This is the blog post I hoped I would never have to write. During all my many years of travel, I have been really lucky. And, then it happened to me. I was pickpocketed in Marrakesh & lost my beloved iPhone to a band of “professional” street kids!
Luckily, the majority of my Morocco trip photos (from the prior 2 ½ weeks!) were backed up on the Cloud, so I lost “just” 2 days of my Marrakesh pics (which, sadly, were some of my favs!). And, I took a big financial hit too, with insurance covering just $140 of the $900 phone. Major ouch!
While at the Moroccan police station that evening filing a police report, I began thinking that I wanted to share my story with you & the many lessons learned. I had done many things right but, other things, not so well! Hopefully, you will gain some new insights & tips to better protect yourself when you travel.
In this post, I will share what actually happened & what I should have done differently to have prevented this. And, in the Lessons Learned & Shared section, I list 15 things I think will be helpful to you – like the importance of backing up your photos on your phone & using the Find My Phone feature. And, importantly, some tips for how not to fall prey to pickpockets.
Also, I want to strongly stress that this incident is not a negative reflection on Morocco. We felt very safe there our whole trip & loved the people we met. Turns out, pickpocketing is a crime of opportunity – preying upon distracted tourists in busy places. And, it can happen anywhere – like Paris, Barcelona, and New York City – not just Marrakesh.
The Story – How It Happened
The unfortunate “event” happened on my final night in Marrekesh near the end of a wonderful tour of Morocco with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). Returning from our Farewell Dinner, the bus dropped our group of 14 along a busy street – just a short walk from our hotel. The bus drop-off area fronted a park, which led to Marrakesh’s famed & raucous Djemaa el Fna square (photo above) about a block away.
Our group was standing there on the wide sidewalk between the street and the park, saying our various goodbyes. The next morning, half the group was heading to Casablanca for a final night before flying home to the States & some of us (including me) were continuing to Essaouira for a few more days of touring. Plus, good friends of mine from Germany had flown down to join us in Marrakesh.
As a result, I was totally distracted & focused on the goodbyes and discussion of morning departure times. I was wearing my crossbody purse & my iPhone was in its usual front pocket with a flap over it. I honestly don’t remember seeing the group of 4-6 young boys crowding around our group trying to sell something.
So, I was blissfully innocent until I reached the desk of our hotel to ask about getting a recharge for the local SIM card on my phone. That’s when I went to pull out my iPhone from the pocket where I ALWAYS kept it & the phone wasn’t there – nor was it inside the purse. At that point, a horrible, sinking filling came over me! What had I done with my phone?
The hotel receptionist called the restaurant & my wonderful OAT Trip Leader Aziz called the bus company – no luck with either. I quickly went to my room to check my iPad & use Apple’s “Find My Phone” feature. My heart sunk again when the app showed my iPhone was “offline.”
That’s when I knew it had been stolen. My iPhone had definitely been on. I know because I had taken the group photo at the end of the Farewell Dinner with my phone. Criminals (even young ones) know to immediately turn off cell phones so they can’t be tracked. Damn…
Filing A Police Report
I made plans to immediately meet Aziz in the hotel lobby, so we could go to the police station to file a police report. Just then, my friend JoAnn appeared. After hearing the news, she had checked and realized her prescription glasses had also disappeared from the outside pocket of her purse – also a crossbody.
It was now 10pm when Aziz, JoAnn & I headed off to the police station located on Djemaa el Fna square, only a 5-minute walk. Soon after we arrived at the station, three young men (early 20s) were escorted in, all handcuffed together – possibly for drunk & disorderly conduct. After all, it was Saturday night on the square. Apparently, two of them would be spending the night in jail!
We spent most of our time in the hallway (on chairs) outside the main office, with officers going in & out of the office. Thank goodness for Aziz, a Moroccan (from Rabat) who could advocate for us and speak the local Arabic & French languages. He’s the one who gave the officers all my details & the story for the report.
They needed my passport, which luckily, I remembered to take, plus a description of my phone – and the serial # (which I did not have). It took 2 full hours for the officers to start & finish filling out the police report. Aziz was trying hard not to get frustrated at the snail-like pace of 4 different officers taking turns doing part of the report.
