The allure and risks of traveling in Malaysia

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    28th November 2023 – (Kuala Lumpur) Malaysia has long captivated visitors with its beautiful beaches, diverse cultures, and cosmopolitan cities. However, behind its façade as an idyllic vacation destination, dangers lurk for the unprepared tourist. Recent initiatives, like the new 30-day visa-free entry for Chinese nationals, are expected to attract higher numbers of tourists. While many will enjoy their Malaysian holidays without incident, others may fall victim to common scams or crimes if proper precautions aren’t taken.

    Crime in Malaysia

    The U.S. State Department rates Malaysia as a Level 2 country for safety risks, on a scale from 1 to 4. This means tourists should exercise increased caution due to higher risks of crime and terrorism. The U.K. Foreign Office advises similar precautions.

    The most prevalent crimes aimed at tourists include:

    • Pickpocketing
    • Bag snatching
    • Tourist scams
    • Robbery
    • Violent crime and kidnapping
    • Terrorism

    According to the 2022 Crime Index by Numbeo, Malaysia ranks in the top 40% of countries worldwide for crime. KL, Georgetown, and Johor Bahru have some of the highest crime rates in the country.

    Reasons for Concern

    Visitors have expressed apprehension about petty crimes like vandalism, theft from vehicles, muggings, and corruption. Pickpocketing, in particular, is extremely common. Hotspots include shopping malls, night markets, public transit, and crowded tourist areas.

    Criminals employ distraction techniques, work in teams, or take advantage of cramped spaces like buses and trains to steal wallets, phones, cash, and other valuables from bags and pockets. Backpacks and handbags are also easy targets.

    In some cases, thieves may plant stolen wallets or phones on victims, then accuse them of theft to extort money. Criminals often target foreigners, knowing they are unlikely to report crimes or follow up with police.

    Nightlife dangers are another issue, especially drink spiking. Adding sedatives to victims’ beverages allows assailants to more easily rob, exploit, or assault them. Tourists should stay alert in clubs and bars and watch drinks carefully.

    Violent crime does occur, albeit infrequently. Express kidnappings also take place on occasion, where people are abducted and forced to withdraw cash from ATMs. Terrorist attacks are improbable but not impossible, given Malaysia’s diversity.

    Staying Vigilant

    While crime can happen anywhere, prudent tourists can mitigate risks by taking simple security measures. The following tips can help visitors avoid becoming victims:

    • Conceal valuables like phones and wallets in less accessible places, or use anti-theft bags.
    • Split cash and cards between multiple locations to minimize losses from theft.
    • Be wary of distractions from strangers in crowded areas.
    • Only take licensed, metered taxis with visible ID cards. Avoid unmarked vehicles.
    • Research common tourist scams like fake donations or handicrafts.
    • Avoid leaving drinks unattended in clubs and bars.
    • Stay sober and avoid isolated or poorly lit places at night.
    • Keep hotel rooms locked and don’t open for unverified staff.
    • Purchase travel insurance with emergency medical and theft coverage.
    • Monitor account activity closely to identify fraud.
    • Avoid resistance if confronted by criminals, and comply with demands.
    • Keep photocopies of passport pages to ease replacement if stolen.
    • Inform someone of daily plans and carry emergency contacts.
    • Research emergency numbers and know the location of police stations.
    • Consider taking self-defence classes prior to travel.

    By staying street smart, tourists can traverse Malaysia safely while taking in all its beauty and adventure.

    Hot Spots for Crime in Malaysia

    Certain areas in Malaysia see higher rates of criminal activity than others. Common hot spots include:

    Kuala Lumpur

    As the capital and largest city, KL draws the most tourists by far. Over 11 million visited in 2019 alone. High density and tourist numbers equal more crime opportunities.

    Japanese TikToker narrowly avoids pickpocketing incident at KLCC

    Risks are highest in popular areas like Petaling Street Market, Bukit Bintang, and KLCC Park. Pickpocketing, snatch thefts, scams, and druggings are most prevalent. Violent crime rises at night, especially around clubs and bars.

