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How I Offered My Wallet to Croatian Thieves on a Silver Platter

I didn’t think twice about doing it. I was just leaving my cabin for a few minutes before I came back to get myself settled for a week of sailing along the Croatian coast. I’d lock up before I went up on deck when we set sail for Hvar.

Unfortunately, it was that moment of stupidity that came back to haunt me for the rest of my trip along the Dalmatian Coast. In the ten minutes that I left my cabin unlocked before we left Split, my wallet (and the wallet of a crew member next door) disappeared.

Sail Croatia Boats in Port

Boats lined up in port — to get to the last one, you have to walk through all the rest.

At least the thieves were just looking for a quick buck. They could have taken my backpack — which was sitting right next to my purse — and netted thousands of dollars from the sale of my laptop and myriad pieces of camera equipment I’d brought with me as an official photographer for Sail Croatia. Had they done that (or taken the passports sitting right next to the wallet), the crew probably would have found me curled in the fetal position in a corner.

Knowing that it was my fault — that I had offered up my wallet on a silver platter — was the most frustrating part. Locking the door wouldn’t have taken any time and doing so would have stopped me from spending the next week desperately searching for ways to get cash.

Initially, I was frustrated and incredibly angry with myself, but I also knew that I had a backup plan for situations like these on the road. Unfortunately, that plan started to go awry very quickly, so instead of being able to quickly cancel my cards, get a much-needed injection of cash, and deal with the rest of the fallout when I got home, I had to spend time in each port trying to remedy the situation.

On Board the Vošćica

Doors to some of the many cabins on board the Vošćica.

By the time I got to Dubrovnik, my last stop, and realised I only had 60kn (approximately AU$11) for the entire next day, I felt like I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. One of the main issues that led to my frustrated meltdown that night was my complete inability to get in contact with the people with whom I desperately needed to talk. Here’s what happened and how you can avoid it if you find yourself in a similar situation:

  • Running out of mobile phone credit. Being on a boat, we had no traditional land lines. The only phone I could use to call out was my mobile with a Croatian SIM card. Unfortunately, calling the reverse-charge numbers provided by my Australian banks still accrued charges on my account so I very quickly ran out of credit. I had to rely on finding free wifi when we got to shore to email my mother to ask her to call me back (since I could still receive calls). Luckily, after I gave her all the information she would ever need to steal my identity, she was able to call my banks in the middle of the night Australian time and get my cards blocked. That was where my luck ran out.
  • Slow wifi connections = no Skype. To organise a cash advance, I needed to call my card provider myself — but as mentioned above, I had no phone credit. I tried calling via both Skype and Viber on free wifi provided by a restaurant in Hvar, but the bank representative could only hear enough to tell me that they weren’t allowed to call anyone back. This was a scenario that would be repeated over and over again at every place I used free wifi in Croatia. I made at least 10 Skype/Google Talk/Viber phone calls, and not once could anyone hear me enough to let me organise a cash advance.
  • No compassion from hotel receptionists. I tried asking hotels at various ports to use their phone line for a collect call to Australia, always pointing out it was to my bank because my cards had been stolen. Not a single one let me use their phone.

    22/05: Croatian kuna & lipaIt’s not that much, but it still would have been very helpful! (Photo by Chiew Pang on Flickr)

  • No cash = no mobile phone credit. As for phone credit, I tried to buy some in Hvar, but was rebuffed by a particularly grumpy shopkeeper whose only response seemed to be “cash only.” I tried to explain to her that I had no cash because it was stolen and that I needed the phone to be able to get cash, but then her response simply changed to “no cash, no phone.” She said all of this while standing next to the clearly functional credit card machine sitting on the cash register.
  • No backup SIM to roam on. My backup SIM, which has global roaming enabled for situations just like this one, was conveniently stored in a plastic baggie in my wallet (along with my UK SIM card). So, even if I’d wanted to incur hefty roaming fees (which I would have been happy to pay), I couldn’t. Plus, I had to add my phone provider to the list of people I needed to call to block my service.

Lessons learned: 

  1. Carry a backup SIM card that you know you can rely on, regardless of how much it will cost in global roaming fees. (Make sure it has global roaming activated too — some providers block it by default.) Paying $20 for a phone call would have been well worth the hassle saved. Don’t carry that backup SIM in your wallet. Put it in a pouch in the bottom of your backpack or wherever you hide emergency funds. Just don’t lose it, since nano SIMs are about the size of a fingernail anyway.

    Dave "Borrowing"Don’t let thieves take off with your backup SIM card as well as your hard-earned cash… (Photo by Neal Edgeworth on Flickr)

  2. Carry a Mifi device. There were a few times I regretted not getting one of these, but none moreso than in Croatia. You can rent these devices for the entirety of a vacation and be guaranteed wifi wherever you are, rather than having to constantly search out wifi (and someone to give you the wifi password because you can’t afford to buy a coffee and be given the cafe’s password yourself). Not only will this put information (like your bank’s collect phone numbers) at your fingertips whenever you need it, but it’s likely to have MUCH better call quality on Skype than I had. Plus, it means you don’t have to rely on getting data from local phone providers — I had 1GB of data on my prepaid SIM from T-Mobile that I never could access (and the T-Mobile people had no idea why).

and of course:

  1. If you’re on a boat in port — or on a boat with more people than you can get to know personally (which was not the case for me) — make sure you lock your cabin. It’s likely that if you’re in an area with a large cruise ship/sailboat presence that local thieves have figured out that people can be a bit careless once they get settled in. Plus, in a situation like mine where there were 5 boats tied together, boarding can become chaos as people wander through boats trying to find their own. Thieves can take advantage of that chaos and slip in and out without anyone being the wiser.

Later this week I’ll be writing about all of the other issues that blocked me from accessing cash, as well as other roadblocks (like reporting the wallet missing to the police). Hopefully, those lessons combined with the ones mentioned above will mean that, even if you do have your wallet stolen abroad, it won’t cause nearly as much hassle as mine did.

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