Think Like a Thief to Avoid being Robbed

Marina drives her car everywhere. It keeps her safe (or so she thought). She hardly ever drives to downtown and spends her time on or near the peninsula (expats & embassies). She’s been living in Dar es Salaam for over 10 years. Yet she and her daughter were robbed just in front of their gated home in an upscale neighborhood.

Marina’s purse was snatched through the open car window as she was saying goodbye to some friends. That day she lost keys, purse and driver’s license.

Another time daughter was walking near the gate to her home. Her friend had just told her not to carry the shoulder bag on the street side and reached over to place it on her other shoulder. That’s when out of a passing car the bag was snatched, hurtling her to the road were she passed out. Meanwhile her friend was being dragged behind the car as he refused to let go of the bag. To no avail. She lost an iPad, a present from the family for her 15th birthday. A Swedish woman lost her unborn baby that way and a Danish woman got her abrasions so infected that she had to be flown home.

While the speed-robbery method receives a lot of attention through rumors, embassies and the press, there is a far more common action: theft. Leaving a phone on the table in a restaurant to get some food from the buffet could be all it takes to never see it again. Money in the breast pocket of your shirt? Quicker gone than you think. Jewelry or an expensive watch? Great invitation to look for other valuables. A laptop bag almost always has USD 1000 worth of goods in it. Fancy sunglasses parked fashionably on top of your head? They grab them and USD 200 are gone in seconds.

I’ve managed to not have become a victim for already 10 days. I think part of it is attributed to what I  by now understand about thieves. They want easy money and need some hints and some preconditions. All while understanding that the consequence to them can be fatal. Shouting “Stop! Thief!” in Swahili (Simama, mwizi!) could likely result in violent death for the thief at the hands of self appointed vigilantes. Even more so if a white person shouts it. A burning tire around the neck is the preferred method to eradicate unwanted behavior.

Heroin is only 1 $ per shot in Dar es Salaam, I read somewhere. Sounds cheap. But we are in a place where the proverbial poor live on 1.25 $ a day.  Whoever does drugs needs money. This breeds crime.

If I were a thief I’d be looking for for skin color and then for signs of wealth. Next I would scan the person for easy targets like visible paper money, an open handbag with purse visible an expensive smartphone in plain view. Then I’d conduct a “victim assessment” where I evaluate the insecurity of people. Perfect victims are young people fresh off the boat, with backpack and an expensive camera around their neck. Or disoriented elderly people traveling in a group and queuing up for ice cream or to board the bus again. All I’d have to do is wait for a good opportunity. Then I’d check the position of the victim relative to the crowd: how likely could I steal from this or that pocket without being detected?

Then I’d need cover as a precondition. Cover of a crowd or of night. A speedy getaway is also preferred. Best into the maze of the slums. Because I don’t want to end up in a mob with a burning tire around my neck. So while I’m young, fast and with superb fine-motor skills I might be a pickpocket. If we were a group we might start robbing at an early age, but mostly we would not have a good plan doing it and just act on impulse. Once I’d have become more mature and understand victim psychology better I might want to try to be more confrontational in my methods and rob, rather than steal. I might even plan ahead and stake the place in advance. The pinnacle would be express kidnapping, where I would not only pressure the victim briefly into giving up the loot, but I’d manage to convince the victim over a prolonged period of time that his or her life is in danger if the ransom is not paid fast.

Riding a bus get more and more relaxed each time I do it. People all want to get to where they are going, treasure a seat and nod off when an opportunity presents itself.

Ok, let’s switch roles back again. I don’t hide in a car behind tinted glass. I don’t have a bodyguard. I can’t do anything about my skin tone. I’m avoiding the rich look by what I wear, what I don’t wear and by my activities out in the street. I dress in long pants and closed shoes. I don’t look like a tourist. The money I carry with me is not visible and distributed between two places. The smartphone either stays home or is out of sight. Recently it was stuck in my sock, totally invisible. I can’t avoid carrying a backpack with laptop, so at least I make sure I wear it safely with both straps, always watch it in the bus and backup the important files to a secure location. I try to choose a seat in the bus where one side is against the wall. I don’t wear earphones and frequently check my 6 o’clock position. I have a cheap local phone to check the time and don’t wear a watch either. I walk in some very local areas where there are no other white people, this might make me look a bit weird. And that means that a thief can’t place me and would rather err on his safe side and not confront me.

Mostly I can refrain from drawing my smartphone from the sock and shot a picture but sometimes I can’t help it. I then feel like the bimbos going to a market and taking off their money belt to pay for the goods. Wham, exposed! Ready to be fleeced by a thief or a robber. That’s why I’m ready to admit that so far I was also lucky.

(photo by _ncg on flickr)


3 thoughts on “Think Like a Thief to Avoid being Robbed”

  1. Real life seems to write the best stories, so here is an update to what could have happened to my thief. Today and in broad daylight a thief must have stolen something across from our bank.
    Just as I wanted to go to an important meeting I heard the commotion caused by other employees and went to the window to watch.
    A guy was being followed by an angry mob of maybe 20 people, some were smacking him with their fists, one small rock was thrown at him and one guy was following him, carrying a huge head-crushing rock. That’s when the thief crossed the road and tried to enter a bus, with his shirt torn to shreds. But the bus door remained closed. The angry mob also crossed the street and the thief disappeared into a side street. Then my meeting began. I don’t know what happened to the thief but I clearly saw how little it took to transform friendly bystanders into an angry lynching mob.


  2. I was about to report that I had completely overreacted writing this post when it happened. Actually it was a build up of sorts. First I worked so late as never before. So by the time I had caught a bus it was way past 8 pm and there were different people on the street. Then I misread the bus destination and ended up in a bus heading for the slums. Thinking it would pass through I remained seated all while the bus was struggling along the rough road in a dark and dusty slum. Taking out the smartphone to check the map seemed like a sensible thing to do as I was seated and there were not many people in the bus. I must have sat there following the route for a couple of minutes when – wham – a hand reached through the open bus window, grabbed my phone and disappeared in the night. I used the magic word “mwizi” but no magic happened. The thief stopped running and tried to act normal 30m away while I was contemplating to go after him. In the end I opted to remain in the relative safety of the bus and let my smartphone be taken to a different world.

    Loss: 1 local SIM card with 12 USD value, 1 Swiss SIM card with 180 USD replacement cost, 1 motorola smartphone at 180 USD value, 1 micro SD card 16 GB at 20 USD value. A lot of value in a small place!


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