While hanging out in the hall – and being entertained by all the comings & goings – we met a couple other victims who arrived to file their own reports. One was a German man who lost his wallet, which amazingly was inside a zipped waist pack worn right in front. Clearly, his pickpocket was done by a skilled thief. Another was a Moroccan woman (visiting from another city) who had her phone taken out of her pants pocket – a much easier target!
Sadly, I couldn’t take any photos there to “remember the moment!” It was a police station, after all, plus my iPhone was gone. However, Aziz did stealthily snap a pic of JoAnn & me in front of the station as we left at midnight – with the police report successfully in hand & stories to tell!
As I write this blog post 2.5 weeks later, I have not heard any news, which is not a surprise. My guide Aziz gave his contact info for the police report so I know he would alert me if he heard anything. Also, Aziz filled out an Incident Report, which is required by the OAT tour operator, and gave me a copy – so I had additional verification of the loss.
About Marrakesh & Djemaa Square
Marrekesh, Morocco’s most popular tourist destination, is a vibrant city drawing visitors from around the world. They come to walk the crowded streets of its ancient medina, shop the colorful & lively souks, and witness the carnival-like atmosphere of Djemaa el Fna square with its non-stop action day & night. There are countless food stalls, street performers, musicians & even a few snake charmers.
Our guide Aziz had warned us that there are more scams in Marrakesh, especially in the square. My Lonely Planet Morocco guidebook also warned: While wandering around the Djemaa, be on guard against pickpockets and rogue gropers who are known to work the crowds, particularly after sunset.
Lonely Planet also wrote: On the whole, theft is not a huge problem in Morocco. The medinas in Marrakesh, Casablanca and Tangier have a particular reputation for petty theft. A common tactic is for one person to distract you while another cleans out your pockets.
In fact, just before the Morocco trip, I bought myself a nice Baggallini “cross-body” purse for extra security for my valuables when walking through the crowded markets & old medinas in many of our destinations. I liked this purse because it had a convenient exterior pocket which perfectly fit my iPhone – and the pocket had a flap over it with a magnetic snap. (see below)
The purse worked really well on the trip, as I take LOTS of photos, so I need my iPhone easily accessible. I would quickly pop it out for a photo & immediately place it back in the pocket. It worked great – until it didn’t!
More About the Kids
So how did those little rascals get my phone, which was in its usual place as we got off the bus? Since I was clearly oblivious to what was going on around me (as mentioned before), here’s what I learned from talking with others later, including my travel mates Ed & Alan.
As our group of 14 exited the bus, there were some other adults nearby (who were not with our group). There were between 4-6 kids (most likely all boys), and somewhere in the range of 8-12 years old. They appeared to be trying to sell those blue lights that you throw around at night. They were doing it in an aggressive, obnoxious manner.
Alan’s story: Two boys about age 8-10 were jostling me on each side, at the same time. The younger one put his hand on my pocket and I pushed his hand away and made sure my wallet was still there. I yelled at both of them and they left me alone. I was toward the back of the group, so I couldn’t warn anyone else. I was lucky because they were just so obvious & I had read about them.
My German friend Axel recalls one of the kids wanting to get into his pocket. Ed remembers the kids pushing some lighted object in front of him, with the object & hand of a kid making contact with his frontal trunk area. Ed thought nothing of it, but moved away from the group, towards the curb to disengage with the pesty kids.
As Ed stepped away, he saw a slightly older & larger kid standing up on the curb (with an elevated view) directing another kid towards someone in our group. Ed assumed he was the “sales manager.” Since Ed had seen a couple of legitimate “sales managers” directing young people on other occasions during our trip, he thought nothing of it at the time.
However, using the power of hindsight, we can now see that our group was clearly targeted by a band of young “professional” pickpockets. But, of course, we didn’t figure that out until later. We thought they were just obnoxious kid sellers.
Finishing The Trip Sans Phone
The next morning, four of the group & I headed to Essaouira, a peaceful town on the Coast, for a couple more days of sightseeing before returning to Casablanca to fly home. At this point, we were “on our own” as an independent post-trip. Happily, I still had my nice SLR camera, so I was able to continue taking photos. Whenever I travel, I can’t not take photos – it’s hard-wired in me!