    Petaling Jaya

    Petaling Jaya or “PJ” is a major suburb of KL. It contains large shopping centers like Sunway Pyramid and One Utama that attract thieves. Muggings also occur in surrounding residential areas at night.

    Johor Bahru

    JB in southern Malaysia suffers higher crime rates as the gateway to Singapore. Theft is rampant in places like KSL City, Sutera Mall, and Holiday Plaza. Customs scams are also common, with smugglers planting contraband in travelers’ vehicles then demanding payment.

    Penang

    The island of Penang lures tourists to its beaches and UNESCO sites. Petty crime is problematic in Georgetown and other tourist spots. Snatch theft, pickpocketing, bag slashings, and vehicle break-ins are most common.

    Sabah

    Sabah in East Malaysia is famous for natural attractions like Mount Kinabalu. Petty theft afflicts cities like Kota Kinabalu, targeting tourists and their rental cars. More rarely, armed banditry occurs in remote areas.

    Pickpocketing Tactics in Malaysia

    Pickpocketing stands as the most prevalent and prolific crime against visitors in Malaysia. Criminals employ a variety of clever tricks to steal from victims unnoticed. Some common ploys include:

    The Push

    Also called “push pocketing”, thieves discreetly place a phone or wallet into a victim’s pocket or bag first. They or an accomplice then accost the target, claiming the item was stolen. Flustered victims often pay to avoid police involvement.

    The Brush

    In crowded spaces, pickpockets discretely brush against victims to dip into bags, purses, or pockets. Items are swiftly palmed, while victims remain oblivious to the touch.

    The Distract

    One thief distracts the mark, by seeking directions for example, while an accomplice steals their valuables from behind. Spilling items or jostling victims also create effective diversions.

    The Slice

    Razor blades or box cutters are used to quickly slice into bags and pockets to grab valuables. Victims may not notice the slight cut or absence of items until later.

    The Team

    Multiple pickpockets work in coordination, surrounding victims or blocking their view. With their attention disrupted, valuables disappear into multiple hands stealthily.

    Metro Tactics

    Public transit offers a target-rich environment for thieves. Common techniques on Malaysian buses, trains, and metro include:

    • Crowding or sandwiching riders to obscure pickpocketing.
    • Placing coats or bags over victims to conceal theft attempts.
    • Making quick grabs when passengers board and exit.
    • Creating jostling or chaos to disguise snatching.
    • Trapping riders away from exits to enable clean getaways.

    By staying alert to their surroundings and keeping valuables secure, travelers can reduce their odds of being targeted.

    Common Tourist Scams

    In addition to theft, visitors may encounter people trying to swindle them out of money in inventive ways. Some notorious tactics to watch for include:

    Fake Monks

    Men dressed as Buddhist monks approach tourists seeking donations. Legitimate monks only collect donations at temples. Bogus ones can persistently cajole for money but lack proper documentation.

    Counterfeit Goods

    Visitors are drawn to places like Petaling Street Market by cheap designer goods. Most are knock-offs, and buying counterfeits fuels criminal enterprises. Pay fair prices for local handicrafts instead.

    Rigged Taxi Meters

    Some dishonest cab drivers take circuitous routes or claim meters are “broken” to charge outlandish fares. Never take unmetered taxis. Verify meters are running and monitor routes via GPS.

    Friendship Scams

    Con artists on dating apps or social media build relationships with tourists before inventing sob stories and asking for money. Transferring any funds typically results in ghosting.

    False Damages

    Scammers let the air out of rental car tires, dent vehicles, or put paint chips on bumpers. They then confront renters demanding compensation for repairs. Legitimate damages will be noted during returns, not in parking lots.

    Overpricing

    Vendors heavily inflate costs for bottled water or other common items assuming foreigners will pay. Always negotiate and refuse to overpay. Seek price estimates online beforehand.

    By being judicious about where money is spent, tourists can ensure they fund legitimate businesses, not criminal rackets.

    Violent Crime and Terrorism

    Though Malaysia is generally safe, violent crime does transpire on occasion. The State Department reports incidents of armed robbery and assault have occurred against foreigners, along with occasional shootings.

    Express kidnappings also infrequently take place, where people are abducted and compelled to withdraw funds from ATMs for ransom.