Reflections on Istanbul, or don’t get punkd like me

Usually when I travel, especially outside the US, I try to squeeze in some personal time to check things out.  This can be critical to maintaining sanity when your job requires a lot of travel;  I’m scheduled to travel 22 out of the first 26 weeks of 2008.  Thankfully I’m not gone four days a week like a management consultant, but it adds up after a while.

I was in Istanbul last week.  I was looking forward to the trip, given that my last time there was January 2000.  However, what happened to me on the first day clouded my desire to explore any further.

I was with my colleague Shar and we were walking back to the hotel after taking a ferry over to Kiz Kulesi.  We were walking up a large hill between the Besiktas football stadium and a large park, towards a group of hotels including the Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, and Intercontinental.  Mid-way up, some boys catch up to us peddling travel-size tissues.  Which later seemed odd, given that it’s rude to blow one’s nose in public.  But for some reason, they’re just too close.  I didn’t understand what they’re saying, but they’re shoving the tissues at us, so close that I had to push one kid away.  He comes back undeterred, we keep walking, and they suddenly give up.

Shar and I had been discussing the workshop we were going to deliver the next morning, so I reached into my pocket to send an email to our client…and my Blackberry is gone.  I still have my wallet and my Nokia N95 8gb (which I’ve been loaned from Nokia, it’s a more expensive phone) – but the Blackberry is nowhere to be found.  Neither are the tissue boys.

OK.  It’s Sunday, so getting help back in the US might be tough, especially because we’re seven hours ahead and it’s only 8 am there.  After calling the regular AT&T 800 number for customer service, which I already know is closed on Sundays, I find that AT&T has another number:  866-801-3600.  So the SIM is deactivated.  (Later our IT gurus tell me that Blackberry administrators can send a "kill" command – we reactivated my SIM and tried it, but the phone didn’t respond.)  Suddenly, I feel disconnected from the world – unable to send a quick text message to my family or browse the latest in Google Reader.

Lessons learned:

  • I was a victim of social engineering.  Being in a foreign country, I didn’t want to be outright rude to these beggars peddling tissues – but I let them get too close to me.
  • Don’t carry anything of value in easily accessible pockets, e.g. the sides of your jacket or your back pants pockets.  I’ve heard of people’s neck wallets being robbed…
  • Activate the security features on your phone – device and/or SIM lock, including PIN and PUK codes.  It only takes a second to input a 4 – 6 character password to get into your phone.  Now I know why the Europeans I worked with were obsessive about this.
  • All states have laws in place where you can place a security freeze your credit file, so only you can permit access to the information with a PIN or password.

In the twelve years or so that I’ve owned a mobile phone, I’ve never lost one so I was lazy about device security.  But hopefully you can learn from this before it actually happens to you.  If you have ever been in the same unfortunate position as me, I’d like to hear what you’ve learned and are now doing differently.