Luckily, I also still had my iPad, so I was able to use the hotel’s WiFi for Internet & email, plus access to trip documents. Fortunately, Ed also had a cell phone with a local Moroccan SIM card, so he could make the local calls I needed to schedule van drivers & local tour guides that I would have done myself. So, at least, I wasn’t “dead in the water” by the loss of the smart phone. Phew!
Replacement iPhone & Download of Photos from Cloud
The day after arriving home, I was at the Apple store to buy a replacement phone. Yep, it’s pretty hard to live these days without our smart phones! I needed to upgrade from the iPhone 7 Plus to the 8 Plus, to keep the same 256GB of storage. And, as I always do, I bought the phone “unlocked,” so I can use local SIM cards when I travel.
Luckily, I was able to easily download everything from Apple’s iCloud to my new phone, minus the Marrakesh photos that didn’t make it up to the Cloud. So, even though I really miss having those pix, it could have been WAY worse. I still came home from Morocco with around 4,300 photos – between both cameras.
I will say it was a bit complicated figuring out the iCloud download of the Morocco photos onto my PC. Normally, I am able to connect my USB cable between my phone & my PC to copy the photos (which are full resolution on the phone). This time, the only full res. Morocco photos were the ones on the cloud, so I had a learning curve. It was not as easy to download the 1,300 pix as I would have thought, but a call to Apple Support finally helped. So, all good there!
LESSONS LEARNED & SHARED
Now that you know the story of exactly what happened, I want to share the different lessons learned along the way – and the things I did right and not so right! Plus, in researching this, I learned more about the different features on the phones to protect them from hackers when they are lost. These hints can help you in both prevention & what to do if you do find yourself with the loss of a phone.
1) What I Should Have Done Differently That Night
Believe me, I’ve played that scene over & over in my mind, wishing I could have a “do over!” In my thinking, we were “just” getting off the bus & we were a full block from Djemaa square, so I wasn’t on my guard. I wasn’t thinking the bus drop-off was a “high risk” area (like the square), which clearly it was.
Not needing my phone at that time for photos, I should have put it into a safer, zipped inside pocket of my purse. Plus, I now know not to become so distracted (in personal conversations with friends or others) to where I am not fully aware of what is going on around me – like those aggressive, pesky boys. I needed to be way more vigilant!
Also, I know to sound an alarm early to warn others around me of potential problems. I have read that loudly yelling “Thief” or “Pickpocket” might scare off the “bad ones” and alert others to be more careful & vigilant. We were lulled into thinking – they’re just kids.
2) Helpful Hints For Not Falling Prey to Pickpockets
As mentioned, this doesn’t just happen in Morocco. In fact, Europe has lots of petty theft like purse-snatching and pickpocketing, which are rampant in places where tourists gather. And, why not – we tourists carry lots of good stuff that thieves like!
Pickpockets look for people who are either distracted or can be easily distracted – like folks on cell phones, in groups, with children, or others who just aren’t paying enough attention to the people around them (oops, like me!). Of course, tourists are their prime targets.
Many people assume pickpockets are sketchy looking men, but a large number are actually young girls and boys — usually around 10-16 years old. Most tourists don’t suspect that a young child would steal from them, so they’re less defensive around them. Other times, pickpockets are well-dressed people, whom you’d never expect to be thieves.
“High Risk” areas for this type of crime include: tourist attractions, public transit (subways & city buses), train stations, flea markets & other crowded markets, restaurants/cafes/bars, and museums.
It’s important to stay vigilant in crowds and steer clear of commotions. Go on instant alert anytime there’s a commotion; it’s likely a smokescreen for theft. Imaginative artful-dodger thief teams create a disturbance — a fight, a messy spill, or a jostle or stumble — to distract their victims.
Another useful caveat is to never lend your phone to strangers, as an unscrupulous one could easily take off running with your phone. Shudder…
Here are three really good articles from two experts – and from which I quoted much of the great information above. The articles are focused on Europe. Please check them out. They’re not meant to scare you or stop you from traveling – only to be aware & help you travel more safely!
