Robbed Abroad. What Would You Do?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Imagine you are in another country and your wallet gets stolen. It’s Friday night and your bank not only cancels your card but also blocks your account. All you have is a cell phone. What are you gonna do?

Recently, I received a text from a friend whose wallet was stolen in a European city. She had been guarding her wallet and always hid it in hard-to-get places in her backpack. But arriving at the airport and being tired and distracted, she did not hide her wallet in the usual place. When she got off the bus, there was no more wallet.

We’re not here to help

Fortunately, she had her phone and in that phone are her contacts. She was able to connect with the bank to report the card and block the card (note, that menas that you can’t use your credit card even when you have it digitally on your phone), but the bank employee gave her a hard time as she didn’t answer one of the security questions right in the stress after losing her wallet. So what does the bank guy do, comfortably sitting in the call centre far away and waiting to go home for a lukewarm Molson at the end of his shift? He refuses to help her further. And not only that, he actually blocked her account.

Which my friend didn’t realise the impact of until she was going to get on line to access her bank account. Now she couldn’t even transfer money anymore. Back to calling the bank again. Another person at the other end and, as you know how it goes, my friend had to tell the whole story again. The second person couldn’t unblock the account either but was going to connect her with someone else, person #3 by now.

Aix-en-Provence, France

Scanning a passport remotely

Person 3 was more helpful and was going to send my friend a link to an app that she had to download and that app would help unblock the account by remotely scanning her passport. Did that work?

No it didn’t.

They tried e-very-thing. My friend was to hold her passport in front of her cell phone, the scan would then be made. But it didn’t. She tried stepping back with her passport, tried getting closer again, tried more light, tried less light, but the app refused to scan her passport. Eventually it worked and the account was being unblocked.

But that didn’t mean she had access to her money, because she didn’t have a debit or credit card to take money out. (North American debit cards rarely work abroad anyway). The bank for some reason could not ship a new card either. So yeah, those helpful banks with their slick commercials. Blocking the account also means that automatic payments such as hydro and property tax and rent don’t happen anymore. And those services start to apply late fees.

The one time you really, really need your bank they block your account and hang up. Bonne Notte.

A moment of reflection

I am going to stop here temporarily and ask you what you would do next? Your accommodation is paid for in advance, it is Friday night in Europe, and you have no money. What are you going to do?

A eries of bike racks for a bike share company in front of a flower shop in France
Paris, France

Wise card

My friend had heard of a so-called WISE card, a virtual card that you preload and that resides on your cell phone. She had set one up with some money before she left. This helped, but the Wise card is not always accepted, she learned the hard way. But still no cash in hand.

Fortunately, my friend is resourceful and likes a challenge. After some online searching “how to get cash abroad” she found Western Union money transfers. I had heard of Western Union before but I have always associated the company with rural African villages and women carrying jugs of water on their head. Perhaps they ran a campaign with images that made me think of that, but I never looked into it or gave it any thought.

I have travelled myself quite a bit in the early nineties, when mail was sent poste restante and phone calls were made collect call for 3 minutes from a hole in the wall in Thiruvananthapuram. I travelled together with my cousin and we each carried considerable amounts (as in thousands of US dollars) in Travellers Cheques in our waist belt as well as a credit card, cash and passport. We slept with the waste belt under our pillow and never took it off, other than in the shower and at night.

A text out of nowhere

And then I got that text message from my friend. I knew it wasn’t a scam because she was in my phone contacts, and we talked the strategy through (love Whatsapp for that – no direct cost for calls abroad). If I could go to a Western Union and transfer money, she would immediately transfer money back from her account into mine. So I Googled where I could find a Western Union agent nearby and it turns out they are everywhere. There are half a dozen on Merivale Road, I didn’t even have to jump in the car. Meanwhile she was able to transfer the amount into my account.

An art installation with a blog type fantasy animal with a big nose. Next to the fiure sits the a man  in shorts and a white Tshirt with a bike and the letters HFX on his chest
Leiden, Netherlands

I biked to the Food Basics but they couldn’t help me because “the printer is broken“.


The friendly employee referred me to another place down Merivale Road: “I always go there myself“. However, I remember I’d also seen a Western Union on Google maps at Walmart across the street, so I unlocked my bike and cycled across the Loblaws parking lot to the Walmart parking lot at the other side of Baseline. Yes, I am surrounded by box stores. And half a dozen Western Union agents I now know.

Easy process

When I walked into Walmart I realised I had no idea where to go, but I figured my best bet was the customer service and indeed, that is where they helped me. I was impressed that the entire system is fully integrated in the Walmart terminals, no corner desk to be dusted off first. They needed my identification and the receiver’s name.

They also needed the country and city where the money was going to be picked up as well as the address of my friend where she stayed. Which I didn’t know, so I had to call while being at the desk. That took too long, so the system logged out on the Walmart employee, but when I returned all info was fortunately still in the system. Then it is a matter of swiping your debit or credit card and they print off a unique number, about 10 digits long.

Check for cash payouts

I shared the unique number with my friend who needed to show it at the receiving end. Meanwhile it was evening in Europe, so she had to wait until the next day, but in theory it will be instantly. One thing we didn’t know was if she could get the amount in cash, because remember she had no card to take money out. Would she get her money?

Of course, the service is not free, but considering what they provide it wasn’t bad. I don’t remember the exact amounts but I think it was a total of something like 6-7%, likely also depending on the amount. There was a fee on my end and the exchange rate is not the most favourable for you, but hey, how else do you get cash to another place instantly?

Fortunately they did pay in cash at the other end and the next morning my friend walked away with fresh cash. Her trip was saved.

A display full of colourful foods, several open face sandwiches with salmon, leafy greens and cheese as well as asparages
Copenhagen, Denmark

Don’t rely on your cell phone alone

Luckily the story has a happy end, but it really made us realise how important it is that you have phone numbers and some cash and backups stored in different places. I have to admit I hardly know any phone numbers by heart anymore. I know my aunt’s number (3584) from when I was young and my other aunt’s (3212) but those numbers are obviously long obsolete.

Of course, we have backups of some data in the cloud, but try to get to a public computer on a Friday night in another country. Good luck with that! In fact, I don’t even know a single phone number of someone in the GTA by heart anymore. If I’d lose my phone and money in Toronto, I’d be totally lost and would have to stay under a bridge for the night, without food.

Train my brain

I promised myself to make sure I know my passwords and several phone numbers by heart from now on. But at my age, it may require a bit more training than when my grandma (phone nr. 3065) was still alive.

Before you head off to a Western Union (or similar services), make sure you know:

  1. If they can receive the money in cash at the other end
  2. What the address is of the requesting friend abroad
  3. That you bring ID of yourself
  4. And of course that you are really talking (don’t rely on texting alone) to your friend or family

Enjoying my blog? You can now buy me a coffee.

Last note: I didn’t get any payments for this article.

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