Remember, insurance companies are profitable businesses for a good reason.

Protecting Your Digital Life:
Cloud Storage

Stuff can be replaced. But NOT your data!!! The ideal location-independent storage solution to safeguard your digital assets is, of course, cloud storage. Apple’s iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and Amazon Drive all offer a free tier, just to name the big players. No more drama if your phone or computer gets stolen.

You are probably already backing up your pictures and other files to the cloud. Great, but don’t forget to add at the very least a copy of your passport, other IDs, drivers licence, relevant visas and insurance policies. Share the folder with your emergency contacts. This could be of invaluable help in an emergency.

cloud backup data
The safest place for data you can't afford to lose.
cloud backup data
The safest place for data you can't afford to lose.

If you need occasional access to more mundane documents such as tax records or credit card statements, this is the best place to store them too. It beats a moldy box in your parents attic. If you start running out of free storage, you can juggle your archive between the different providers. Or purchase annual storage. Shop around, 100GB shouldn’t cost you more than a couple of bucks a month.

Finally, keep an eye on apps that have access to your cloud. Auto-backup to the cloud might be a convenient feature, but could also give reading rights to a third-party. Do you really trust them?

Securing Your Private Information
On Your Devices

Make sure no sensitive data is easily read if someone else get his/her hands on your electronics.

Screen Lock. Make sure it’s activated. Prefer a PIN over a pattern, which is easier to observe and even deduce from finger grease on your screen. 6 numbers are better than 4. And fingerprint readers and facial recognition are less secure. Hong Kong protesters always turned them off before heading out if they risked arrest.

Encryption. iPhones are encrypted by default, as well as most newer Android phones. Otherwise, you will have to activate it manually. You should do the same for your laptop, tablet and external hard drive if they contain sensitive data. This might even be a legal obligation for digital nomads depending on your line of work. Especially with laptops travelers are often careless, facilitating identity theft.

Chromebooks. Affordable, encrypted out of the box, cloud based but still operational without internet, it’s a favorite for journalists heading to dodgy countries. Even if you do end up in underwear, just get a new one, log in and you are back, it’s that simple. The rugged educational models are great for handling the abuses of travel.

Better Password Management

Use strong and unique passwords for every single account you have. Names of pets and relatives are particularly weak. Replacing the odd letter by a special character, like the classic a for @ swap, is better but can still be cracked by brute force attacks. A random combination of upper and lower case characters, numbers and special characters is by far the safest solution.

Why the hassle? An ever-increasing number of databases from companies big and small get hacked, with passwords resold on the dark web. Dealing with shady websites is unavoidable when you travel. And don’t think you are totally immune to well-executed phishing attacks. If you have similar, or even worse, identical passwords across your digital empire, you are at high risk. 

Remembering hundreds of secure passwords is obviously impossible. If you aren’t already using one, a password manager is the key to safeguard all your sensitive login data. Most browsers come with one, or you can download an extension. For us nomads, we have to store our passwords in the cloud. It’s not the most secure option, but it can still be retrieved on the go in case disaster strikes.

Protect Yourself From Identity Theft:
2 Factor Authentication

Where available, enable 2 factor authentication (2FA) to beef up security. At the very minimum, that includes everything financial, your main email and cloud storage accounts. Add to that social media as they often contain too much personal information to be jeopardized.

Questions. Some sites still use personal questions as a back-up to confirm your identity. If that’s the case, make sure that the answers are not publicly available. Your mother’s maiden name might be easier to find than you think, and social media could reveal the name of your first pet.

Mobile OTP. Many sites and apps use a one-time password (OTP) delivered by SMS. That makes it significantly more secure, but is not perfect. With so-called SIM swap attacks, potential thieves usurp your identity and convince your mobile provider to issue them a new SIM or port your number to their card. Yours suddenly stops working while your bank accounts get emptied. Not good. To prevent this, it is sometimes possible to use a physical security key. But it’s not easily replaced while on the move.

2 factor authentication 2FA
2FA: a simple way to boost security across your accounts
2 factor authentication 2FA
2FA: a simple way to boost security across your accounts

OTP App. It’s often possible to use a code generator such as Google Authenticator or use a push notification. This is an excellent option for travelers. It’s more secure than an OTP delivered by SMS, and it doesn’t rely on your SIM working abroad. It’s sometimes possible to register more than one OTP generator, which means that you could have one on both mobile and laptop. A great back-up should your phone go missing.

SIM Card Security. Finally, for the unavoidable OTPs delivered by mobile, there are still a few steps you can implement to minimize risk. It starts with having a dedicated prepaid SIM card for all security matters. Avoid carrying it in your phone unless you need to. Moreover, make sure you activate the PIN protection for an extra layer of safety. And last but not least, register fully with your provider. It’s important that you can block your number quickly if needed, and ideally be easily informed by email or text if someone is trying to port it to another SIM. It will also speed up procedures to order a replacement.

Preparing For The Worst-Case Scenario:
Account Recovery

A good habit is to keep a centralized record of all your accounts that use 2FA in the cloud. This document should include alternative recovery methods when available, should your phone go missing. And of course the relevant customer service phone numbers as last resort. What is essentially a clear plan to recover your digital life will be of invaluable help in the middle of a highly stressful situation.

Some accounts come with recovery codes. Since they also present a vulnerability on their own, it’s not a bad idea to keep them in an encrypted and password protected file. This can be done relatively securely with Word.

Protecting And Recovering
Your Main Cloud Account

Much of your digital file keeping invariably revolves around the usage of your cloud services. This includes tons of sensitive information, especially if you also use it to store your password manager. Here, security is of the utmost importance. It has to be a like a fortress. A strong password and 2FA goes without saying. But you also need a secure recovery method.

In the event of all your belongings disappearing simultaneously, this becomes delicate. Can you entrust a friend of family member with an alternative 2FA method? If so, you need to be able to access it from abroad. Do you know her/his phone number by heart? And will that person be easily reachable?

An alternative could be hiding recovery codes, if your provider issues them, somewhere else on the web, accessible using a strong password that you can remember. And should that fail, you must familiarize yourself with the procedure to get your cloud unlocked through customer service. Remember that you will most likely need an ID.

Big Data For Creatives

Creatives like photographs and film makers have vastly increased storage needs. A travel-proof external hard drive has to be able to cope with shocks and water while remaining lightweight an compact. The rugged LaCie products are a popular choice for this very specific user profile. But even carrying a second backup hard drive doesn’t protect you fully from theft and loss.

High-speed WiFi is not always available, and mobile data too costly for large cloud back-ups. However, at least once in a while it should be possible to upload larger amounts of data. This insurance against a worst-case scenario doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Amazon’s S3 Glacier and Deep Archive storage is specially designed for cheap long-term infrequently accessed backups, with prices starting at 0.00099$ per GB per month.

Coping Mentally
With Loss And Theft

Last not definitely not least, now that we have done everything within our power to reduce and manage risk of loss and theft, we have to turn our attention to our mind. Lest we become paranoid, stressed and constantly anxious during our travels.

Stoicism and Buddhist philosophy and meditation teach us to accept what we cannot control. But stoicism also comes up with the very practical technique of premeditatio malorum. It’s like a mental audit. Close your eyes, and picture yourself stripped of all your physical possessions.  Besides preparing you mentally through visualization for such an event, you will notice its relaxing properties. Hey, you just dropped your phone in the toilet. But it’s no big deal for someone prepared like you. And certainly much better than what you first envisioned.