- Outsmarting Pickpockets & Thieves – by Rick Steves
- Tourist Scams & Ripoffs – by Rick Steves
- How to Avoid Pickpockets in Europe: Tips for Outsmarting the Thieves – by The Savvy Backpacker
3) “Find My Phone” Feature is Critical – Use It!
As soon as I realized my iPhone was missing, I went to my iPad to turn on the “Find My Phone” feature, hoping I could locate the phone this way. Unfortunately, it was already “off-line” (ie, not connected to the Internet) so it could not be tracked. If it had been on-line, I would have been able to see exactly where it was.
Tips for iPhone users: If your iPhone is ever missing – regardless of whether you think it’s been stolen, lost or just misplaced – you immediately want to go to the “Find My Phone” iOS app. You can do this on your iPad or someone else’s iPhone or iPad. Or find a computer (PC or Mac) and sign into iCloud at www.icloud.com.
You will need to give your iCloud user name/Apple ID and password. This will be the same one used in the Find My iPhone app. Make sure you always have your Apple log-in info handy.
For Android phone users: Android offers several ways to find your lost or stolen smartphone. The best-known one is Google’s “Find My Device,” which you can access from the Google website on your computer or the app from the Google Play Store. It can track your device through GPS, lock the screen, or brick the device remotely. FYI, the service used to be called Android Device Manager. Note: However, not being an Android user, I don’t know much more so you’ll want to do your own research about their different features.
IMPORTANT for Both: You must have the Find My Phone features activated BEFORE your phone goes missing, or you’re out of luck. So, please check your cell phone now (iPhone / Android) to make sure the feature is turned on. Plus, play around with it to learn exactly how it works (both from the website & app) so you’ll be prepared if/when the time comes.
4) iPhone’s Activation Lock & Lost Mode – More Critical Protection
Apple suggests the very first thing you do when a phone is “lost” is to activate your phone’s Activation Lock. Luckily, Activation Lock is enabled automatically when you turn on Find My iPhone. That feature is designed to prevent anyone else from using your iPhone or iPad, if it’s ever lost or stolen.
In addition, the “Find My Phone” feature gives you 3 options: Play Sound, Lost Mode, and Erase iPhone. Hitting “Play Sound” causes the phone to vibrate & play a sound for two minutes – immediately if online. If the phone is offline, the sound plays the next time it’s online. This alert can help you locate a phone that fell behind a sofa or perhaps, if stolen, annoy the thief!
You will also want to put your phone into “Lost Mode” immediately. That will lock your screen with a 4-digit or 6-digit passcode – even if you didn’t already have your screen locked. Plus, it will let you display a custom message on the screen with your contact info, so someone can let you know if they find the phone (obviously, not the thief!).
You can certainly rest easier about protecting your data inside the iPhone. If your phone goes missing, and you’ve turned on the Activation Lock feature, your Apple ID (email) and password is required before anyone else can erase your device, turn off the Find My iPhone feature or reactivate and use your device.
Call Your Phone – is one other thing you should try, soon after “losing” your phone. You should actually call your phone number to see if anyone answers. Perhaps, if the phone wasn’t actually stolen – just forgotten or left behind – a good Samaritan might pick up the call & help reunite you with the phone!
5) It’s Critical to Have a Strong Password on Your Phone
Given that most people’s phones now hold as much (or possibly more) personal information than their home computers do, it’s imperative to use a hard-to-hack password to thwart entry. In the past, 4-digit passcodes were the norm but now security experts are now recommending 6 digits and/or alphanumeric ones.
If you use the simple 4-digit numeric passcode (like I still do), there are only 10,000 possible combinations. That may seem high, but a determined hacker or thief will probably guess it in a few hours. Just be sure you’re not making it really easy for them by using common codes like 0000, 1111, 2580, 1234, or 1998. I’ve also read that a 6-digit code can be cracked in a few days.
6) iPhones & Today’s Phones Are Harder to Hack Into – What Else You Can Do
Stolen iPhones are still big business on the black market, but they are becoming less attractive targets for would-be thieves thanks to newer security features and theft deterrents in recent iOS versions.
Here’s an article from The Guardian with some very good tips for both iPhone & Android users: 12 Ways to Hackproof Your Smart Phone.
