Columbia University senior Chinyere McKenzie had just gotten off the metro while studying abroad in Paris when she realized her phone was gone. Like so many other American students studying abroad, McKenzie had just become a victim of pickpocketing.
“It was near the Louvre, so it was a bit more of a touristy area ... I had just finished an Art Hum visit,” McKenzie said, referring to Columbia’s core class Art Humanities, which took trips to museums throughout the semester. While McKenzie was a Columbia student, she was abroad on a joint program with Penn in Paris.
“We were chatting really animatedly and not really paying attention to what was going on,” she said.
McKenzie checked the time on her phone before boarding the train, and when she got off to transfer, she realized her phone was gone.
“It had to have been [when I was] on the train,” McKenzie said. “So I got back on the train going the opposite direction, and I went back to the station. But of course there was no phone there.”
Like many other students who are pickpocketed, McKenzie did not see the person who pickpocketed her or feel when they took her phone out of her pocket.
“I was like, woah, my phone is gone. It’s probably been gone for a few minutes.”
McKenzie went to the metro’s information center and asked them if they had found a phone.
“After that, I was exceptionally cautious always, if my phone was in my pocket, to have my pocket zipped up, or to have it in my hand and holding it. Live and learn, right?”
McKenzie replaced her phone after the incident and discovered that the person who pickpocketed her had made phone calls on her phone. “When I replaced my phone, I had a couple voice messages from someone who was looking for them.”
McKenzie is not alone — pickpocketing is one of the leading crimes students face while studying abroad. Jaime Molyneux, the director of International Risk Management at Penn, cited opportunistic crime (pickpocketing, purse snatching, iPhone theft, backpack stealing), as the number one travel risk students encounter while abroad.
Molyneux mentioned Paris, France; Barcelona, Spain; Madrid, Spain and Gaborone, Botswana as the top cities where Penn students were pickpocketed while abroad. She noted that this also reflected Penn’s travel population, since most Penn students choose the big cities in Europe.
Generally, students do not report their stolen property to Penn, as it is often impossible to recover the property. However, “if the theft results in a safety or health issue, then I want to respond,” Molyneux said.
“We had a student who lost her mental health prescription medication,” Molyneux said. “I logged it as a mental health emergency.”
Molyneux also mentioned that she tries to help when students lose their passports so that the students can return home.
Penn Abroad requires all students to attend a pre-departure orientation meeting and/or complete online pre-departure modules. These modules inform students about how to prepare for studying abroad, culture shock and safety concerns.
“Foreign travelers are targeted because they’re not familiar with the environment, because they may not be as vigilant as they are in their home cities or their home towns,” Molyneux said. “It’s a new environment, and it’s exciting; it’s different; they’re looking around. They’re just not quite as self-aware as they would be when they’re walking a Philadelphia street.”
Molyneux also said that Penn students and Americans in general may be perceived, whether correctly or incorrectly, as wealthy and be targeted in that way.
Columbia junior Emily Clagett was also studying abroad on the same program as McKenzie when her phone was stolen on the metro.
“I was on the metro, and I was having a pretty bad week because my computer had crashed and a bunch of other stuff ... not having a good day; I was crying,” Clagett said. “I was a target, I guess, because I was crying and American and that’s a no-no.”
Clagett was on the phone with her mother, speaking through her headphones while her phone was in her pocket. “Usually I have my pocket zipped, but I was a little off on this particular Thursday.”
She observed some men on the metro that seemed a little suspicious. “I got a weird feeling. They started moving more around me,” Clagett said. “I felt one guy’s arm go up behind me.”
Clagett did not think much of it at the time, but as the metro doors opened, she realized that she could not hear her mother on the phone anymore. After finding that her phone was no longer in her pocket, Clagett hopped off the metro.
She called out, “Excusez-moi, puis-je peux avoir mon portable” (excuse me, can I have my phone) repeatedly in the direction of the men she had observed on the metro.
“I was already kind of crying, but then I started really crying,” she said. “This was the worst week, and it just got worse somehow.”
People saw her crying and asked if she was okay. Clagett explained to them that she was having a really bad day and that her phone had just been stolen.
Suddenly, one of the guys who pickpocketed her came back and asked if she wanted her phone back. When Clagett said she did, he gave her a drying rack he was carrying as collateral and went to retrieve her phone.
“He came back with my phone, and he gave it to me. And I gave him back his drying rack, and I said, ‘Merci,’” Clagett added.
Clagett thinks her pickpockets returned her phone because they felt bad for her. “It’s a funny story now.”
Molyneux explained how Penn Global’s website, as well ISOS, and the Department of State provide country-specific information for travelers. In the end, though, students have to be aware of their surroundings.
“If you don’t want it to get stolen, don’t take it,” Molyneux suggests. “If there’s a safe, use it. If there’s a lock, use it.”
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