Is a Decoy Wallet a Brilliant Idea or an Invitation for Disaster?

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We are currently preparing for an upcoming trip to Bogotá, Colombia.  In chatting with a friend who’s visited Colombia a number of times, he mentioned his favorite restaurants, which museums and stores he thought that we would enjoy and that he used to carry a stunt wallet in Colombia.  All of the tips were helpful, but what I really wanted to know more about was – what’s a stunt wallet?

He went on to explain that his stunt wallet was actually a cheap money-clip that he wrapped some Colombian Pesos (he said that he could be generous here given an extremely favorable exchange rate at the time) around some expired credit cards and an old hotel room key.  He said the strategy is that if you’re mugged you can hand over the stunt wallet and hold on to the important stuff – government issued ID, active credit cards, health insurance card, cruise ID (for us Frequent Floaters), etc.

Well this quick conversation sent me down a rabbit hole filled mostly with old posts on reddit where there are countless discussions around stunt wallets or sometimes called dummy or decoy wallets.  A few recurring themes jumped out to me:

  • Most commenters were young, many in college, living college lifestyles
  • Many were staying in hostiles or other extremely inexpensive lodging options in dodgy neighborhoods
  • Lots of comments mentioned going out drinking late at night on their own, some even offered advice on making sure their drinks don’t get spiked
  • The “use cases” generally involved walking at night, though a number went into harrowing stories of taxi robberies in heavy traffic in Brazil
  • There were also stunt phone mentions in parts of the world where “apple picking” is common
  • Actual valuables were generally hidden in socks or concealed pockets in pants or jackets
  • The posts largely centered around less safe and economically challenged neighborhoods in large South American cities including Bogotá, São Paulo, Lima, Mexico City, etc.

If none of these things really resonate with you, and trust me, the few that do for me are very far in the rearview mirror, please humor me for a minute.

Instead think about a picturesque day spent in port with an evening departure.  You’re wandering the streets popping into little stores, cafes, and bars.  The sun sets, you start to think about walking back to port, and start walking in that direction.  Your ship is the last one in port and the streets are deserted now, the stores are all gated up, and a little voice in your head tells you that you probably should have headed back earlier.

a blue building with a statue of a dinosaur
Walking to Dinner in Old San Juan Puerto Rico in 2022

How would one use a stunt wallet?

  • Politely hand it to the thief, let them take a quick look, and hope they move along quickly satisfied that they’re getting enough
  • Throw the wallet/money-clip in one direction and run in the other
  • Put in your back pocket in case you’re pickpocketed

Both the first and second cases are identical with what you might do with a real wallet.  Just with the benefit of not losing your ID, cards and cash that you’re carrying with you.  In the third case I urge you never put your wallet in your back pocket as this is the easiest for pickpocketing as we’ve seen first hand in cities including St. Petersburg, Barcelona, and Rome.

My own thoughts:

  • I am nearly always travelling internationally with my wife. Isn’t a thief going to expect both of us to have cash and prizes?  Would she also need to carry a stunt wallet?  Digging in her purse is never “quick” much less in the dark at knife point.  I think that her purse, as much as she loves it, probably just gets handed over with fake wallet, real wallet, various lotions and potions, and probably a few things she’s carrying because they don’t fit in my pockets…
  • Where would I carry my “real” wallet? Wouldn’t the robber be angry if he/she patted me down only to find my “real” wallet?  Wouldn’t this increase my odds of being injured?
  • I’d rather not get stabbed much less killed trying to trick a thief with a stunt wallet

My own approach has always been to spread everything out.  When in transit, spread cards and cash across multiple bags and our persons, particularly on red-eye flights.  When on a cruise or at a hotel leave some in the room safe and some hidden somewhere in our luggage.  Only carry cards and cash for what you’re doing that day.  Have pics of all the cards (front and back) you bring with you at home with a trusted person who could send to you to cancel quickly if needed. René shared with me that he and Lisa typically both carry only a mini-wallet in ports in a secure front pocket and containing only essentials for in port activities and Lisa never carries a purse.

Christiansborg Palace with a river and a bridge
View of Stockholm, Sweden From a Sightseeing Boat Tour 2016

All of this hits a bit close to home as my father had his backpack stolen while on a three day pre-cruise stay in Stockholm, Sweden one of the safest capitol cities in the world.  The thieves got his passport, cash for the entire cruise, phone and iPad, camera, and more.  He ended up spending an entire day at the US Embassy getting a new passport and not touring with the rest of his group.  If this had been a normal port day he would have been in a real jam.

My priority on vacation is to not put myself in a dangerous situation or make myself a target, rather than mitigating loss when something bad happens so I won’t be taking a stunt wallet with me on my travels.  How about you? – Michael

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve carried a fake wallet for pickpockets but so far nothing. Then again I haven’t tried the biggest pickpocket hotspots so time will tell.

      • Real wallet in my front pocket, the decoy in the back. Usually I keep some extremely low value currency in the decoy to make it look better.

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