Lessons Learned From Being Robbed in Madrid

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Updated August 2018

I love when I hear from readers that a particular post has been helpful or relevant.  When we were chatting about their experience with having their things stolen in Barcelona, I provided them with an update on follow-on lessons that I have had from being robbed in Madrid.  I thought I would share those.  A new section was added to the end.  Hope these points help keep you safe!  

Being Robbed in Madrid

You always think that it will never happen to you. You like to think you are travel-savvy. And you imagine it won’t impact how you think about travel. But it could easily happen to you. We learned some lessons when I was robbed in Madrid!

We were in Madrid, Spain for the start of a long visit to Spain. Madrid had never really been on “the list” but we found we really liked Madrid. We stayed in a great hotel in a good part of town to be close to the action.

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In September it is still warm and the patio culture is alive and strong. We could sip our drinks sitting on the cobblestone streets watching life go by.

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If you want art and culture, it is not hard to find. We got a Madrid pass and rushed through 3 great art galleries. Next time we will pick one and enjoy it at a slower, leisurely pace. Walking around the city, there is architectural beauty in the well-preserved buildings everywhere in the city.

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We really enjoyed our short stay in Madrid and knew we would be back. On our last day, we packed for our train trip later in the day to Malaga on the south coast. Heading out for breakfast, we carried iPads and computers to the large local cafe for breakfast. We were excited to start planning the next stop on our Spain trip.

Little did we know that we would learn some hard lessons that morning from being robbed in Madrid at 9:30am.

You May Not Be Safe In Well-Lit Places With Little Crowds

We all know to protect our valuables when walking on badly lit streets or in dark places. Crowded places like subway cars are breeding grounds for thieves.

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Our breakfast spot was a brightly lit cafe. We went to breakfast well after the crowds had left. But that did not stop us from being targeted for having my purse lifted without us even being aware. Who would expect to be robbed in Madrid at breakfast?

We later figured that sitting in broad view by a large picture window may have helped to target us. Since we had packed for the day, we were carrying more stuff with us than we normally carried for a day trip. And it was all visible through the window. There is a reason why spies choose to sit with their backs to a wall!

Trouble May Come in Pairs

We were seated on the lower level of the cafe with a few other diners. A young couple came down and stood slightly behind our table. It looked like they were waiting for the bathroom. They were dressed in clean clothes and as a couple, set off no alarms for us.

The young woman bent down, sort of like she was tying her shoes. We figured that was when she silently managed to grab my purse without me being aware.

David later was so upset as he actually saw the woman bend down. He never saw her remove my purse and her actions never triggered a concern. He watched them walk out and never noticed if they held my purse or had managed to pack it away in the backpack they were carrying.

For the remainder of our time in Spain, we were hyper-alert to couples that seemed to be casually moving about us. We would watch both people, always assuming one was the lookout while the other attacked. When one of the pair was on a cell phone, it caused us to be on guard for a move.

We have travelled a lot since that trip and we are not quite as paranoid. But we remain far more wary of people around us.

Keep Your Eyes On Your Things

I must admit to being a bit cavalier about my purse before this event. I would always keep it close to me and figured I would know if it was moved. But how wrong I was.

I now never set my purse down without it being strung around my body. I buy purses with long straps so I sit with them around my waist and in my lap. And sometimes I even resort to fanny packs!

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Both of us were distracted by our e-things. We were chatting about our plans and engrossed in doing our internet searches. To a thief, we must have looked like the perfect pair to pick. We had lost our real sense of surroundings.

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It was a great reminder to us about being careful about settling into a public space with so many distractions. We love to work and have a coffee so this is a hard one to follow. We are just far more alert now after being robbed in Madrid!

You Can Lose A Lot If Your Purse Is Stolen

I lost a lot when my purse was stolen. My favourite wallet contained about $500 in cash that we had just got from an ATM for our coming trip south. I travel with 2 credit cards. One credit card is for most purchases. A second credit card with a very low credit limit is used for online purchases and places that I trust less. I lost my drivers license, my health card and a whole bunch of other things I could not name from my wallet.

But I am so thankful that we had left our passports in the hotel safe. That would have created an additional nightmare. A lost passport would have to be replaced before we travelled too much further.

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Processes Are Well Established To Deal With Tourist Theft

When we arrived at the police station, they had a special desk with an English speaking officer.  The officer handed me a large binder.  The binder had phone numbers for a wide number of places that I would need to call to have cards reported stolen.  It was the first thing he had us do before he even took a report.  

It was clear that the Madrid police had a lot of practice dealing with minor theft like this.  The process was well established.  And the police quickly discounted any hope that the thieves would be caught or my purse found.  Even if there was video in the cafe where we had breakfast!

