My heart pounded, I began to sweat . . . my Apple was picked

I got off the metro, reached into my purse to get my sunglasses, and realized that my iPhone was gone. Even worse, I immediately knew when it was stolen and who took it.

iPhone Stolen on the Metro

We both love Spain. Lori has been many times – years ago for a two week high school trip and then a summer study abroad in college. Together, we had visited twice before this trip. So, getting robbed and experiencing the subsequent red tape in one of our favorite places was a huge downer.

We were two weeks in to our six week stay in Barcelona and used the metro regularly. While we waited for the L4 train to arrive at our home station, Sagrada Familia, I poked around on my iPhone. A lady came up close to me and asked which direction the metro went – it seemed like an odd question. Before the train arrived, I put my phone in my purse (a small cross body bag with a zipper). We got on the crowded metro and I stood against the wall. A tall young average-looking guy carrying a messenger bag stood next to me – very close. Over the past few months we had been on many crowded metros and I was used to standing uncomfortably close to strangers. I briefly wondered why he had a jacket, which was draped over the bag, as it was July. I even looked over at it a few times.

After three stops, we got off at a station we had been to many times before. As we rode up the escalator to the street, I reached into my purse to get my sunglasses and realized that my iPhone was gone. I told Michael and he immediately used his phone to access my ‘Find my iPhone’ account. I went through my purse to see if anything else was gone – all was there. I didn’t carry a wallet – my money and credit cards were safely tucked into an interior zipper pocket.

Barcelona metro

Be alert at all times on the metro!

Using Find my iPhone, Michael locked my phone and typed a message that would display on the screen when the thief tried to login. Here’s what he typed: Fucker! Crude, but very much what we were feeling at the time. We hoped that when the thief realized the phone was locked, he would throw it in the trash. We didn’t know if he exited at the same stop, so we went back into the metro to check the trash cans just in case – no luck. But we did see, for the first time in the metro, several uniformed police officers with German Shepherds – which made getting robbed in their presence feel even worse. (We later learned about the huge crime problem in Barcelona and how the police add security during the summer.)

Chasing an iPhone around Barcelona

You know how sometimes when you are in a stressful situation or crisis, you don’t think clearly. Well, that happened to us. Find my iPhone did its job and displayed a little dot on the map. So we took off to find it. First we went the wrong direction on the metro and had to get back on again. We finally got to the spot, which was one metro stop away, near Passeig de Gracia, we walked toward the dot. When we arrived, we were at a small government building with an outdoor café. Ok– so we found the location of the dot, but how the heck do we find the phone? We looked around for a while – on tables, in trash cans, by bushes. Then logic snapped into place and we realized that the phone could be anywhere – inside the building, in a parked car, in someone’s pocket – and in that case, we would never find it.

Michael refreshed the screen and we found that the phone had moved, so off we went (still not thinking clearly). As we roamed around the city like dumb asses, Michael’s cell minutes started to run out and we had connectivity and service problems. We went to the Apple store to go online and check the location and headed out again (why didn’t we just stop). After wasting several hours, we realized that Find my iPhone would not help us find my iPhone, so we went back to the Apple store to ask the staff a few questions and see the price for a new phone.

Thank you Apple

The Apple staff member gave us some great advice. He told us to report the theft to our mobile carrier so they could deactivate the IMEI number. When an IMEI number is deactivated, if anyone tries to get service on the phone, they won’t be able to (carriers check the IMEI number before activating service). He also suggested that we file a police report. Luckily, there was a police station across the street at Placa Catalunya.

Police Report

The police station was busy with other tourists like us who had been robbed in Barcelona. We saw a man from Korea who was robbed at the train station on his way to Madrid (the thief got his passport, money, and credit cards). There was a couple (mid 50s from the US or Canada) who were with a tour group and had their bag snatched. The one that bugged me was a crying girl in her early 20s from the UK wearing a sun dress who said that a group of men ‘touched’ her.

The police were organized, professional, and helpful – there was even an interpreter who helped us complete the report. It took a while, but we filed the report and left with a hard copy. We figured there was a slim chance that they would recover the phone, but you never know. We also planned to submit the report when we filed a claim with our travel insurance carrier.

In the midst of the anger and frustration, there was one thing that made me feel good. We saw the kindness of strangers who reached out to help others. I pondered asking the crying girl if I could help, when a woman (the one waiting to file her own report) went over, put her arm around her and offered comfort. A couple came in and offered to help the Korean man – they did not know him, but saw him get robbed.

