For nearly two years, we lived in what we thought was one of the safest cities in the world: Seoul, South Korea. Mike never thought twice about keeping his wallet in his back pocket. I never worried if I accidentally left my purse unzipped on the subway. In fact, I once even left my wallet in the back of a cab and had it returned to me several weeks later.
Walking the streets at night alone as a woman never bothered me – or Mike, admittedly the worrywart of our travel duo. The city was simply…safe. Petty crimes just weren’t something to worry about in Seoul, we thought.
We weren’t the only ones who thought this city was above petty crimes, either. TripAdvisor rated Seoul the 8th safest city in the world, and the U.S. Department of State classifies the country’s crime rate as “low.”
So, it came as a great irony when Mike was pick-pocketed two weeks before we left the country.
In our months leading up to leaving Seoul, we were selling two years worth of stuff to incoming teachers who, we knew, could certainly use a few gently used home goods. One by one, we said goodbye to books, clothes, our champ of a toaster oven and the rice cooker that baked our birthday cakes, casseroles and homemade yogurt.
We left our bikes for last, since Mike especially loved riding his bike around town and down by the Han River.
When it finally came time to sell his bike, he arranged to meet another expat at our neighborhood subway station. He waited for about half an hour outside the station for the buyer, who was running late. And all the while, Mike didn’t realize the three college-aged men hanging around a staircase outside the subway station were keeping an eye on him.
And when Mike finally met the buyer and exchanged the bike for 70,000 won (roughly $60 USD), he didn’t realize he’d become a target.
Sure enough, the three boys flanked him, one accidentally bumping into him.
“Oh, sorry!” he exclaimed, patting Mike on the back with an overly friendly smile. The other two asked him if he was okay, a stellar performance that fooled Marco for just long enough.
But as Mike started walking the few blocks back to our house, it finally clicked.
And as he slipped a hand into his now-empty back pocket, he’d realized he’d just been pick pocketed.
In what we thought was a city above petty crime.
We walked the streets in disbelief for hours that night, checking every bar and pool hall in hopes of finding the thieves blowing their newfound cash on rounds of maekju (beer) and billiards.
But we’d been had.
The fact is, we had become too comfortable. Too trusting in a city where we believed crime was nonexistent.
But let me tell you, safe city or not, crime can happen anywhere. Even the most romantic sites in Paris! Take it from us.
Here are a few tips for avoiding tourist-targeted crime in so-called “safe cities”:
1. Never Say Never
We thought crime could never happen to us in Seoul. After all, it’s one of the safest cities in the world and in this Confucian society, one of the worst things you can do is bring shame upon your family. We got comfortable – and we paid the price.
Whether you’re in a seedy neighborhood or surrounded by locals wearing suits that cost more than six months rent, never think it couldn’t happen to you. That was us – and it did.
2. Keep a Healthy Dose of Skepticism
No, you don’t need to go into all-out paranoid mode, but I’ll tell you this: If Mike had been a little more skeptical of the guys hanging around a little too long at the subway station and their friendly, “So sorry I bumped into you,” he may have been able to see their ulterior motives in time to catch them in the act or avoid them all together. Even in one of the world’s safest cities,
3. Avoid Flashing the Cash…
…or any other valuables, for that matter. Removing a large wad of bills or your fancy travel tech puts you right in an opportunist’s crosshairs. And that’s exactly what happened to Mike: The thieves saw him exchange his bike for a large wad of bills, and bam! They had a target.
All this being said, I still consider Seoul one of the safest cities in the world. The fact is, every city has its opportunists. But after two years of absolutely safe living, this one rare incident isn’t changing our view on Seoul. I’m not in any rush to start tucking my cash in my shoes and I still feel perfectly comfortable walking through the city alone at night.
We’re just learned the hard way that no city is above crime.
Have you ever experienced petty crime in a so-called safe city? What tips do you have to avoid being a target?