When we returned home, we immediately reported the theft to our insurance company.  While our policy does have a clause to cover this, by the time we factored in our high deductible, it was almost not worth reporting.  Check your insurance policy details!

How Vulnerable Are You If You Lose Your Phone?

My purse also held my iPhone and a good set of noise cancelling headphones. Losing the phone caused me the most immediate anxiety. While the loss of a very expensive phone was upsetting, I was more concerned about the personal data on the phone.

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Luckily the iPhone has a good system for shutting down the phone if you think it was lost. Before I left the cafe wifi, I had already set my phone to delete all data as soon as it got a signal. But this did not stop my worry. I was concerned that the phone would end up in the hands of a pro who may know how to get data off without signalling to the network and being erased.

As soon as we had finished at the police station, our hotel extended our checkout time and I spent an hour very quickly changing all the critical passwords. I made sure that iTunes, email, online banking and online store accounts all had a new, radically different set of passwords. If my phone managed to get online, none of the stored passwords would work. Hopefully this would also protect most of the data stored electronically and accessible from my phone.

Identity Theft Concerns

For months after my purse was stolen I worried about identity theft. The thieves had key pieces of identification and maybe access to other personal data from my phone. I had my banks put alerts on all accounts. My credit bureau report was watched to make sure that no new credit cards were issued. Any new subscriptions to anything were reviewed.

I got lucky and it appears that the thieves just wanted the cash, other valuables in my purse and a phone they would just wipe clean. And we weren’t hurt when the thieves got my purse. Getting robbed in Madrid could have been so much worse!

Lost Trust

The biggest things I lost from being robbed in Madrid was some innocence and trust. I felt like a target. We were embarrassed that we had been taken so easily. And we watched everyone as if they were threats.

This hyper-sensitivity almost had us cancel parts of our Spain trip. But in the end we were not going to let them rob us of the pleasure of travelling. We continued on to enjoy the south coast of Spain and an awesome few days in Grenada.

There Are Many Lessons Learned From Being Robbed in Madrid

We learned some important lessons and had other things reinforced from being robbed in Madrid:

  • Anyone can be a target and it can happen almost anywhere
  • Thieves may be indistinguishable from everyday people
  • If you are not paying attention to your surroundings and your valuables, someone else may be
  • The more stuff you carry with you, the more you have to lose
  • Send your phone an “erase all” command and change all passwords immediately
  • Be wary about the people around you, but not overly paranoid
  • Don’t let the thieves win by sending you packing for home!
  • Consider your home insurance deductible.  Will it cover a theft when travelling?

We thought we were pretty savvy travellers and knew high risk situations. This experience in Madrid reinforced that you need to be more alert all the time!

The Lessons Keep Coming

I never really got over the experience of being robbed in Madrid.  I am still much more wary when I am anywhere.   Including at home!  All of my purses have extra long straps and I wear them across my chest in the front.  I continue to marvel when I see women walking with large bags open behind their back.  When I sit anywhere, I put the strap of my purse around my waist and put the purse in my lap.  It is never set on the floor.  Or on the edge of a table where it could easily be picked up.

Two years after this incident we connected through the Munich airport.  At the passport check, I was asked for extra ID.  And I was queried about being robbed in Madrid.  Don’t ever think there isn’t a big database in the sky!

Even though I had not lost my passport, I had lost all of my ID.  So they were confirming that I was who I said I was and not some imposter who got a new passport with my ID.  This reinforced for me the value of reporting the theft to the police.  The record of my stolen ID somehow got passed right up to passport control.  So even though the police may never find your stolen goods, some benefit came from the record.

Then My Stolen Phone Showed Up!

And then five years after it was stolen, my old iPhone 4S showed up!  I totally freaked out when I got an email saying my iPhone 4s was booked for an Apple Genius appointment in Madrid.  I certainly did not book an appointment for a stolen phone!  

Many, many hours were spent on the phone with Apple to report my concerns.  First, that phone was still tied to my ID and email address in Apple’s system.  Despite many discussions with Apple they were unable to erase my tie to that phone.  Apple was also now aware that a stolen phone was coming to the Madrid store.  We finally managed to attach a copy of the police report to the service record.  But nobody at Apple ever managed to have a conversation with a single person in that store.  And no action plan was ever finalized to address how they would deal with the thief at the store.  

I did get an update that the person never showed up for the appointment.  Maybe they realized that bringing a stolen phone into an authorized dealership may be an issue.  They should not really have worried.  Apple’s handling of my concerns were totally unsatisfactory.  If you lose an Apple phone, be aware that you may still be tied to that phone.  Even if you have unauthorized the device from your Apple ID and iTunes account.  If they have all of your ID, who knows what they may be able to do to convince someone they are you!  And if it turns up in a store, don’t expect anyone to care that it is stolen.

