Many people warned us against visiting South Africa. And while we took precautions, we were still robbed while traveling. Read on for a cautionary tale of you can learn from our mistake and have a more pleasant visit.
I first want to preface that this incident should by no means be a reason for you to fear visiting South Africa. Despite our ordeal, we don’t regret our visit to beautiful Cape Town (read about some of the awesome things to do there in this article), and we otherwise had a wonderful time. We only wish we had known about this common scam beforehand to have better protected ourselves.
Table Mountain is a very popular local hiking area for residents and visitors, alike. It is also decorated with numerous signs warning of the dangers of the area. Being so popular, muggings have been known to happen on the trail. You should never hike alone, and you should keep expensive items out of sight as much as possible.
Of course, we know to be aware of our surroundings, don’t look lost, and all the other general personal safety tips. We were even careful about keeping our expensive camera gear hidden so it wouldn’t draw attention.
There were plenty of other people wandering the steep climb with us, so we felt pretty safe. In fact, there was only one moment when we questioned a small group of young men eyeing us a bit too intensely. But we got off the mountain without incident, our gear safely stowed in the trunk of our rental car.
Cover well-known brands on your gear with duct or electrical tape before your trip. Also consider randomly placing silver duct tape on your gear. This makes your equipment appear more used and less of a shiny target. #safetytips #protectyourgearTweet
“If only” #1
Following the hike, we were hungry. We debated going back to our couchsurfing lodging and just eating some of the groceries we’d already purchased or stopping by a local restaurant. I made a deal with Aaron that we could eat out if it was cheap. He found a hole-in-the-wall taco joint, Tacos Locos.
If only we had just gone home, we could have avoided the whole thing.
We parked about a block away from the restaurant, noting a few folks in yellow vests monitoring the parked vehicles. The area was a bit sketchier than I liked, but Aaron assured me we were fine.
Paranoid, I said I wanted to bring the bags into the restaurant with us. However, Aaron reasoned they were likely safer locked in the trunk than on our person. What if bringing them out made us targets, ourselves? His argument made sense, and I agreed. We locked the car and went on to eat our lunch.
The food was absolutely delectable. I gotta say, some of the best tacos I’ve had! And we happened to stop by on a Taco Tuesday, so two of their flavors were on special – just R50 (about $3.50 USD) for two. But my anxiety over the bags weighed heavily over me.
Robbed while traveling
We returned to the car, and everything still looked in order, so we left, relieved.
However, when we arrived at our lodging and opened the trunk to retrieve our bags…. they were gone.
The shock and disbelief.. that heart-wrenching moment. Thinking it was just the conversation on being paranoid about the bags that made me simply miss the dark bags in the shadows of the trunk. Realizing in agonizingly slow seconds every item that just vanished.
My camera. Aaron’s camera and GoPro. Our lightweight down jackets. My backup hard drive. The bags, themselves.
The kitties. Our cute little doppelgängers I crocheted so we could carry a piece of home with us everywhere we went. Who only survived one week into our 14-month trip. Who barely got any photos around the world. Whom a penguin nearly snatched the day prior.
Of course, the first thing we did was call the local police. We had to file a police report before we could think about filing a claim with our insurance company. It just wasn’t what we were expecting to do that evening. We had other plans, y’know?
We spent a couple of miserable hours at the local police station, replaying every moment in our heads. Opening the trunk and seeing that everything was gone…
We had to think through every item that was within those bags, and make reasonable guesses as to how much each was worth – in South African rand. We had some of this information on-hand; a few we had to look up.. with our limited internet access.
When we answered the question of “was there any damage to the vehicle or signs of forced entry” to the negative, the cop nodded knowingly. He suspects we were victims of a very common signal-jamming scam.
What is signal-jamming?
Thieves can acquire small devices that intercept the signal from your key fob. This device prevents the signal from reaching your vehicle. In short: you press the “lock” button on your remote, but it doesn’t actually lock your car.
We’ve heard of devices like these, or even ones that can intercept and record your signal so they can just duplicate it to unlock your vehicle after you’ve walked away. But it’s been years since we’ve even considered a threat like this.. it wasn’t even on our radar.
We effectively walked away from an unlocked car. The thieves could then just open the door, pop the trunk, and make off with our gear.
All while we enjoyed tasty tasty tacos.