7) Caution with the “Erase My Data” Feature
In my case, after activating the “Find My Phone” feature, I decided not to deploy the “Erase My Data” option. I knew there were some Marrakesh photos on my phone that hadn’t made it up into the Cloud, which I would lose for good. Plus, I hoped that with great luck my phone might be found. Plus, I knew iPhones are hard to hack into & my particular phone was protected with a relatively strong password.
That turned out to be the right decision! Here’s what I later learned about the Erase My Data function from research & the guy at the Apple Store: Not only does it erase all your data on the device remotely, but it makes the phone untrackable. That is, you won’t be able to locate it using Find My Phone.
And, if you also remove the device from your account, Activation Lock is turned off – and that allows another person to turn on and use your device. So, just a caution to proceed wisely & carefully on this one.
8) File A Police Report If Your Phone is Stolen
It’s important to report the theft of your phone to the police as soon as possible (within 48 hours at most). There’s no guarantee that the authorities can actually help you get your phone back, but it’s worth a shot – and having an official police report will come in handy as well. This is especially important if your phone is covered by insurance.
The report should include the physical description of the device as well as the make and serial number and/or IMEI number. This information could help authorities track your phone down in a pawnshop, on eBay, or even in a bust. The police report will also allow authorities to block the phone from being used on other networks.
9) You Will Need Phone Details for the Police – Like Serial #
Once again, don’t do what I did! At the Marrakesh police station, I correctly identified my lost phone as an iPhone 7 Plus. However, I reported it was a silver phone, when, in fact, it was black. I realized this fact only when I checked my records back home. In my defense, I always carry my phone in a blue case, so I had clearly forgotten the actual color.
With the iPhone 8 (and probably most iPhones?), the phone doesn’t display the serial # on the outside of the phone – only inside the phone in Settings, which is a problem when your phone is lost! However, the SIM card tray does have the IMEI 15 digit # written on it in a VERY SMALL size. I had to use my best magnifying glass to see it.
Bottom Line: Write down a detailed description of your cell phone, tablets and other electronics somewhere safe & accessible. You could even store it in a password manager program. Be sure to include make, model, serial #, IMEI # and anything else to help identify it in case of loss.
10) Notify Your Wireless Provider
I did not need to do this because I was using a local Moroccan SIM card (with a prepaid plan) in the phone when it was taken. I still had my regular SIM card with my ATT service provider in a safe place, which I was able to insert back into my new iPhone once back home.
However, in most cases, you’ll want to notify your wireless provider. Every carrier should have a number to contact them if your phone has been lost or stolen. You will likely want to suspend your service in order to avoid any unauthorized usage charges. You may be able to find additional ways to track your phone or at least learn how to start getting a replacement.
11) Backing Up Your Phone & Photos Frequently – Critical!
Make sure to regularly back-up your phone to assure you don’t lose any precious photos, contacts, or files. Luckily, I had most all my Morocco photos backed up onto Apple’s iCloud, except for the last 2-3 days of photos in Marrakesh.
Bottom Line: Be sure you have a cloud backup storage system for your phone’s documents & photos – such as iCloud (for iOS products), Google Photos or Dropbox. Google Photos offers unlimited storage for free.
For Apple’s iCloud, you need to be connected to WiFi and have your phone plugged into an electrical outlet, which is what I usually do at night. Plus, your screen needs to be locked. I am usually pretty careful on trips and check my photos every couple days to make sure they have been uploaded.
Here’s what I think happened in Marrakesh. Our excellent hotel had WiFi, but you had to re-sign into it each time you used it (unlike most that remember you after the first login). Having a local SIM card on my phone with cell service for Internet, I must have gotten lazy. Another big lesson learned!
12) I Learned Just How Dependent I Am on My Phone
I knew I loved my iPhone for travel, but I never knew how much & how I depended on it until I didn’t have it. Boy, did I miss my phone those last 3 days in Morocco. Luckily, as mentioned, I had my iPad so, at least, I had a way to access the Internet and emails – and my stored trip documents.
Loving travel photography, my iPhone has become a trusted second camera – in addition to my SLR. I love that it’s smaller & less obtrusive, while still taking great photos & fun videos. There were many times, I preferred to leave my SLR home and just use my iPhone. In fact, my final day in Marrakesh, I only used my iPhone & got some wonderful market & Djemaa square photos – that are, sadly, lost forever!
