12 comments on “Some Reflections on Situational Awareness

  1. The precisely same scam happened to me in the Royal Galleries in Brussels, Belgium. I was pulling my carry on, felt something wet on my leg, turned around and saw ice cream running down my pants. One of the two guys behind me profusely apologised and offered to clean my leg, hoping that I would let go of my carry on, so that the second guy could run away with it. They were unsuccessful, for the reasons stated above.
    Greetings from Nigeria 😉

    • Interesting- thanks for that Alex, appreciate your sharing and hadn’t realised you’d find the same scams in Europe too. Good luck in Nigeria- from what I hear you need pretty good situational awareness skills out there, too!

  2. I would be interested to know what the other common scams are – I have definitely had my fair share of attempted (and maybe a few successful…my fault for letting my guard down…) theftings, but I had not heard of this one before.

    Any chance of a post on some of the others for those of us to learn from and keep in the back of our mind?

    • That’s a good idea Angela and thanks for suggesting it. Any post like that I did would be subject to a heavy disclaimer- scams tend to be very context-specific and constantly evolving- as people get wise to one scam, folks develop new ones, so your best bet is to make sure you get solid security advice before travelling or when you arrive in-country. I’m certainly no expert on global scamming trends!

      If you’re on-staff someplace, it helps as you’ll usually have access to some professional security guidance someplace. Harder if you’re a tourist. Scams change country to country, so what’s being used here in Ethiopia won’t necessarily pop up elsewhere, and vice-versa. The main thing- as you point out above- is not to let your guard down and, sad to say it, but if you’re in an area where confidence scams are common, you kind of have to be mistrustful of strangers until you’re sure they’re not after something- not the nicest way to have to be sadly.

      Again, I’d love to hear of other scams from different parts of the world from various readers, if you’re willing to share, in response to Angela’s query.

  3. Ah, Addis. My version of that in Addis was a simultaneous brush down and lift. One hand brushes non-existant dust off the back whilst the other hand lifts your wallet. You turn in anger ready to react, feeling a stranger touching you, but the sheepish grin from an old man and reply of “sorry, dirty” puts you off-guard.

    My instinct told me something was up but he delayed my reaction as I tried to match my instinct with what I was looking at. Luckily, my buddy was quick enough to grab him and he was on the floor and I wrestled my wallet back.

    • Really interesting story- I like it because it demonstrates exactly some of the propensities of the mind in these circumstances, and also how switched on to them would-be scammers & petty crims are. As you point out, you’d never really expect an old man to be lifting your wallet, and so your brain does a bit of a double-take and takes a few seconds to sort the data- threat or non-threat: all the clues say ‘non-threat’. It’s why kids are often used as well- although they’ve been used for pickpocketing for long enough now that people are a bit wise to it (hence, I guess, moving on to old men). It shows how profiling can totally work against us, even though statistically, you’re still most likely to get done over by a young man or male teenager.

      Oh, and for our listeners at home, while Ash’s wallet had a happy-ending, tackling street-thieves- even old men- is generally a no-no. You don’t know what weapons they (or their buddy, watching from twenty paces away who you’re not even aware of) might have, and you don’t know how they might respond to violence. If you do inadvertantly hurt the person, you may face legal consequences that may be quite unpleasant (or even rigged against you, especially if you’re an expat against a local). Also, in many parts of the world, the potential for a lynch-mob can mean that your efforts to retrieve a wallet with $20 in it can cost somebody a serious injury, or even their life, if a mob cottons on to what just happened and takes matters into their own hands- and that’s something you’d probably rather not live with. Generally, the rule of thumb is, don’t resist, and let it go, and then maybe get the authorities involved as quickly as possible. Unpopular, but safer for all involved.

      BTW- Ash- didn’t you get your laptop lifted around then too…?

      • Nah, laptop was London – much worse than any ‘developing’ country! Bag lifted from my feet as four of us sat round a table, with a CCTV camera pointing down on us. London!

  4. I’ve had a few near misses – catching someone with their hand in my daypack in Hangzhou and having someone try to open my bike panniers on Taylor Square in Sydney. The first was one where I should definitely have been more alert while the second was an entertaining addition to my commute.

