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A cautionary tale for travelers

I received an email from my brother Andrew this week from Cape Town, South Africa, his first stop of a two-week vacation, telling me his iPhone was stolen. He was pickpocketed in downtown Cape Town.

It was the second day of his visit to the city, so he was accustomed to people coming up to him trying to sell souvenirs or begging for a handout. While on a walking tour in the early afternoon, someone stopped right in front of him and pushed something into his chest. When he pushed the person away, his hands came out of his pocket where one had been resting on his iPhone. A few moments later he realized the iPhone had been picked from his pocket.

He went to a nearby police station, thinking it might be useful to file a police report, if nothing more than for insurance purposes. He had phone insurance through Verizon, but wasn’t sure of the details of its coverage.

A police sergeant at the station took his report, writing everything down in longhand very slowly. About 45 minutes later he left the station and called Verizon from his friend’s phone. Verizon deactivated his stolen phone and told him he could keep his number to use when he gets a replacement.

By this time panic began to set in as Andrew realized his phone had everything on it for his personal and business needs for the next two weeks: contact info, itineraries, reservations, calendar, access to his business portal, his camera, maps, and the only means to stay in contact with his travel group and everyone back home.

He decided to visit a phone store and buy a new phone, and found an iStore in a local shopping mall. (iStore is a worldwide network of stores authorized to sell Apple products.)  He took along his iPad, thinking it might be useful to have with him.

Andrew purchased a new iPhone, but it first had to be configured for the Verizon network. (iPhones work on all carriers but require customization to the carrier’s specific requirements). Andrew’s friend meanwhile contacted a Verizon agent on her phone from the store to get help with the configuration process. The Verizon agent said she would first need to verify his identity by contactong one of the others on his account that he shared with his kids.

She provided him a list of phone numbers and asked which one to contact.  Andrew realized that he didn’t know which number belonged to who and who was available to verify. Fortunately, he had his iPad with him and was able to get the information and communicate with them by text, alerting them of his situation. His daughter then received an email from Verizon, but they got no response because she didn’t realize she needed to click on a link before it would verify. Next they tried his son, but before he would verify, he emailed Andrew to be sure this wasn’t a scam.

Adding to the pressure, the Verizon agent said that if after four attempts she couldn’t verify the account, Andrew would have to wait 24 hours before trying again. Finally, after a series of back and forth texts, the Verizon agent was able to proceed and configure his phone. Next it required activation.

Still on the phone with the Verizon agent, Andrew asked if she could now connect the phone to his old number and activate it so that it could be used on his trip. She said that he would need to go to a Verizon store to do that. When Andrew reminded her he was calling from South Africa, she said he’d have to wait until he was back in the U.S.

Andrew persisted, asking if there was anything she could do. She said she’d attempt to send an eSim card to his phone over the air, but it rarely is successful. After a few minute wait, to everyone’s surprise, his phone displayed cell service!

The apps and data that were stored in Andrew’s iCloud account began to reappear on the new phone. The phone showed it was on Verizon’s travel pass just as he had on his original phone. The address book reappeared and the remaining apps loaded. Everything eventually restored, including his photo album, except for the pictures he had taken earlier that day.

When you think about it, it is really a marvel how the various cellular networks, software, and cellular equipment all worked together to create an exact clone of his stolen phone, seven-thousand miles from home, all in an hour, and just three hours after the phone was stolen. Technology usually does not work so perfectly and he was very lucky.

As to the insurance coverage for his stolen phone, Verizon’s insurance is provided by Asurion. The only thing they will do is ship Andrew a new or factory refurbished phone of the same model as the stolen one and only send it to his home address in the U.S., after paying a $229 deductible. They will not provide any reimbursement toward the phone that he bought.

An important take away from Andrew’s experience is that we should travel with more than one device, such as a computer or tablet, that will still allow us to access to our accounts and other important information, should our phone be lost or stolen. In this case much of his data was in the cloud and accessible from his iPad. He was able to use iMessage and could use his iPad for making calls using apps relying on WiFi, such as WeChat or Skype. Also, this experience says why we still need to carry physical credit cards and not rely on our phone’s digital wallet.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to wear a jacket, pants or other clothing with zippered or velcroed pockets to resist being pickpocketed. Coincidently, I shopped for travel pants last month in preparation for an upcoming trip and after a lot of research I purchased these travel pants  from ScottEVest, designed specifically for this purpose. They have plenty of zippered pockets and are made from an easily washable and wrinkle-free fabric, specifically designed for traveling.