I tried to put the experience of being robbed in Madrid behind me.  But every now and then I get very stark reminders!

Did you learn something from our lessons from being robbed in Madrid? Do you have other tips to share?

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30 Comments

  1. We were robbed from a Nomad truck in Botswana. We flew into the Okavanga delta for two nights and our Nomad guide instructed us to leave almost everything in locked lockers in the Nomad truck. We foolishly obeyed even though taking everything would have worked under the weight limit for the airline. Later we found out that this Sitatunga camp a\had been robbed before and we notice on Trip Advisor that another Nomad truck had been robbed afterward.
    Unlike you we found the police fairly unhelpful. Possibly because Nomad had encourage everyone to open their lockers and therefore had obliterated fingerprint evidence even though the police had instructed them to wait.
    Nomad and Sitatunga gave us a big run around, denying any responsibility. Nomad told us our agent that we had a copy of the police report and told us that our agent had a copy. Eventually 2 months later we got a copy from Sitatunga.
    Nomad told us Sitatunga would file an insurance claim (and that Nomad would closely monitor the situation to ensure our interests were kept at top priority) and we filled out more forms. It was more than four months later that Sitatunga finally indicated that their insurance would not cover it because Nomad had left the truck unaccompanied. Nomad refused to do anything but did offer a 10% discount on any future trip. The irony on that one is that Nomad had sent all our passengers (including those not robbed) a form email reminding us that Nomad’s policy is to offer all returning passengers a 10% discount.
    If you go on a tour check the tour operater’s reputation and history very carefully and keep your valuables safe, regardless of their instructions!

    • Linda, Thanks for sharing your story! I am sure we all count on tour operators being much more responsible that this. A great reminder about checking on a tour company’s reputation thoroughly, especially if your safety is at risk. Linda

  2. I had my wallet stolen at Madrid Airport. I was in a convenience-type store looking at books. I had my across the body bag just on my shoulder with the top zipper open and my wallet on top. The store was not crowded. My traveling companion was in another store. We were on our way home after a trip to Italy. I did not notice anyone near me. I reported it to airport security and filled out a form. I could not stay to get any results because I had to fly home. I didn’t have much American money in it, so Ii cancelled all my cards and applied for a new driver’s license. I let my guard down with the purse not thinking anything could happen in such a beautiful airport. Just remember, you are never secure wherever you are.

    • Loretta, Thanks for sharing your story. I agree how important it is to keep your attention on your purse at all times. It takes such a little distraction to have it lifted. I watch far too many women with your purses wide open and worry they will learn the hard way. Linda

  3. My husband and I are retired and travelling the world too Linda. Thank you for this post.
    Funny you mention Madrid as it’s the only city where I actually witnessed theft crimes years ago and felt eerily unsafe.
    I always try to be careful when travelling but anything can happen anywhere!
    I didn’t know you could send your phone an “erase all” command.
    I appreciate this tip and will look into it immediately before we’re off again in Sept.
    Happy travels!

    • Grace, Thanks for writing. It was a very unsettling affair but I finally decided I was not going to let it stop us. We almost cancelled Granada – which would have been such a major error! We will go back to Madrid as a gateway into Spain I am sure, but I will be ever more diligent. Enjoy your travels. We are “grounded” for September this year as I am working but are heading out in October again. Linda

  4. Lots of great lessons here, thanks! I always have a cross-body bag when I travel. You followed some great steps to protect yourself from further harm. I am very impressed. So, why didn’t Apple just return your phone to you?

    • Carolina, Thanks! Glad some of these lessons were of value. Apparently, the person thought better of showing up at the store because he or she did not show. At least that is what I assume since no follow up notes were put on the case and we never did hear back from the Apple store in Madrid. Linda

  5. I am so sorry to read this, what an incredibly stressful experience. I could see that same thing happening to me, you would never think to have your guard up at a cafe in the morning. I can’t believe that you got a service email for your phone five years later, that’s crazy! I was really hoping the thief would have been caught at that point. We had a near theft experience in Athens, Greece. We were in a crowded subway car and actually caught a thief with their hand in my pocket attempting to steal my wallet. Since then, our guard has always been up.

    • Heather, It was very stressful. We nearly changed a bunch of our plans in Spain. But then did not want to let them win. It was a total shock to see my stolen phone show up. I just wish someone cared more. I am glad you caught the thief in Athens before he got your wallet. It does serve as a bit of a wake up call. Linda

  6. It’s funny but Madrid is the only place where I’ve been robbed too. Mine was a bunch of gypsy flower sellers who surrounded me and managed to steal the cash I had in my bag (that was all). It’s a very strange feeling isn’t it – and somehow rather depressing. I’ve never been back as a result.