    My closest shave was many years ago as a very green AusAIDer on a short visit to Manila. Killing time mooching about town on my final day, I was approached by a young (mid 20s) bloke and after we talked for a while we had a thoroughly lovely time seeing some local sights – there is an excellent historical museum. Thus far I had only been mildly dumb. Mr Stupid really kicked into action when I found myself back at this guy’s house and honestly I have no idea why I ever thought this was a good plan.

    His brother was there, who then told of how he worked at the casino, but ran some card games at home on the side. Knowing I worked for AusAID and was thus fabulously rich, he called me ‘Mr Engineer’ and told me he was expecting a visitor shortly to play cards at his table, and would I mind by helping out with fleecing him? This got as far as him trying to teach me some finger signals before I plucked up the nerve to get up and walk out. My original friend came after me and begged me to return, telling me he didn’t know what his brother was doing. Yep. God only knows what would have happened next. So you can add the ‘friendly local’ to the list!

    I’m in Kinshasa at the moment and feeling very situationally aware indeed. Thanks for this timely tale.

    • Hah! That’s quite the tale of what-not-to-do in third-world cities. Love it! I’ve also heard of people in Thailand/Myanmar being encouraged to head back to peoples’ houses or warehouses to buy precious stones, and finding themselves in an ‘obligated to purchase’ environment, generally facilitated by the presence of firearms (not directly aimed at them, necessarily, but adds to the hard-sell technique). I’ve allowed myself to be taken back to strangers’ homes once or twice- once quite recently, in fact, but that was in a safe rural area where I was confident of the context. The first time did not lead to any criminal activity, but did lead to me being targeted for the next six months by the kid in question, who expected me to pay for their overseas tuition as a result of my being a guest for half an hour in their hut.

      I’m generally wary of anyone who comes up to me on the street and tries to start a conversation. Which is a shame, because sometimes people are genuine, and there’s the potential for some great interactions. However in my experience, particularly in urban areas, almost everyone who comes up with a bit of a story or a spiel to get you to do something you weren’t already planning on doing is after something- and if it’s not criminal, it’ll come later in the form of an financial obligation, sob-story or pitch.

      • On that same trip I also fell for an obligated-to-purchase conversation, and spent about $30 on batik. I realised about half-way through what was happening, but decided I’d continue through and put it down to experience; the fabrics were decent and the prices weren’t ridiculous.

        It’s terrible, but like you I now automatically assume that someone who I don’t know who is being friendly is trying to get me to do something. You get a sense of what’s normal in a cultural context, and people who go beyond that become obligated to proved their innocence. Anyone who calls me “friend” in English I react quite strongly too, as does anyone who holds my hand.

  5. I was in Indonesia couple years back when I had some cigarettes dropped in front of me. The first guy stumbled in front of me and bent down, while a second went for my pockets and a third went for my bag – both pretending to have bumped into me. It took only two or three seconds for my personal reaction to being touched to kick in, and to start shouting at them in Bahasa Indonesia and English. My pockets and bag were saved on account of the shorts being old running shorts with dodgy zips, and the bag having a similar amount of wear.

    It was a fairly busy part of town, but it was the wrong district. Which is my own fault – I’d gone for a long walk without a map or a purpose. I jumped in a mikrolet to get out of there (I decided that being sharing a vehicle with old men and young women was safer than sitting in a taxi alone). My heart sunk as we went down an alleyway – and the driver gave a bribe to a police officer, which gave me relief. It’s safe to say that this was a part of town where certain crimes were tolerated.

    My general rule is that I carry around what I’m prepared to lose.

    • Yeah, really good point- and I work to the same principle, as a rule: If you’re in a location or part of town where theft occurs, only carry on you what you’re prepared to lose. It’s also a good principle in relation to the risk of more violent theft/muggings too- if you’re prepared to lose something, you’re less likely to put up a fight, more likely to walk away unharmed.

      I like what you said above in terms of being suspicious of people- if people start behaving what’s outside the cultural norms. A really good point, and an excellent filter-point. If people are behaving abnormally, your suspicion should at least be aroused and wait for the person to demonstrate that they are in fact harmless, if so.

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