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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Don’t Be Scared By Crime Tales

Larry Bleiberg The Dallas Morning News

It’s a scary world out there.

People will attack you, pick your pockets, take your car and steal your ATM password. You can be mugged, swindled and even killed.

All these cheerful reminders come from the special “Foiling Pickpockets” issue of the newsletter, “Travel Companions.” The publication covers all the standard scams waiting for travelers and some new inventive ones.

There’s the female flasher who so distracts men they don’t notice their luggage is being stolen. Or the cute baby that gets a tourist’s attention while the toddler’s accomplice picks his or her pocket.

Another trick is the locker helper: a friendly stranger who graciously helps with a rail-station luggage locker. Once the luggage is stowed, the stranger gives a locker key to the traveler. Only later does the tourist learn that the key is actually to another, empty locker.

“Don’t let anybody help you,” the newsletter finally implores.

After reading 20 densely typed pages of misdeeds, I was scared to walk through my employer’s parking lot, let alone leave town.

The newsletter means well. Crime does happen out there, and travelers - who may not speak the language or know local customs - are especially vulnerable.

But the problem with such warnings is that they can frighten potential travelers into never taking a trip. The newsletter made me want to stay at home, pull the shades and not answer the phone - it might be some vacation telemarketer trying to scam me.

It’s important not to overreact to these reports.

Earlier this year, an acquaintance almost talked me out of visiting what ended up being a pleasant Mexican border town.

Ciudad Acua was dangerous, she told me, recounting a story of a friend who was robbed during a recent visit. If I crossed the border, I would be taking my life into my hands.

I ignored her and saw the town anyway. Heart in my throat, I walked across the Rio Grande bridge eyeing every Mexican man, woman and child with suspicion.

When I finally relaxed, I noticed that I was actually in a charming town, authentic enough that several vendors would not take my U.S. currency, but insisted on pesos.

Only later did the acquaintance tell me that her friend who had encountered trouble in Acua had been drinking most of an afternoon and evening, and he was accosted when he stumbled into his truck.

Travelers sometimes forget that careless and dangerous behavior is just as bad an idea abroad as at home. Be it Delhi, Dallas or The Dalles, Ore., there are areas where it’s unsafe for anyone to take an evening stroll alone.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks out there.

Walking in Rome, I encountered children who tried to distract me by throwing a newspaper in my face, with the hope of then taking my money.

And during our first eight hours in Madrid both my wife and I were the intended victims of pickpockets who roamed the subways. The would-be thieves both practiced scams ably covered in the newsletter.

One man dropped some change, fell to the floor to look for it and grabbed my leg. Just as the subway doors were closing, he dashed out, and I noticed that someone else had removed a notebook from my pocket. It was now on the floor.

A few hours later my wife was jostled in a rush-hour crush and felt a gentle tugging at her purse. An old woman was very carefully trying to unzip it.

In all the cases, dumb luck and a money belt kept the experiences from becoming anything more dangerous than a boring travel story.

Yes, there is crime out there. But that doesn’t mean you should cancel your trip or view every foreigner with suspicion.

As guidebook writer and television host Rick Steves so aptly states, if travelers are prepared, they have nothing to fear.

If you promise not to let it keep you home, here’s how to receive a copy of “Foiling Pickpockets & Bag Snatchers and Other Travel-Related Crimes/Scams”: Send a check for $3.95 to Travel Companion Exchange, Pickpocket Reprint, Box 833, Amityville, N.Y. 11701.

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