$4,000 charged to my stolen credit cards within an hour

A view of St Petersburg, Russia. For two hours in Russia, the author had no passport, no wallet and no credit cards.
A view of St Petersburg, Russia. For two hours in Russia, the author had no passport, no wallet and no credit cards. PHOTO: CTC TRAVEL

For two hours in Russia, I had no passport, no wallet and no credit cards.

I was pickpocketed in St Petersburg during a month-long trip from Istanbul to Dublin in April and May. And it ruined the whole trip.

On the morning of my second last day in the city, my travel companion and I had boarded a crowded public bus on our way to breakfast.

After paying with a bus pass, I slotted it into my travel pouch, which also contained my wallet and passport. I then slipped the pouch into my shoulder bag, zipped it up from front to back - leaving the zipper puller behind me - and slung it over my shoulder.

Mistake No. 1: I did not wear the travel pouch. Reason: Wearing it can be mildly uncomfortable because of its weight.

Mistake No. 2: I left the zipper puller behind me. Reason: I am lazy and it is just easier to zip the bag from front to back.

No surprise as to what happened next. As I stood, looking at my phone and deciding what delicious tart to eat for breakfast, a pickpocket unzipped my bag and removed my pouch.

 

I had no idea what had happened until I saw a bus conductor come onboard two stops later. I reached for my pouch and found it missing.

Immediately, I panicked. I looked around. The other passengers did not appear suspicious.

Who was the culprit? Was he or she still on the bus? I did not know.

In those first few seconds, I stood shocked, at a loss of what to do. But I knew I had to react. And quickly.

I alerted my travel companion, got off the bus and we ran back to our hostel for help.

My mobile phone - which, thankfully, was still with me - had a Russian SIM card which could not make calls to Singapore.

While running, a million thoughts raced through my head. I had no passport, no wallet, no credit cards - what was I going to do? Could I continue the trip? How would I get home?

Reaching the hostel, I immediately informed the Singapore embassy in Russia that my passport was lost.

My passport, I thought, was the most valuable item - news reports say a Singapore passport can command $30,000 to $50,000 on the black market - and should be reported first.

But while I was on the phone with the embassy, the pickpocket was apparently swiping my credit cards.

By the time I called the banks to cancel my cards, the culprit had already charged more than $4,000 to them - $3,000 at a grocery store and $1,000 at a beauty salon.

My third call was to the Russian police. They could not speak English, but a staff from my hostel helped me report the lost items.

An hour later, a policeman called, asking us to meet him in a police car below the hostel. He took my statement in the car.

After this was done, he opened his glove compartment and - to my surprise - took out my pouch and handed it to me. My wallet was gone but my passport was there. The thief apparently took the cash and charged my cards, but decided to leave the passport and pouch in a McDonald's outlet, where the staff handed it to the police.

I was lucky. If the thief had taken my passport, I would have had to cancel the rest of the trip and return to Singapore.

I had enough cash to continue my trip and I never felt so relieved in my life.

When I returned to Singapore, I entered into disputes with the banks which issued my credit cards and these took four months to resolve.

Thankfully, I did not have to pay for the unauthorised transactions.

The final damage? About $800 of long-distance phone calls to report the loss of my items, get them replaced and assist with investigations.

Although I have travel insurance, it does not cover phone calls for non-medical emergencies.

Looking back, the whole experience was a lot of trouble because of one moment's carelessness.

I have learnt my lesson. The next time I travel, I will make sure I wear my travel pouch at all times, however uncomfortable it is.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline '$4,000 charged to my stolen credit cards within an hour'. Print Edition | Subscribe