After all this, we were angry – at the a-hole who robbed me (may he suffer pain and misfortune very soon) and ourselves for letting it happen. So, we headed for a bar on Las Ramblas.

drowning our sorrows after getting robbed

Drowning our sorrows with our remaining iPhone after getting robbed

Replacement Cell Phone

Since I would be traveling for four more months, I couldn’t wait to get a new phone. At the Apple store, the lowest priced iPhone was 567 Euro – ouch. So Michael called our cell carrier, Verizon, to see if we could get a better price. Luckily it was close to the contract anniversary date, so Michael asked if they would offer the low price a few weeks early – they said yes (thanks Verizon!). We purchased the phone, had it shipped to a family member’s home, walked them through how to activate it on a Skype call (the phone had to be activated in the US or it wouldn’t work), and asked them to send it to us in Spain. Sounds easy – right… wrong.

Red Tape and Pricey Import Tax

Getting robbed was bad enough, but the package release delay and high import taxes made things even worse. We had the phone shipped to an authorized DHL shipping center (PC Box) across the street from our flat so we wouldn’t have to worry about being home to sign for it (we had something shipped there the previous week and it worked out fine).

When the package arrived in Spain, DHL contacted us to request documentation before they would release it. Michael had to email photos of his passport and the iPhone receipt; we also included the police report and letter asking that they waive any fees due to the theft. DHL finally released the phone several days later on a Friday afternoon. They advised that they would not deliver until Monday, but we could go to the airport to pick up – we opted for pick up. We got ready and headed out… When we were in the street hailing a cab, DHL called to say that they had delivered the package. Whaaat?

We crossed the street and went into PC Box where the DHL driver presented a duty invoice for Euro 161.88 (roughly $213 – more than the cost of the phone). When my family shipped the phone, DHL advised that there may be import taxes, so I was prepared to pay some type of fee – but not an outrageous amount. I was mad! Something did not seem right, so began to research customs duties and import taxes in Spain. Here are the highlights of my research and findings into the annoying world of shipping merchandise to Spain (and Europe).


Beware of high EU import taxes

EU Customs Duties and Import Taxes

The European Commission Taxation and Customs Union governs customs duties and import taxes in the EU. On the website, I saw information about duty relief under special circumstances, so I wrote to them for assistance. Here’s what they said… mobile phones are not subject to customs duties but they are subject to import taxes. On the DHL invoice, it was unclear what they charged me (customs duties or import tax or both).

I contacted DHL US and DHL Spain multiple times and went all the way up to the Spain General Manager before they assisted. Along the way I experienced broken website forms, staff who ignored me, and staff who referred me to other departments who ignored me or referred me back to the previous department. DHL did not charge me customs duties; they charged an import tax based on the value of the item as marked on the air bill. Since I didn’t tell my family member what to write on the air bill, he made his best guess, which turned out to be way more than I paid for the phone. But remember, we sent the purchase receipt to DHL and they opted to use the higher amount on the air bill instead of the actual purchase price. DHL finally agreed to their error and sent me a partial refund of 71.41 Euro (roughly $93).

A Little Rant about EU Taxes
Most personal goods that travelers bring into the country in their luggage are not taxed. Travelers can get a VAT refund for qualifying goods purchased in the EU and brought out of the country. So, why does the EU tax personal goods shipped to travelers that they will bring out of the country? They shouldn’t – especially when the shipped good is a replacement for a documented theft in their country. I was curious about US import taxes, so I checked and found that they are just as high for goods coming in from the EU. Ok – I’m done…

Travel Insurance Claim

We filed a claim with our travel insurance provider, Allianz, and they reimbursed the cost of the phone, but not the cost of the shipping and import taxes.

Trying to Take Positive Action

Instead of just being angry and upset, I thought I would try to do something positive. If tourist crime is so high in Barcelona and the police can’t be everywhere, a logical action is to raise public awareness so tourists can protect themselves. I remembered a funny sign we saw on a Bangkok street that made an impression. I also remembered a friend’s Facebook posting of a crime prevention sign in a U.S. subway reminding people to protect their cell phones and tablets. Someone started a Facebook page in Buenos Aires, Pickpockets in the Subway that posts photos of pickpockets caught in the act.

Tourist awareness sign in Bangkok

Alert sign in Bangkok


crime prevention photo maryland

Crime prevention efforts in Maryland

I thought – Barcelona can do something similar – and I am happy to help. So, I did some research and found two organizations I hoped might be interested in public awareness efforts: Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona and Barcelona Turisme. I sent an email to offer suggestions and volunteer my assistance. I never heard back from Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona. Barcelona Turisme replied six weeks later with a nice, professional email, but was not interested.

