The Day I Had My Purse Stolen, and Lessons Learned

by Nora on December 18, 2014

Whilst in Cusco the other day, a taxi driver made off with my purse, with everything – everything – in it. Here’s what happened, what I gained from being prepared, and what mistakes I made along the way.


Haggling With a Taxi Driver

After a day of shopping in Cusco with some friends, we were ready to take a taxi back to the spot where we could catch a colectivo (bus) to Pisac. We hopped into the first taxi we saw (taxis in Cusco are everywhere, but also fairly unregulated, marked by little more than red and white reflective stickers on the sides of private cars, and certainly without meters).

I was in the front seat; before shutting the door, I quickly confirmed with the driver (in Spanish) what the rate would be. To get just about anywhere in Cusco costs 3 soles (about $1). We were going a very short distance, so when he quoted us 4 soles and wouldn’t budge on his price even when I said I knew it should only cost 3 soles, we said thank you and got out of the taxi in search of a better rate.

At this point, you might say “Nora! It’s only 1 sol: a mere 40 cents! Was that such a big deal?” No. It’s not a big deal in the grander scheme of things (and in retrospect I traded 1 sol for a whole lot more). But on the principal of the matter, I don’t like to be ripped off just because I’m a foreigner. (See also: How Tourists Cripple Local Economies)


That’s When It Happened

So there we were, bolting out of one taxi and looking for the next. Less than a minute later, I realized in the hustle that my purse was gone. When I gathered my bags to leave the taxi, my purse must have slipped off my shoulder (whether or not aided by the taxi driver is unknown) and remained in the front seat.

“Oh my god – my purse is gone!” I said in a panic.

We looked to the taxi in question, screeching away from the curb. We ran after the taxi, which was quite evidently making a getaway, running through red lights. Four wheels are better than two legs, so in the end, the taxi got away.

I stood there on the busy street, shocked. I’ve never had my purse stolen or lost before (I’m usually so very careful). I couldn’t believe what happened. I searched my bags to see if my purse was somehow inside one of them, which of course it wasn’t.

I had just been robbed.

Mistake #1: I was careless with my purse in Cusco; a place where I’ve always felt very safe but where thefts are common. I should have had my purse strapped across my body instead of hanging off one shoulder.


Everything Was in My Purse

I took a mental tally of what was in my purse. Which was everything.

My wallet – containing both of my credit cards, my debit card, all my ID (except my passport – thank goodness), and all my cash (totalling about $250) – was gone.

Also of note in my purse was my smartphone/camera combo.

Mistake #2: I didn’t need to go to Cusco with all my cards, and I could have left some of my cash at home. Although normally I’m very attentive to diversification of belongings and not having everything in one place; again I had become too comfortable, and careless.

I was flabbergasted. I have nothing! Had I not been with friends that day, I would not even have known how to get back home (a 45 minute drive away). I had no phone to call anybody (nor did I know anybody’s phone number by heart anyway), and no cash to pay for a ride.

Blessing #1: I was with good friends, who were so supportive. They were even more upset than I was! They comforted me, paid my way back to Pisac, and even came over to make me dinner that night so I could spend my time on the phone dealing with cancelling cards etc.

Blessing #2: I still had my computer and an internet connection with which I could make the necessary calls to get new cards.


What to Do When Your Stuff is Stolen

Once home, I immediately launched into “damage control” mode.

I couldn’t do anything about the cash – that was gone. There was no taxi company to call to try and recover my stuff, and we didn’t get the license plate of the taxi; I had to start over from scratch.

Of main concern were my debit and credit cards, which posed a security risk. Of secondary concern was my ID, as well as the security of my email and social media accounts, which, if the taxi driver knew how to get past my phone’s PIN code, could be accessible.

Mistake #3: Although I had a PIN code on my phone that could prevent casual intrusions, I didn’t activate any kind of remote phone locator or remote phone wiping application. A savvy criminal could take my phone to somebody who could break past the phone code and have a field day with all my personal information and passwords.

Credit and Debit Card Replacements

Blessing #3: Encrypted on my computer (and my trusty USB stick) is a program called KeePassX, containing all the information I needed to start the process of getting my cards back.

(For more on this program and how I use it to back up my stuff, see Total Travel Protection With the USB Stick Trick).

I opened the program to access my card numbers, PIN numbers, and even the telephone numbers I needed to call to start the process of cancelling and reissuing my stolen cards. Within 1.5 hours I had cancelled my debit card and two credit cards and had new ones rushed to a friend in Colorado who would be visiting me in two weeks.

Blessing #4: Living in Peru without an address (and a questionably reliable postal system) posed a problem in terms of getting new cards delivered. I’m so thankful that my Colorado friend was coming to visit me and I could have the cards safely delivered to him to hand-deliver to me.

Identity Protection

With the biggest time-sensitive security threats out of the way, I tackled the possibility that my identity could be compromised if the taxi driver was able to break into my phone. Thus I changed all my passwords.

I’m not particularly worried about identity theft (I would surmise that most casual thieves in Peru are more interested in cash than anything else), but I felt better once I did that.

Phone Replacement

I was gutted at the loss of my phone, which was also my professional camera. I should be able to get my Peruvian phone number back by purchasing a new SIM card and requesting the old number, but by the time that happens I expect to have lost all my credit (which thankfully wasn’t a lot).

It also wasn’t a cheap phone ($700 a year ago when I got it), so I was none too thrilled to have to replace it.