As you well know, our smart phones are great for “life on the go” with constant access to the Internet & email. It was easy to check the day’s weather, pull up my Morocco guidebook for a city map, use Google Maps to locate where I was in the medina, or text friends to meet up. My iPad is great but it’s really not as convenient because of its size for doing these things in the streets.
13) Have a Plan in Case You Lose Your Phone
I’m sure my sad tale has made you think about what you would do if the same sort of thing happened to you – and I certainly hope it never does! I pray that you have learned from my mistakes. However, planning for worst case scenarios is always good pre-travel exercise. How much is needed depends, of course, if you are traveling on a tour, with some friends or family independently, or traveling solo.
For example, with important trip documents, I had lots of redundancy – with a mix of hard copies, and copies on both my iPhone and iPad. I also had many in a Trip Folder within Gmail. These items included things like travel insurance info, airline tickets, and hotel reservations. Ultimately, you just want to make sure your smart phone doesn’t contain your only copy of key items, just in case.
14) What About Losing Credit Cards or Debit Cards?
I want to make a quick mention of contingency planning for the other items that can be a real problem if you happen to lose your wallet or entire purse to thieves – with your cash, credit cards, ATM/ debit cards and, God forbid, your passport!
The general principle is: Don’t keep all your eggs (ie, valuables) in one basket so that, if you are pick-pocketed, you limit the amount you’ll lose. As for credit cards & ATM/debit cards, it’s a good idea to carry a few different ones of each – and carry them in different places.
For example, I have a document holder with my passport, along with spare credit cards & debit cards which I keep locked in my hotel room. So, I carry a small wallet in my purse with just one credit card and one debit card (only if needed that day) plus cash for the day.
Also, make sure to carry a copy (in a safe place) of all your cards with their #s, expiration date, 3-digit security code, and phone #s to call to report their loss & cancel the card. If traveling internationally, make sure the phone number is not a U.S. toll-free only number. Plus, bring color photo copies of your passport main page, in case of loss.
15) Getting Reimbursed for Loss of my iPhone – What I Tried
I didn’t do very well in this department & believe me, I tried everything. My iPhone 7 Plus was a couple months shy of its 2nd BD – and the total cost back then for the phone, protective screen, case & tax was $974. That hefty price is why I have always been so VERY careful with my iPhone. It’s cellular jewelry!
For the Morocco trip, I bought comprehensive travel insurance, not just medical coverage (like I often do). My policy through Tin Leg cost me $276. Good news – they do cover the loss of a phone through their “Baggage & Personal Effects” benefit. But here’s the bad news – they only reimburse $100 per lost item up to a max of $500. So, I will only receive $100 (possibly $40 more to cover the case) to go towards the $958 I spent for the replacement phone. Major Ouch!
Yes, the personal property benefits of my homeowner’s insurance would cover loss of my phone while traveling. But, more bad news – my policy has a $1,000 deductible.
My United MileagePlus Explorer Card
This is the credit card with which I paid the Morocco tour. However, they only reimburse for Lost Luggage & not personal items lost while traveling. Specifically, they cover luggage that is damaged or lost by the carrier – up to $3,000 per passenger.
I also asked about their “Purchase Protection” benefit but no luck here either. The card covers new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft, up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per year. I was only 18 months too late!
Loss or Theft Insurance on the Cell Phone
I knew this was a no go, as I had declined the AppleCare protection plan when I bought my iPhone. Even if I had purchased it, the plan would only have covered 2 years of repairs, and not theft or loss. However, Apple has just come out with a new AppleCare+ plan which covers Theft & Loss, but the price tag is hefty, along with a large deductible.
In the near future, I will need to explore if there is another more affordable way for insuring my iPhone for loss or theft, especially when traveling. Any suggestions for me?
Here’s two more good articles that might be helpful related to the loss of your cell phone:
- If Your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch is Lost or Stolen – from Apple Support
- Find, Lock, or Erase a Lost Android Device – from Google
COMMENTS: Have you ever been pickpocketed or the victim of theft during your travels? Any helpful hints to share?