San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Preparation can help reduce crime risks

Not long ago a neighbor of mine, a United States citizen, was robbed in his apartment after being here only two months. During the intrusion the robbers took his pants containing all his money and everything else of importance to him. As a result, the loss he suffered was so severe that he was forced to abandon everything he had accumulated in Costa Rica and return to the U.S. with only his clothes.

Unfortunately, the event had a far greater impact on him than was necessary, all because he failed to take some common sense precautions. He knew the basic steps he should have taken but put them off by saying, “It’s not going to happen to me.” Because he didn’t follow a few easy rules before the robbery, the consequences were greatly increased after. Had he taken the proper safeguards, the impact of the robbery would have been greatly diminished.

Below are some tips that can reduce the amount of turmoil a person might suffer if ever having the misfortune of being robbed.

To start with, at the time of the robbery, everything my neighbor had of value and importance was in his pants pockets, including his passport, all of his credit cards, and all the money he had for the coming month.

His first mistake was carrying his passport on his person. In 2005, Costa Rica passed a law no longer requiring tourists to carry their passports on them. It’s perfectly acceptable and legal to carry a good photocopy in its place. (It should be noted that there are two exceptions to this law – the original passport is required when entering or leaving the country and when making bank transactions. For anything else, a clear photocopy will suffice.)

Therefore, it is strongly advised that everyone have several copies of the personal data pages of their passport made (for most passports these are first two pages – the page with your picture and vital data, and the one with your signature), and carry only that on a daily basis. It’s also a good idea to make additional copies and store them in different places while keeping the original passport in a (separate) safe place, “just in case.”

I recommend that the copy you carry be in color. It is simple and easy to have one made at any good office supply store. I also suggest that the copy be of reduced size, roughly a little larger than a credit card. Have it laminated in plastic and you will have a durable, pocket-sized card that can easily be carried in a billfold or purse. Local branches of Office Depot or Universal can do both tasks quickly at a reasonable charge. That way you avoid the inconvenience and wear-and-tear of carrying a full sheet of paper.

Be aware that the law also requires tourists to carry a copy of the passport page with the most recent Costa Rican entry stamp (to prove when you entered the country and for how long your visa is valid). It is also good idea to have the same thing done with this page at the same time; have them make a black and white copy of the most recent entry stamp and laminate it too. In the end you will have two, durable ID-sized “cards” that easily fit in a purse or wallet.  Remember to have a new copy of the immigration stamp made each time you reenter the country.

My neighbor had failed to have any copies of his passport made. Imagine the additional problems that created when he arrived at his embassy and had nothing to prove his identity.

Another error was that he had not made any copies of his credit cards, nor had he even written down any essential information about them.  Without that data he had no idea of who the card issuers were, what his account numbers were, or who or where to call to get them cancelled! Had he been prudent, he would have had copies made of the front and back of all his credit cards and also stored them in a safe place, along with his original passport. Then he would have had the necessary information to contact the card issuers to report the theft.

 A Tip: If you have multiple credit cards, don’t carry them all at the same time.  If you do, and they are lost or stolen, you stand the chance of ending up with no way to purchase anything, including a ticket out of the country. My neighbor had to rely on someone “back home” to buy his return ticket for him.

Instead, pick out one or two of your “favorite” credit cards and carry only them. That way, in the case of a loss of those card(s), you still have alternate accounts you can use.  If you have several credit cards and you want to keep them all active, rotate the cards you carry on a regular basis.

Another critical error my neighbor made was to carry every bit of cash he had in his pants pocket. This included his whole Social Security check, money he had withdrawn from the bank that same day to use for expenses for the coming month.

There are a couple of lessons here.  First, never carry more cash on your person than you can afford to lose. OK, most people can’t “afford” to lose any amount, but if he’d lost only $200, instead of $1,000 (which he did), it would have made the event much less disastrous.

Second, it pays to be discreet with cash withdrawals. There have been many cases in Costa Rica where robbers have observed people making bank withdrawals, followed them from the bank, and robbed them within minutes of departing. I’ll leave the how to prevent that from happening for discussion at another time and just say everyone should be very careful when making withdrawals of large amounts from a bank or ATM.  (What’s a “large” amount? To you it may be small, but to a potential robber even $100  can seem like a large, inviting sum.)

Hopefully what happened to my neighbor never happens to you. But if it does, even if you’ve taken the above steps and still lost your valuables, the next question is: Now what do I do?

Next week: what to do about stolen credit cards.

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