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Backpack stolen in Koln train station

Our son is working in Germany for three years so we went for a visit. This was our first trip to Europe. Taking a quick coffee break before our train left for Bruges resulted in our son's backpack being stolen in McDonald's in the Koln train station. We did several things wrong so want to help others not make our mistakes. On the train from Oberwesel to Koln, our son put his wallet, passport, keys and rail pass in his back pack planning on taking them back out again as soon as we got to Koln. He forgot. We got a coffee and sat down in McDonalds. My husband and I had our suitcase stuffed under the table but my son took off his backpack and leaned it against his leg. Big mistake. This McDonalds has a door to the outside as well as one into the train station. There was a classic 'disturbance' that drew our attention away for about 5 seconds. I remember thinking 'Oh oh, disturbance.' but never dreamed we were the mark. And just like that the backpack was gone. All ID, money, credit cards, rail pass, work permit, passport, keys.....thankfully he had his phone in his pocket. We looked everywhere - bathrooms, trash bins, behind pillars - it was gone. He went to the police station in the train station and filed a police report, then started the process of canceling cards, replacing locks on his apartment and letting his employer know office keys were stolen. We were relieved that his apartment was not broken into before we got there and had new locks installed. Without a credit or debit card and no cash it was good we were visiting. Everything had to be paid in cash which he could not access without ID. He had made copies of his passport and birth certificate which was crucial in getting a new passport. Instead of enjoying chocolate and beer in Belgium we headed to the US Embassy. At the Embassy he was told the police are investigating the extraordinary number of passport thefts occurring in the Koln train station. He could not get a temporary passport because he lives and works in Germany therefore it was not an emergency. Now, 3 weeks later, his new passport has arrived, credit cards have been replaced and, incredibly, the back pack was recovered by the police. The only items stolen were the passport, work visa and cash. That certainly reinforces what the Embassy told him was happening - widespread passport theft. The worry about what that passport and visa will be used for is on our minds. The whole experience was extremely stressful as well as expensive - all the replacement fees plus new locks totaled about $1100 US dollars.

SO learn from our lack of vigilance and DO NOT let your backpack, purse, suitcase out of your hands. Wear a money belt. Don't be distracted. Other than this happening we had a fantastic trip to Germany. We loved Koln the most. The Dom cathedral is just spectacular. Munich was very, very crowded and we visited on a record heat day. Without air conditioning we were melting. I would like to visit again in a cooler season. Dachau was sobering and well worth the battling the heat to visit. Rothenburg is a fun, interesting village. It is off the beaten path and was not crowded at all. We would not have needed hotel reservations. The ICE trains are so fast you feel like you're flying. We did upgrade to first class and feel it was worth the extra cost particularly on the regional trains. They were packed and often we could not sit together. First class was less chaotic and we were assured three seats together. I was surprised the train announcements were not in English on the regional trains. We had to be sure we knew exactly what the train station names were so we wouldn't miss a stop. We found that German's speak English in the tourist areas but not in local areas such as the grocery store, bakery, some shops. We had fun trying out our limited German.

Posted by
23412 posts

Sorry to hear of your loss. It seems that you have identified the weak points in your trip and what caused you (your son) to become the target.

You have good advice here.

Your son probably had been seen on the train putting everything into the backpack and followed onto the station.

Others will learn from your loss - you are right that it was really good luck that you were there to be able to help....

Posted by
15574 posts

I was in that Mickey D's 2 1/2 weeks ago to get our breakfast when we we balked at the 12 euro breakfast offered by our hotel across Breslauer Platz. Went in through that outside door.
I guess your son has got his "welcome to Europe". It is a royal pain replacing all the documents and stuff. Glad it hasn't completely spoiled your attitude.

Even Germans get screwed up at times on the trains. We were on a regional from Stuttgart to Rottweil and for some of the smaller burgs, you have to press a button by the door to signal the driver you want to get off at the next stop. If nobody does, and nobody signals from the platform, the train just goes on by without slowing down. The gal sitting in front of us was zoned out on her I-Pod, when she perked up and asked the guy across the aisle (in German) if were near so-and-so yet. He answered we had just passed it. "Scheisse!" she jumped up and got her stuff. Nothing to do now but get off at the next stop and wait for the next train going the other way.

Posted by
12091 posts

Hi,

Thanks for reporting. Unfortunately, I have seen American kids put all their valuables (rail pass, tablet, passport, wallet, etc) in their backpack/day pack. That's the first item to be targeted. It's the main reason why I don't carry a day pack. Those items, the passport, wallet, keys, at least one credit card, stay on your person.

Your train experience in Germany was basically what I observed and experienced in June too. Don't expect the all announcements to be given in English if you need that. That applies to ICE trains too. The regional trains don't have announcements in English, you look at the electronic screen. True that the ICE trains were often packed. Don't expect to sit together all the time.

Posted by
1845 posts

Thank you for posting; lots of good advice given from the voice(s) of experience. I am sorry this happened to your family but hopefully others can and will learn from your story.

Posted by
30932 posts

Thanks for posting as this is a good reminder to always be vigilant in Europe, as there WILL be scammers about.

The main thing that stands out in this story is that he had crucial items (Passport, work permit and keys) stored in a Backpack. That's about the worst place to put valuables, as Backpacks are a frequent target for thieves and the "distraction" method is often used to "pinch" them because it works! If your Son is going to be in Germany for awhile, he might want to invest in a Money Belt and keep important documents there when he's travelling about.

If there were no documents in the Backpack with your Son's address in Germany, the keys would likely be of no use to thieves as they'd have no idea where the locks were located.

Posted by
56 posts

All sound advice here...all it takes is one moment to be victimized and it's hard to maintain that vigilance 24/7.

In my large, soft-sided backpack I keep clothes and non-essentials so if I hoist it above me on the train and decide to take a nap, the items a would-be thief would get are dirty clothes and a used toothbrush. No money, passport, credit cards, tickets, etc.

My day bag has an extra layer of clothing, hat, water bottle, maps / travel guide and a small, cheap digital camera.

On my person (I use a belt-loop money belt) is my passport, money, credit cards. My cell phone is in a zippered pocket.

No system is fool proof...and kudos for not letting this incident spoil your trip!