When you’re done photographing at any given location, get in the habit of removing your SD card from your camera; tuck it in a pocket. Even if you lose your camera, you won’t lose priceless photos. #traveltips #protectyourgearTweet
How to protect yourself
We could have avoided the entire situation if we had done one thing: verify the car locked by manually checking the doors.
Even better, manually lock the doors from the inside before closing the door. This will protect you from the signal-copying scam as well. Unfortunately, many newer vehicles (like rental cars) have failsafes in place to prevent you from inadvertently locking yourself outside your vehicle. We tested this on our car, and we couldn’t manually lock the doors without the key fob.
Either way, do not walk away from your car without checking the doors – especially if you have something valuable in the trunk.
What to do if it happens to you
I hope the above step keeps you from even needing to read further. But in the unfortunate event this happens to you, there are a number of things to keep in mind.
File a police report
As soon as you possibly can, contact the local police and report the theft. You will likely need to go in in-person to file a report. Make sure you know what was taken, the approximate values of each item, the time and closest address to the incident, any suspect descriptions, and the vehicle details if applicable.
Call your bank/insurance issuer
If you lost any of your credit cards, be sure to call your bank as soon as possible to cancel them.
And if your passport was stolen, report it immediately (Americans can report stolen passports here).
Once you have a case number, you can call your insurance company to file a claim. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the policy so you know what’s covered. For us, we have a Valuable Personal Property policy on all our most expensive gear. We also have a Renters policy that covers additional lost items.
Also, don’t forget to check with your travel credit cards; many have purchase protection plans that might cover items if they were recently purchased with your card.
Don’t underestimate the power of Facebook groups
As soon as you possibly can, join local Facebook groups for the areas surrounding the incident. Locals will often be more than happy to point you in the right direction as far as who else you can report the theft to – neighborhood watches, etc – or share pictures of the items you lost with their friends or in other local groups. You never know when someone might have seen something and could lead you to getting your stuff back!
I was overwhelmed by the response of the South African people when I did this. I posted specifically for our little crocheted kitties, and within hours, the post had amassed dozens of shares, countless comments of sympathy (and even a few who had similarly lost their travel mascots), and even a few new resources. Someone even offered to return to the scene of the crime and ask some of the street folks if they had seen anything suspicious.
Report items with serial numbers as stolen with the specific brand
My stolen Sony camera was registered with Sony. I contacted Sony and reported the camera stolen, providing them with the serial number. I had a Canon lens stolen; Aaron had a GoPro stolen. We reported these with Canon and GoPro.
While Sony or Canon or GoPro won’t actively search for your stolen gear, having the serial numbers flagged as stolen will help them be returned to you should they show up in a used camera shop. Most reputable shops will verify each item before they resell it, checking with each manufacturer for flagged serial numbers.
Report stolen camera gear on websites like Lenstag or StolenCameraFinder.com
Lenstag is a free repository of stolen gear, with serial numbers. If anyone finds a camera or lens, or buys one used, they can search this archive for any flagged serial numbers. Pro tip: register and verify all of your gear on Lenstag as soon as you buy it (before it’s stolen), as they take several business days to verify them (and you can’t report unverified items).
StolenCameraFinder.com is a website that uses your camera’s photo metadata to find other photos on the internet with matching serial numbers. If someone acquires your gear and starts posting images online, you can find them.
Note: Unfortunately, the newer Sony models do not store the camera’s serial number in the exif data. However, most Canon models do.
Prepare as best you can ahead of time
There are also things you can do ahead of time to make handling a situation like this far less of a headache. We had many of these in place, but there were holes that we have since filled.
Carry a decoy wallet when you travel to ward off potential thieves. Fill it with expired credit or gift cards and just a little bit of the local currency. Thinking they got what they wanted, they’ll leave you alone. #travelsafety #protectyourselfTweet
Insure your expensive gear
First and foremost, insure your gear. Even if it’s just one camera. Even if you think you already have a renters policy that covers it. Double-check the fine print and make certain you’ve explicitly covered each item. Most insurance companies will offer a rider for camera gear; take advantage of it long before you depart.
Also, be sure to attach any relevant evidence of proof of ownership – this includes receipts and/or photos of the items, particularly ones containing the serial number. And cover each item for the amount it would cost to replace it – not the amount you paid for it. Feel free to be a bit liberal here, but know your premium is likely dependent on the amount you’re insuring. A few of our items were insured at a lower cost than it actually took to replace them while abroad; we’ll just miss out on that difference.