Lessons Learned from Getting Robbed while Traveling

We did some things right. I had my cash and credit cards in an interior zipped pocket in my purse. We had a cell phone tracking program which we used to immediately disable the phone and prevent the thief from accessing personal information. We reported the stolen phone to our cell carrier. We filed a police report. We had travel insurance and got reimbursed for the cost of the phone.

We did some things wrong. We got robbed in the first place. Lori was complacent and didn’t listen to her gut when it tried to tell her something wasn’t right on the metro. We had a replacement phone shipped to Spain and paid high shipping and import taxes, which were not reimbursed by insurance.

Barcelona statue

It can happen to you…

Tourist Crime in Barcelona

If you are thinking, ‘this won’t happen to me,’ please think again. While I beat myself up for being a stupid tourist I did some research and found that Barcelona has a very high tourist crime rate. iPhones are particularly at risk and stolen regularly- there is even a term for it – Apple Picking. I found many stories about experienced travelers like me who were robbed in Barcelona, along with some useful tips.

During the weeks following the theft I was angry and suspicious of everyone. And that made me even angrier. The feelings were further compounded by the challenges getting the replacement phone. It is five months later and the anger has subsided, but I would still love to see the thief get what he deserves.

When you plan a trip to this wonderful city (or any other international destination), it is highly possible that you may be a target for theft. Hopefully this post can help you avoid some of the problems I experienced…

Tips to Prevent Theft and Minimize Loss if you are Robbed

Before you leave home

Girls – buy a security purse. Guys – buy a security man bag (they are big in Europe). Yes, they are not the most fashionable accessories, but I would rather protect my belongings than wear a cute bag. Here are some options: Travelon Anti-Theft Mini Shoulder Bag or Travelon Anti-Theft Cross-Body Bucket Bag or Pacsafe CitySafe. For extra protection, get a small luggage lock and put it on the latch. Michael brought a security man bag with latch and wire strap (there’s wire inside the fabric strap, so it can’t be cut). After I got robbed, we carried all valuables in his bag and used the luggage lock on metros.

Look up the IMEI number of your phone. Here’s how: in your phone, go to Settings – General – About. Take a photo of the screen and write down the number. Also write down all of the key information (cell model, mobile carrier phone number, etc.). (Note: We did not do this but were able to get the number from our cell carrier.)

Adjust your phone’s security settings. There are some good options like changing the access code from four to more digits, which can minimize hacking. You can also set the phone to lock up after a certain number of failed login attempts.

Install a tracking program on your cell phone. But, be realistic about what it will actually do. We used Find my iPhone and yes, it displayed a little dot on a map that told us the general location of the phone, but when we got there, it was pretty useless. You will never find the phone unless the thief is standing on the corner holding it. The phone could be anywhere – inside a building, in a car, in a trash can, in someone’s pocket or purse, etc. The features we found useful were the ability to lock the phone and display a message. After we filed the police report, we changed the message to offer a reward for the phone’s return. So let’s say the thief throws it away and someone finds it and connects to an unsecure wi fi network, the reward message will display.

Backup your cell phone!!! Set it for daily backups and ensure you connect to the Internet each day so the backup runs. For iPhone, use iCloud. I got all of my data back except for the photos I took the previous day because I hadn’t been on the Internet since taking them.

Protect your belongings: consider getting travel insurance.

While you travel:

  • Don’t carry your passport unless necessary – lock it in the hotel safe.
  • Carry valuables in your anti-theft travel bag.
  • Don’t ever, ever, ever set your valuables, especially iPhone, on a restaurant table – ever (although Michael still tends put his phone in front of him when seated at a bar – we are working on it).

If you are robbed or lose your cell phone:

  • Immediately activate your tracking program.
  • Immediately call your mobile carrier to report the theft and have them deactivate the IMEI.
  • File a police report.
  • Change the password for any apps that are logged in on your phone.
  • If you need to get a new phone before you go home and you have travel insurance, it may be better to lay out more money up front and buy a phone abroad instead of doing what we did. Because the insurance policy didn’t cover shipping and import taxes, we only got a partial reimbursement. Whereas, if we bought the phone in Spain, we would have been fully reimbursed, got the phone quicker, and saved a huge amount of stress. Ask your insurance carrier what they cover and ask the cell phone store if the phone will work in your home country so you can make the most economical decision.