Mistake??? #4: I used to have Property Insurance for times when my stuff might be stolen, lost, or damaged. But knowing how difficult it can be to make property insurance claims, and resting confidently that nothing bad would happen to me on the road (ha!), I stopped renewing the policy on the premise that if I saved up a few years’ worth of annual insurance premiums, I could “self-insure” myself.

(I’m not sure this was a mistake (especially after my recent life-changing insurance company fiasco), since I can afford to self-insure myself, but of course the bite of having to buy a new phone in the throes of having lost everything was none too appealing.

Although I could have borrowed cash from a friend to buy a cheap phone and worried about the camera later, I wanted to replace the phone I had which I loved as a camera, and I figured I could wait the two weeks until my Colorado friend visited to get it.

So I hopped online and ordered a new phone to be sent to him for hand-delivery to me.

Blessing #5: My replacement phone/camera only cost $350, not $700!

Blessing #6: With my credit cards stolen and cancelled, you might wonder how I ordered anything online. Luckily I had recently ordered a new credit card which was already sitting in Colorado. My friend gave me the relevant information to activate the card and I used it online to order the new phone.


Mistakes…and Blessings

As you can see I made a few mistakes along the way, mostly in the name of being careless and resting (incorrectly) assured that “nothing will happen to me”.

But I was also so blessed along the way – to have friends there during the incident to support me and help me get home (and cook me dinner and lend me money as needed), to have my passport stashed away at home (which, after being stolen last year I was in no mood to replace again), to have my computer to make the necessary calls to fix everything, to have a friend in the US who could hand-deliver all my replacement cards, and to have a wide and supportive network of friends here in Peru to help me in the meantime.

(See also: What to do if Your Passport is Lost or Stolen)


Life Lessons From Having my Purse Stolen

I have a friend who calls me a “lifetime member of the Fiercely Independent North American Women’s Club”. I wear this badge with equal parts pride and shame, but having my purse stolen has been a life lesson in learning to be a little less fiercely independent.

Until my Colorado friend visits (two weeks from the date of the theft), I have nothing. I have no way to access money, no cards, no phone, no camera – nothing. If I were truly Fiercely Independent, I would be up the creek right now.

Instead this theft has been an incredible life lesson in learning to receive. In learning to allow those around me to help, and to gracefully receive that help. Normally this would be very awkward for me, but without any choice – and in trusting the love and support of my friends in Peru – instead I am so blessed by the love around me, that it takes my breath away.


Bad Stuff Happens on the Road

Readers sometimes ask me about the “real dirt” of what happens on the road; not just the sugar-coated tales of how awesome travel is.

This post is an example of some of that “real dirt”. If you have an iron stomach and crave more, then check out the post below to learn about my tales of heartbreak, hospital visits, natural disasters, passport thefts, and more:

Brace Yourself: Travel Isn’t all Roses and Lollipops


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Emily December 18, 2014 at 10:47 am

I’m glad to hear you have those blessings and a supportive friend network to help you. Hindsight is always 20/20 but sometimes it takes these blips to remind us to be a bit more aware!


2 Nora Dunn December 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Hi Emily,
You’re right, and as far as reminder-blips, I think the grander scheme of things, I got off easy!


3 Turner December 18, 2014 at 11:13 am

I’ve thought it over on more than one occasion, and though I think I could live with the loss of my passport, phone, even credit cards, I would be royally screwed if my Mac were swiped.


4 Nora Dunn December 19, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Indeed, one of the big blessings from this sordid affair is that I still had my computer. I used to say I’d throw myself in front of a bus to protect my computer….save for the fact that without me, my computer wouldn’t do much good… 😉


5 Tiffany December 18, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Hey Nora, all I can say is ‘grrrr.’ I *so* know that feeling when you would otherwise always be so careful – it’s always that one time, that one time you break one of your own rules (purse should have been slung across body, not shoulder) that is happens. Glad it wasn’t worse. Sounds like you’ve got some things working in your favor. I still think these types of things happen to help keep our guard up for things of even worse consequence. Two weeks will go so fast! 🙂


6 Nora Dunn December 19, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Hey Tiff,
Indeed! And…one more week to go….I’m not sweating it. My friends are all so supportive, and I’ve had no trouble borrowing money for everything I need.


7 Rob December 19, 2014 at 12:58 am

That sucks Nora! It does make a good lesson for the rest of us….


8 Nora Dunn December 19, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Hey Rob,
That’s why I wrote about it! Hopefully you can learn from my own silly mistakes!


9 Dan December 19, 2014 at 4:11 am

Agh, super frustrating experience! I know how you feel about not wanting to get ripped off just because your a foreigner. Cab drivers try that every once and awhile here in China and it’s infuriating … despite it’s only 50 cents haha. So frustrated for you … wait-a stay positive though and great tips for figuring out what to do after something like that! I like the KeePassX app … Cool idea.


10 Nora Dunn December 19, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Hey Dan,
Yes, I swear by KeePassX – it’s a great app, and it’s a great way to encrypt and carry around sensitive information.


11 Will December 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Sorry this happened to you – kudos on being level headed enough to draw lessons from this instead of panning an entire country, which is what too many people do…


12 Nora Dunn December 20, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Hi Will,
I love Peru too much to let this incident mar the entire country for me. This kind of thing can happen anywhere, including our own back yard. Thanks for the kudos!


13 David DeWitt January 4, 2015 at 11:19 am

Nora, have you thought about wearing a flat money belt under your clothing for cards and cash?


14 Nora Dunn January 4, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Hi David,
I used to have a flat money belt, but I only used it on travel days. Once I’m staying somewhere for a while, I tend to leave the travel-related accessories behind and just go out “like a local”. Guess this time I got burned – but then again it could have happened anywhere.


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