Go. But be careful out there.

Times Staff Writer

Despite the Sept. 11 attacks and prospects of war, experts say Americans abroad are more apt to be victimized by a thief or con artist than by a terrorist.

"You can lose sleep over terrorism," says travel author Rick Steves, "but you're worrying about the wrong thing."

Cabbies in China who pass off fake yuan notes as change. Fleet-footed thieves in European airports who snatch purses from X-ray conveyor belts as owners go through secondary security checks. A camel driver at the Egyptian pyramids who offers to snap a tourist's photo, then demands $15 to return the camera.

"If there are three thieves in a town, you're going to meet them," says Seattle-based Steves, host of TV's "Rick Steves' Europe" and author of guidebooks including "Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door." "They go where you go, and they know you have money."

Though many of these scams are rare, their sheer number can be scary -- and make safety seem elusive. But experts point out that most travelers return home without incident.

"Violent crime has never crossed my mind," says Steves, who has led tours to the Continent for 25 years. "If you use common sense, you're safer in Europe than in the United States."

Kevin Coffey, of Calabasas, has been in law enforcement for 22 years and, as founder of Corporate Travel Safety, shows businesspeople how to stay safe. He agrees that petty thieves and con artists -- even someone as innocuous-looking as an old woman in a babushka -- can pose a risk. "You think, 'This is my grandmother. What could she do?' " he says.

A common ploy is to distract a tourist by creating a commotion and picking his pocket as he rubbernecks. "If an elderly woman is falling down an escalator in Munich," Steves says, "my first reaction is to step back and watch my valuables."

Steve Gillick, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of Travel Counselors, has written two booklets (available by e-mailing steve@citc.ca) describing 62 scams. He mentions Rome's "cardboard children," who descend in swarms around a tourist, plead for money or candy, and use cardboard to conceal their hands as they empty the overwhelmed victim's pockets; and the squirt-and-rob con, in which one person splashes the victim with mustard or some other substance, and a cohort picks the victim's pockets while helping her clean up.

Gillick has chronicled more refined cons, including one in which the assailant bumps a tourist, who in turn bumps an apparent bystander, knocking a parcel from her arms and breaking the contents. The bystander is the assailant's accomplice, and she demands reimbursement for the damaged goods.

"If it's a violin, it's a 'Stradivarius,' " Gillick says. "If it's a vase, it's a '15th century Ming vase.' "

Steves' Web site, http://www.ricksteves.com, hosts a "graffiti wall" where travelers post scam alerts. There are tales of young women holding babies in fake arms while their real arms are pilfering tourists' pockets, of ATMs booby-trapped to swallow bank cards. ("Shoulder surfing" thieves watch tourists key in their secret code, then later free the ATM card and loot the account.)

Despite these scams, experts say Americans abroad should not avoid contact with the locals.

"We need to approach people but be cautious of people approaching us," Coffey says, citing as an example someone who offers to take your picture -- and then runs off with your camera. "That scam works because the crook selects you, thinking this person is an easy con, or this person is a little older and isn't going to be able to chase me."

Coffey's Internet site, http://www.corporatetravelsafety.com, offers an audio book, "Traveler Beware! An Undercover Cop's Guide to Avoiding Pickpockets, Luggage Theft and Travel Scams" ($14.95).

"There are two types of crooks out there: opportunists and professional distraction thieves," Coffey says. The opportunist is easy to spot -- maybe a transient offering to help with luggage. But the pros "look like you and me. They may be women who've got their children with them."

Steves says most travelers mistakenly think pickpockets are mostly urchins in dingy, bedraggled outfits.

"The most common thieves working the buses or subways of Rome are well-dressed businessman types, or men or women dressed up as Western tourists," he says.

Even at a nice restaurant, a waiter may use credit-card skimmers, electronic devices that copy data off the card's magnetic strip. Often they are paid by criminals who reprogram the data onto a stolen card or create a duplicate card to sell. A variation: You give your credit card for payment, but someone else's invalid card is returned to you, wrapped inside the receipt.

Another scheme starts when a stranger strikes up a conversation. Soon a phony policeman appears, says he's after counterfeiters and asks to see everyone's money. The stranger hands over his cash, and it's returned. You hand over your money, and the men disappear.

At Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a different scam deprives UNESCO of funds earmarked for temple preservation. Guest-house operators and drivers of tuktuks (motorbike taxis) offer to pick up $40 three-day passes for temple admission. But what you get are recycled passes stamped with new dates.

U.S. State Department travel alerts (http://travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.html) include one about armed thieves working with Buenos Aires cabdrivers. When the cabby stops, the thief hops in. The passenger is robbed or forced to go to an ATM.

Another warns of pickpockets and security guards in China working together at tourist sites. And still another says Jamaican con artists are phoning relatives of visiting Americans, posing as police or doctors, and saying the visitor is in trouble and needs money sent.

There is no limit to the thieves' ingenuity. As a visitor sits window-side in a European cafe, she may find a man tapping on the glass, gesturing that he needs the time. He seems particularly dense and asks repeatedly. By the time she returns to her meal, an accomplice has lifted the woman's handbag.

Visitors to Greece report having a baby thrust into their arms while the "mother" vanishes into a shop. A second woman appears, screaming that her baby has been kidnapped. Tourists are bullied into paying off accomplices posing as witnesses.

Internet reports abound of the drugging of drinks in Mexico and the strong-arming of men lured into bars by pretty women. These incidents, though, are relatively rare.

"Use your common sense and you'll be fine," Gillick says. "If your sixth sense says, 'This is dangerous,' get out of there."

It's money, not hostility toward Americans, that makes you a target, Steves says. These criminals' attitude: I don't care about your politics. I want your wallet.

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