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The weird (and not so weird) ways travelers hide cash

For at least a few Americans, the summer travel packing list includes strong tape or a portable safety deposit box.
/ Source: CNBC

For at least a few Americans, the summer travel packing list includes strong tape or a portable safety deposit box.

Keeping credit cards, cash, passports and other valuables safe while traveling is—no surprise—something travelers think a lot about. About half of travelers in a recent PayPal survey cited the security of their cash, credit and debit cards as a "big concern," and 44 percent said they worry about their personal financial information. (The survey polled 1,011 adults but focused on a subset of 219 who said they plan to visit Europe.)

But it's how people are planning to keep their stuff secure that's a bit sticky.

A little more than a third of those planning to travel report sporting a fanny pack or neck wallet "at all times" while vacationing, and 3.4 percent say they have traveled with their own safety deposit box, according to the survey. Another 7.5 percent have taken more extreme measures: actually taping cash to their bodies. And 2.5 percent say they've traveled with a security guard.

Most of those strategies are overkill, say both travel and security experts. "It simply isn't that bad," said pickpocketing expert Bob Arno, co-author of "Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons and Street Scams While Traveling."

People tend to extrapolate reports of problems—like the recent Eiffel Tower shutdown as workers protested a rise in pickpockets, or the Miami-Dade Police Department sting to catch airport workers stealing from luggage—into a broader paranoia, he said. While vigilance is important, there are more reasonable behavior changes and tricks that go further in reducing your risk. (See graphic below for some of the best and worst places to keep valuables on your person.)

One easy fix: limit potential losses. Thieves target tourists specifically because they tend to carry a lot of cash, said Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer's. "If you're carrying a big wad of cash, and that goes missing, it's gone," she said.

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Once you're at your destination, it's smarter to carry only as much cash as you need for a particular excursion, along with a credit card. Plastic wins against cash on two fronts. Not only do credit cards have fraud protections in place in the event of theft, but they also offer some of the best currency exchange rates around—much better than you'd get changing bills at a bank or exchange kiosk.

Put in the room safe or hotel safety deposit box anything you don't need immediately on hand, she said, including your passport, a backup credit card or two, your debit card and any extra cash. (Before leaving home, weed out anything unnecessary for travel. Certain items, like your Social Security card, should never be in your wallet.)

Be cautious, too, about more creative hiding places like under the hotel mattress or taped beneath the driver's seat of the rental car. Like people who hide cash around their house, travelers run the risk of losing or forgetting their haul, Frommer said. Send yourself an email reminder or set a calendar alert on your phone to collect everything.

While you're out and about, an unobtrusive money pouch that fits under your clothing is one of the smarter investments, said security specialist Marc Weber Tobias, president of Investigative Law Offices in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It's much less likely to be grabbed than an openly worn item like a purse or a fanny pack.

Some models can be worn around the neck and tucked under a shirt, others fit inside your waistband. Just make sure it's something that's not too awkward for you to access.

"My big issue with money belts or taping it to yourself is that at some point you're going to be needing that money," said Frommer. "And then you're going to find yourself in a public place trying to disrobe, or reaching into an awkward spot."

Prefer your usual wallet, purse or backpack? Go ahead, so long as you're vigilant.

"Thieves are smart at evaluating who you are," Arno said. "They're going to pick the weakest link or the most valuable link." That's the person who puts their wallet or smartphone in an easier-to-steal-from back pocket rather than one in the front. Or the tourist in the crowd who doesn't have an arm on her purse but leaves it casually slung off a shoulder.

Even something as simple as zip pockets on shirts and pants can be a worthwhile upgrade, said Tobias, because it creates an access barrier for thieves. "The more layers you have to stop the bad guys from getting it, the better," he said.