    • Fiona, Sorry to hear that you too were robbed in Madrid! Certainly when we went to the police station, it was treated as an everyday affair. I am always cautious around the gypsies as I have been swarmed before too. Sorry to hear they got cash. But good that it was no more. We did go back to Madrid since. But we definitely had your eyes peeled! Linda

  7. I didn’t even know that my iPhone has an erase all function if it gets stolen. I have a cross body bag that I love. I have never thought to keep it around my waste while sitting in a restaurant, great idea!

  8. Oh wow!! What an incredible experience that still haunts you, even years after. Getting robbed scares me immensely when traveling. So sorry to hear about your experience. We had a similar experience in Paris. A couple sitting next to us at a restaurant had left a bg on the floor as they were engrossed in their conversation. A well-dressed man sat a table next to them and casually walked out with their bag. They didn’t notice. We didn’t notice, and there it went. It was a well lit restaurant and busy with a dinner crowd. You are right, theft can occur anywhere. Good to know about the iphone and the poor service you received at Apple. This is a cautious story filled with great tips and suggestions. Thanks for sharing it!!

    • Rosemary, I am so glad you found the blog post helpful. Sad to here that you were close to a similar experience in Paris. I am sure it happens so much more than you imagine. We felt so embarrassed on top of everything that we did not notice it happen. Now we bristle when anyone gets close. Linda

  9. Very scary. I’ve had my purse stolen once too but it was in my hometown, so thankfully I was able to replace things, especially my phone almost immediately. I so hope to never go through that again or that you do!

  10. I’m so sorry for your trouble! Last year, I lost my wallet – it was totally my own fault. I spent weeks cancelling all the cards and then get new ones and a new ID etc. Forget about the cash – although it was a lot! But actually I felt better that it was my own fault and that I wasn’t like a victim of some bad minded people.

    Things like that happen. You’ve learned a couple of lessons – and the next great trip is hopefully ahead, so: Happy Travels!

    • Renata, Sorry to hear that you lost your wallet but glad that you got all of your cards replaced and had no fraud on your lost identification. We learned a lot of lessons that help keep us safe now. Linda

  11. Getting robbed totally sucks. But like you said, even those that are travel savvy can have it happen to them, so don’t beat yourselves up too badly. When I was in Brussels my rental car was broken into and my laptop was stolen. This was years ago so I didn’t have to worry about identity issues like I would have to now. But I did lose photos from some recent trips around Europe that absolutely broke my heart. And the police in Brussels did absolutely nothing about any of it. So yeah, it sucks. But we just have to think of all of the times nothing bad happened and we were perfectly fine.

    • Vicky and Buddy, Getting robbed was a big shock. But it did teach us some great lessons. I agree that today identity loss is a big issue. We carry so much info on our phones. Losing photos is always sad if you don’t have another copy somewhere. We try to back ours up regularly. But not always. And I agree with you. The best part is that nothing really bad happened. We were safe! Linda

  12. Gosh, this is a lesson for me too.. I am extremely careless with my things. My camera, purse…. Often careless with mobile that just I stuff into my pocket. Guess I just need to take the normal precautions and the additional ones you suggested for the phone. A good jolt for me… This story of yours

    • Ami, It happens so much easier than you think. The professionals are just looking for people who are not paying attention. I am glad this gave you a few tips. And that if never happens to you. It does stay with you a long time! Linda

  13. We were robbed in Lisbon but thankfully the passport was spared. That same evening we were the 4th to report at the police station for tourists in Lisbon. I am surprised Apple couldn’t do much to retrieve the stolen phone.

  14. Have travelled a lot both alone and with others and been robbed under a variety of circumstances,and it has always been a traumatic experience. I feel your pain. It is very hard to maintain absolute vigilance 100% of the time. So I try to do certain things automatically. Like you I secure my purse straps. When the floor is the only place to set it, I hook the strap of my purse around my ankle or chair leg. My purses always have zippers, not just flaps. When I am alone in a cafe I take everything with me to the bathroom except for a cheap scarf or hat, etc. to save my place. I try to pay cash as often as possible (getting harder all the time) to stay anonymous and only use ATMs in broad daylight and watch my surroundings carefully while I do. Also do not flaunt any wealth — expensive clothes, camera and watches put a bull’s-eye on you. Carry as little as possible. It is hard to keep track of too much stuff Nothing is foolproof though, so I try to assuage the sting by remembering that at least I myself escaped without harm.

    • Chloe, I am sorry to hear you have been robbed more than once. I am sure it takes a toll. You seem to be taking all the reasonable precautions to not be the easy target. But we both know how quickly a moment of inattention can open an opportunity. You are totally right to remember that at least we all escaped without harm. Linda

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