The word “cosquilleo” in Spanish can mean both “tickling” and “pickpocketing” but getting robbed is never funny regardless of the country, culture or language. It’s about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, Bogotá like any large city has its share of  “professionals” who tend to work in groups and devise not so elaborate plans to get your watch or wallet, by means of pulling out a knife. But some criminals like to work with a weapon that doesn’t have to be concealed: distraction. Often the victim doesn’t realize this, but within an instant your wallet, cellular phone, laptop, ipad can disappear without a hint of violence.

Recently, an acquaintance called with a story of what happened to her and asked us to write about it.  She was taking a collective bus to a shopping mall and then to the bank to pay her credit card bills, with a wallet full of cash.  She remembers feeling jostled as she got off the bus at the mall. Sure enough at the first store, her wallet was gone.

The most susceptible places in Bogotá are buses, stores and crowded public spaces. Yes, this is pickpocketing just as you might find in New York City, London or Mumbai. Many reported cases according to the National Police involve tactics such as jostling, pushing or even just brushing up against victims to avoid alerting the victim as to what is happening.  I can count on two or probably three hands, the number of friends whose wallets and blackberries “disappeared” during recent public events.

Be alert in the street to the sensation that people may be circling you or a physical presence that feels just a little too close. Be aware that these crimes are most often carried out in groups who may have been watching you for a long time. If you sense something suspicious, immediately change your route and – if necessary – head into the nearest corner store to rethink your move. You may not be close to a uniformed police officer, but even the many traffic cops can help point you to a Center of Immediate Attention or CAI.

Here are some street smarts:

  • Be especially alert during the first and the 15th of the month when the majority of companies pay bi-weekly salaries as well as mid-June and mid-December when semi-annual “prima” bonuses are paid.  Be careful when entering or leaving ATMs to see if anyone is on your heels.
  • Drape your arm over backpacks held at your side (avoid wearing on your back) and keep purses and bags to your side or in front of you.
  • Always opt for zipper closing purses.  Since I began living in Bogota, I slowly weeded out all magnetic and snap closed purses.
  • Any push or jostling should be a signal to check your belongings.
  • Never hand over your identification, passport, wallet to someone who claims they work for the Colombian intelligence service or National Police, who isn’t wearing the official uniform and is connected to the city’s Police network with handheld radio. Many thieves play on the ignorance and fear some foreigners have of the country’s security situation. You cannot be randomly searched or questioned by someone who claims to be an “undercover” agent.
  • Do not text on a bus. Emails can wait until you get home.
  • Don’t be fooled by appearances. Thieves on buses are often dressed “executive” and women working in groups have been known to start a conversation with a foreigner, while all at the same time, someone is swiftly pulling out your wallet from a back pocket.

If this happens to you and it is possible to identify or catch the perpetrator yourself or with the help of a by-stander, the nearest police officer can help you.  Keep in mind that in order to effectively prosecute the offender the victim must appear personally at a police station and not a CAI.  Even if you think you have identified the person who stole your belongings be alert that working in groups they often pass the item off to avoid being caught.  In that case, you should still inform the police and if at all possible try to obtain the person’s “legal information”: given names and last names, address, and birth date.  It won’t be easy but it will allow you to file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office against that person on the basis of being an eyewitness.

If you are not able to apprehend the culprit, you should still file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office or at the police station’s “sala de denuncias” (Denouncement room). Your local credit and bank card companies may require this.  Remember that you cannot use the internet option for thefts or robbery, you can only use the website to register lost items (www.policianacional.gov.co).  If you need immediate assistance from the police, remember that you can always dial: 123