San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Passport Thefts Are Increasing

Canadian Ambassador Niel Reeder is concerned. His citizens’ passports are being stolen in Costa Rica and they are not being recovered or returned. As more Canadian tourists flock to Costa Rica every year, more thefts are being reported.

As a result of the robberies, the Canadian government’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Office has added new language to its travel report for Costa Rica.

“Crimes against tourists are particularly common at airports, bus stations, ports, car rental lots, crowded tourist attractions and resort areas,” it reads. “Thieves target foreigners’ money, credit cards and passports. Cases of passport theft, including cases involving Canadians, are extremely frequent. Canadians should exercise caution and vigilance with their valuables and travel documents.”

The warning is not exactly the image of Costa Rica that ambassador Reeder wants to portray to Canadian travelers, but after nearly four years of hearing frustrated visitors explain their plight in the lobby of the Canadian Embassy near La Sabana Metropolitan Park, he believes it’s necessary.

“People come here with the pura vida attitude, leave their things on the beach or somewhere else, and they come back and find them gone,” said Reeder, who is almost done with his term here. “We love Costa Rica and we don’t want to depict it as a dangerous place, because overall it’s not. But travelers have to be responsible for their things and not leave them on the beach.”

From January through March 2010, 124 Canadians in Costa Rica reported stolen passports. That’s more than the 103 that had the same problem from January to March 2009.

The majority of thefts, according to a graph elaborated by the Canadian Embassy here, are out of rental cars. Reeder noted that thieves follow certain car models that are commonly used as rental cars, and break into the vehicles once the driver is out of sight.

In 2010, 40 percent of Canadian passports reported stolen were taken from rental vehicles, while 21 percent were stolen during hotel break-ins, 12 percent from buses and 10 percent at restaurants. The remaining passports were stolen from the beach or some other public place, the chart indicates.

But it is not only Canadians who are losing their passports in high numbers. The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica replaces more lost or stolen passports than any other U.S. Embassy in the world (TT, May 7). Through May of this year, the U.S. Embassy had dealt with 712 cases of stolen passports, putting the embassy on pace to surpass the 1,569 cases it faced in 2009.

The British Embassy received 30 cases of stolen passports from UK citizens from January through May of this year. In 2009, the Brits received 71 cases.

Most of the time, Reeder noted, the robber is not specifically targeting the passport. Rather, they steal an entire bag in search of iPods, credit cards and cash. Since many  tourists travel with their passport in theirbags, though, burglars make away with the government document as a bonus.

Passports can be sold and in some cases have been used to facilitate human trafficking. Most of the time, however, authorities believe that thieves simply discard the passports.

The Canadian Embassy reports stolen passports to the police and the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. In theory, these passports should be returned to the embassy once Costa Rican authorities recover the official booklets.

But reality has proven different.

“We receive very few of the recovered passports, probably less than 1 percent,” Reeder said.

Consequently, Reeder and his counterparts at the U.S. and British Embassies have teamed up to work with the Costa Rican Tourism Police and the National Police to help identify the thieves and recover the passports, while increasing vigilance for travelers.

“Everyone wants our tourists to have a safe stay in Costa Rica. If they don’t, they won’t return,” he said.

Reeder advises tourists to travel with a photocopy of their passport and the most recent visa stamp in order to avoid this problem. If travelers must carry their passports on their person, they should be aware of where they store their luggage and not fall asleep when the baggage is out of sight, Reeder said.

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