AN EYE ON PITFALLS
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). An eye on pitfalls. LMD. January 2009. Page 171. Volume 15, Issue 6. ISSN 1391-135X.
How people are vulnerable to risks they have not anticipated.
At the tail end of August, I was at Amsterdam Centraal Station to board the 09.26 am train to Paris. To male it easy to load, we had packed everything in, including my laptop into three suitcases. I had kept my passport pouch in a zipped compartment so that once my suitcase was on the luggage rack, I could remove it easily and take it with me to my seat. We expected the boarding to be a civilised and orderly affair. It was not. We had arrived on the platform 30 minutes early in the hope we could load and settle down early. However, the train arrived just on time and there was a mad scramble to board the train. The aisles were blocked with passengers struggling with their luggage. A helpful passenger lifted my suitcase making it easier for me to lift it onto the train. When our luggage was on the racks and I wanted to remove my pouch, it was gone. I had made it easy for me to take it out and unwittingly I had also made it easy for what we later realised was a thief and his accomplice posing as a helpful passengers.
The Manager of the Train said that this happens all the time. Thieves steal money and passports when passengers are boarding the train and vanish. The thieves do not travel on the train. This was not a risk we had been aware of. There was no signage or announcements for passengers to be aware of pickpockets. We were used to a secure environment in international travel where only passengers with valid passports and tickets are allowed to go up to a boarding stage.
Had there been any warning we would have been more careful. I would have taken the simple precaution of locking the passport pouch away or wearing it around my neck, and inside my jacket, whilst boarding. It also puzzled me why the station does not employ Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) to deal with recurrent crime of this nature. Once I informed the Manager of the Train, the station would only need to check half an hour’s of footage to identify those who entered and left the platform without boarding the train. Control of access to the platform to ticket holders would also reduce the risk of thieves .
The ultimate lesson is that one can never be too careful. What went wrong here was that we were exposed to a risk, which we were not aware of. We did not know that there was a two to three minute window of risk during which thieves operated to steal passports and money. The passports are sold for travel with new photographs inserted. At a conceptual level, this is no different to investors who bought ‘toxic’ instruments such as Collateralized Deposit Obligations (CDOs) without being aware of the underlying risks. If you are not aware of the risk, you are vulnerable.
Fortunately, as part of our travel risk process, we had photocopies of our e-tickets with us and in the office. By a stroke of luck, my British passport was inside my jacket and I only lost my Sri Lankan passport. Photocopies of the latter were in my office for an emergency such as this.
On the journey from Amsterdam to Paris I chided myself for two minutes of error. I wondered whether it was fatigue which had led to this. Two weeks of travel to consumer fairs had left me tired. If I was fresh, I wondered whether I would have worn the pouch round my neck, irrespective of any false sense of reassurance that boarding would be safe and secure. The next date when I was more fresh, I could not be sure. I may still have put it away into the zipped compartment for easy retrieval once the luggage was on the rack. The risk here was ignorance that thieves operate freely when international passengers are boarding. The next time I will assume nothing.
In Paris, we visited the Police booth to file the loss of my passport. They filled in the loss of the passport but made no mention of the money which they considered history. Looking up, on the walls of the police station, I saw a poster of lost children. Suddenly the loss of a few hundred Euros seemed so insignificant. Europe is not safe as one would imagine. It has its share of thieves, child abductors and terrorists. Its all relative. Knowing the risks, whether in business or travel, helps one to deal with it.