Robbed in Moscow

robbed-in-moscowThere are few worse feelings than being robbed in Moscow or simply, out of carelessness losing your documents or your money, or both. If this has never happened to you, you may just have been lucky, but, rather than feel blasé about it, you can be certain that you have been looked at more than once as a potential target and got away with it. So watch out! If you want to continue to avoid the unpleasantness and the ensuing hassle you might learn a few tips from my personal experiences to avoid it occurring to you.

One thing I learnt in my time in Russia, and this does not just apply to the dark days of the USSR, whatever you do to try and make yourself look like a Russian, you will always stick out even in a crowd as a foreigner, just as if you had a big “F” pasted to your back. I heard a European visitor once say, “the trouble with the Russians is that they look like us!” This is not exactly true, as Russians themselves say that, if you scratch one, you find a Tartar. However, despite the similarities in physiognomy, the trouble is that we obviously do not look like them.

So you can forget about trying to dress like a Russian, as if there is much difference in international fashion these days except that Russians tend to dress better than foreigners. I have tried different types of walk, head positions, even a limp occasionally, which once got me a seat on the metro. I played with different facial expressions, my favourite being to set my top teeth against my bottom teeth as I was told by my teacher at university that this is how Russian jaws are configured to get the proper sounds out and also supposedly helps you look like one. I seem to do pretty well at Russian pronunciation with my English mouth left as it is. Despite all these contortions, it is useless. The wily thief, or sometimes the observant cop, will pick me out as easy prey despite my attempts to disguise my identity.

So what can you do to avoid getting robbed? The risk managers among you would say that you have to be aware of what is going on around you, of who your immediate neighbours are in crowded places and to be conscious of your surroundings. I once had my wallet stolen whilst daydreaming coming up the escalator out of Pushkinskaya metro station. When I got to the top, a man who had come up the escalator parallel to mine told me he had seen some girls fishing inside my briefcase, which I had slung over my shoulder on its strap. They managed to up-zip the case, remove my wallet and zip it up again without my noticing. I saw the three girls disappearing down again on the other side. Whilst I was looking for the policeman, who is usually standing there but today was mysteriously absent, one of the girls had the cheek to come up to me and give me my wallet back – minus the rubles of course. They probably go up and down all day like that looking for dozy idiots like me.

So, I now never carry anything on my back anymore on the metro and I always look to see who is immediately behind me. Better keep your wallet and your documents deep in an inside pocket, preferably one with a zip on it. Mind you, I once had my wallet removed by an expert in the Gorbushka electronics market, a popular spot for pickpockets, from a pocket of my ski-jacket with a zip on it. It was a really tough pocket as well as I always had problems unzipping it myself. How the thief got into it in a split second without my noticing is amazing. I only realized when someone bumped into me and a person behind me, probably the perpetrator, shouted, “Someone dropped a wallet!” Fortunately, I had just paid for the phone I bought but someone must have been watching where I put the change!

Don’t carry huge amounts of cash around with you is an obvious thing to say. When I was buying an apartment I traveled on the metro to deliver several million rubles in a hefty sports bag to the bank deposit box where the escrow type arrangement for the purchase was enacted. It is ridiculous that in this modern day and age the practice of doing this in cash still persists. This must surely be a major source of plunder for the criminal minded. I felt like I had a neon sign on my head advertising the fact that I was carrying an enormous sum but, fortunately, the crooks who might have seen me traveling over open ground from one bank depository to another must have been having a day off.

So, be warned, I know of cases of people being dispossessed of significant amounts of money in public places so maybe there is the use of parapsychology to highlight them. Or they are just downright careless. If you have to move money, take a taxi door to door. Don’t drive yourself, as, if the cops stop you, you might have some explaining to do at the police station and risk not seeing it again. It has happened.

Don’t trust anything to luck. I was lucky once. I was traveling on a crowded bus to work one morning with two thousand dollars in my briefcase. Having missed one bus due to overcrowding I squeezed myself into the next but the doors closed like a vice on my arm holding the briefcase before I could get all of myself inside.. I agonized all the way to the next stop with my two grand waving in the freezing air for any passer-by to grab. Thank goodness, no one did. The lesson there is, do not put your valuables in your bag or case, which may become subtly detached from your body.

I only had my briefcase stolen a couple of times. Once I was in a bar after work when I told my friend who was engrossed in watching a football match to keep his foot on it while I went to the toilet. When I returned, he had his foot on his own case but mine was gone. Some friend! I had been asked at the entrance to remove my top layer of clothing which involved annoyingly emptying the pockets of my coat of various needy items such as mobile phone, wallet, passport, visa, car papers, keys into my case. A few days later, I was just about to commence the laborious process of applying for the renewal of the lost documents when I happened to open the letterbox, the one with the broken lock and the door half hanging off. There was a thick envelope there neatly addressed to me personally. It contained all my documents, including my wallet and my passport, in fact everything except the phone and the cash. The tip is, always keep a piece of paper in your wallet with your name and address on it in case your thief is one with a conscience like mine.

Some robbers are less scrupulous of course, and may phone you, using your phone no doubt, to demand a ransom for the return of your papers. It is pointless to involve the police in such cases. It is better to turn up preferably with a well-built Russian to negotiate the exchange How much you pay depends on how valuable you think the return will be to you but a hundred dollars will usually do the trick, which is cheaper and quicker than applying for a replacement passport and visa.

A more recent experience, and another warning to all, concerns the gang of thieves operating the cafes and bars on Tverskaya Street. I have known about this set of crooks for some time having already had first-hand experience of the way they operate. A colleague had a substantial wad of dollars surreptitiously lifted from the inside pocket of his jacket by one of them, whilst I was sitting opposite him. They are smartly dressed in shirt and tie, often wear glasses and speaking foreign languages. They will sit down behind you at the next table and spend time looking at the menu, often sending the waitress away as if not ready to order, casually waiting for the opportunity to go through your pockets from behind, particularly if you have slung your jacket over the back of the chair as foreigners are wont to do.

Despite my knowing about them I was not aware of the guy quietly sitting in the corner behind me sipping a glass of wine as I was having a late lunch in one of my favorite bars recently. I paid my bill and was waiting for the change, standing at the bar with my hand on my wallet and my iPhone when the owner invited me persuasively to the other end of the bar to meet an acquaintance. In the ninety seconds I was absent from my spot, the non-descript character in the corner, coolly stepped up to the bar, paid for his drink and walked out with my belongings. None of the dozen or so people in the bar noticed a thing.

In such circumstances it is useful to remember to inspect the rubbish bins up and down the street outside the premises immediately after such a thing happens. Thieves are not interested in your passport or your private papers, not even in your credit cards. They are only after your cash. They will ditch anything else as incriminating evidence at the first opportunity, either tidily in a bin or straight in the gutter

Moscow is not unique in this respect. I have been done in Paris, Rome, London and New York. But there are places where, as a foreigner, you need to be particularly careful. It is always worth remembering that, wherever you are in town, there may well be someone watching you and waiting for the opportunity!