Keep a list of all your gear, purchase date, serial numbers, and values – preferably on the cloud
This list was an absolute lifesaver when it came to identifying the stolen items and how much each was worth when filing the police report. It even reminded us of a few items we had forgotten were even in our bags.
You can go a step further and record every item with which you’re traveling (use a packlist!), so if you lose something, you already have a comprehensive list to give to the police.
Know your policy details and any additional coverage you might have on travel credit cards
This will make it easier to know what you can claim and with whom.
Have all proof of purchase information and especially serial numbers in a central location where you can access it easily
If your gear is insured, then you should already have all of this information compiled. Either way, know insurance companies will want this information (even if you’ve already added documentation to your policy), so be ready to resubmit it.
Additional tips to protect yourself while traveling
- Don’t make yourself a target. Don’t flash expensive gear unnecessarily, and know ahead of time where you’re going so you don’t look lost.
- Stay away from walking around with bags that scream, “Lowepro” or any other well-known camera bag brands. These advertise to everyone around you that there’s expensive camera equipment inside. Instead, I swear by camera cubes (like Wandrd). These inserts protect your gear and can go inside any ordinary backpack.
- Cover well-known brands on your gear with duct or electrical tape. Use a sticker or cover to hide Apple logos, especially – these are hot-ticket items. Also consider randomly placing silver duct tape on your gear. This makes your equipment appear more used and less of a shiny target.
- Carry only what you absolutely need with you. Aaron and I had all of our spare SD cards – 18 in total – in those bags. We now have a lot of cards to replace.
- When you’re done at any given location, get in the habit of removing your SD card from your camera; tuck it in a pocket. I fortunately did this before our bags were stolen, so I didn’t lose any of the photos from the day. Aaron lost all his footage.
- Back up your pictures and video every. single. day. Even if you’re tired. Just do it. Preferably to two hard drives and to a cloud storage solution (we use Crashplan).
Invest in pickpocket-proof pants and slash-proof bags. These could protect you from simple swipes of your wallet or other valuables stored in your pockets or backpack during your trip. #travelsafety #avoidpickpocketsTweet
- Invest in pickpocket-proof pants (we love Clothing Arts) and slash-proof bags (we love Pacsafe). These could protect you from simple swipes of your wallet or other valuables stored in your pockets or backpack. You might even consider wearing your backpack on your front for additional security.
- Carry a decoy wallet. Fill it with expired credit or gift cards and just a little bit of the local currency. If someone tries to rob you, you can give them the decoy. Thinking they got what they wanted, they’ll leave you alone. Make sure there’s some real money in there, though, or they might notice it’s a fake.
- Never leave anything in your vehicle, even if it seems worthless. You don’t want to give anyone a reason to break in to see if you’re actually hiding something under that ratty jacket.
- Depending on the area (like Cape Town), keep your car doors locked and windows rolled up, especially when stopped at intersections. Street-side swipes are rare, but you don’t want to provide an opportunity.
- When parking, always always always check that your car doors lock before walking away. Even if you don’t have anything in the vehicle, it’s a good habit to keep so you don’t forget when it truly matters.
Cape Town is still a wonderful place to visit
If only we had gone home. If only we had checked the doors. And if only we had taken the bags with us. If only we had brought different cameras with us that day…
We could torture ourselves with “if only”s forever. But that won’t change what actually happened. And after all the pain it caused, it really wasn’t the end of the world. We recovered, and we still had the most incredible trip. I had only just stated in a recent post that not everything will go to plan. And fortunately, this was the most we had to deal with for a good long time… until we faced the literal end of the world with a pandemic!
Please don’t let our experience scare you away from visiting this remarkable city. The sights are truly stunning, and most of the people in the city really are some of the nicest we’ve met. There are still some tensions in the wake of Apartheid, and it’s tragic. So we understand why the people who robbed us did what they did; their situation sucks, and we don’t blame them.
But we won’t let this event put a damper on our future travels (after all, bad things have happened to us while traveling before, and we persevered!). Apart from the one incident, it was an amazing two weeks.
What mishaps have you survived while traveling?
Psst… do you want to read more cautionary travel tales? You might also enjoy these:
- Loathing for Idaho: A Road Trip Horror Story
- Travel Totaled my Car – How we Barely Escaped Eastern Oregon
- Know the Common Scams in Each Country
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