My third fencing competition this season was in Athens and I could not be more excited because my best friend was accompanying me. This would be my third time in Athens and I loved this city for its history, tourist attractions and fantastic gyros (yum!). The competition and trip went smoothly until we headed back to the USA.
Our scheduled trip was from Athens to Munich, Munich to Newark. I've been through Munich numerous times and never had a problem; not a lost bag, cancelled flight, nothing.
After exiting the plane, we took a bus to our arrival gate. As we walked into the airport, a man stepped in front of the escalator and asked to see my passport. He spoke in a very soft, shaky tone and I was taken aback because he was in plain clothes (red flag #1). He quickly flashed a badge, asked again, and then I noticed he had an object shaped like a lens around his neck (red flag #2).
“Why do you need to see my passport?”
Now this was weird to me because, as I said before, I've been in this airport many times and nobody has EVER stopped me at this point. There are two security checks in this airport: the first was passport control and the second was before boarding the plane to the U.S. Why would officers be stopping me a 3rd time?
“Are you going to New York?”
“Where are you going?”
“I need to see your passport”
“Why do you need my passport?”
“I am police. Don't they usually ask to see your passport?” (red flag #3). This seemed like way too much back and forth with a police officer. He seemed very unaware of his own protocol and I was curious how he was arrived at the conclusion I was going to New York.
“I am police and we have a lot of immigrants coming through, we need to know make sure you are a US citizen.”
By this point I’m slapping myself on the forehead because I checked my suitcase with clothes and fencing equipment that boldly state USA. I'm quickly thinking about what to show this man to prove my citizenship besides my passport because I'm not convinced he's a police officer. I took out my passport, showed him the cover and a copy of my picture I had with my passport.
A woman who had been lurking in the shadows came up to us and reiterated, “We are police and need to see your passport.” She was also wearing normal clothes and I officially became unconvinced and continued to refuse to give them our passports.
“We are police and we can go to passport control.”
“Yes actually let's do that because I'm not at all comfortable with this situation.”
We headed over to passport control and the guard spent several minutes continuously flipping and scanning my passport. Throughout the encounter, the guard kept speaking to the “officer” in German. I just hoped he wasn't involved with this potential scam. The guard let me go, flipped through my best friend’s passport once, and we were dismissed.
To this day, I have no idea what to make of this encounter. It's very feasible these two individuals were actually police officers, which could be validated when they took us to passport control. Do my best friend and I look foreign enough to cause attention? Maybe. Or do we look like two American girls traveling alone and easy targets for scammers? Also possible.
Their demeanors were shifty and our safety felt in jeopardy. My biggest fear was handing over my passport and having him take a picture, or worse, running away and leaving me stranded in Munich. Regardless of their intentions, I know I made the right decision but still could have handled it better.
What to take away from this experience
1. Never hand over your passport unless you're 100% sure who you're handing it to
After speaking to a TSA agent when I returned to Newark (not New York), I was given some advice. First, immigration police are usually dressed in normal clothes. If they stop you, present themselves appropriately, and you feel comfortable showing your passport by all means go for it. However, if the situation makes you feel uneasy, the TSA officer told me you are able to request to go to normal passport control. You should also keep a scanned copy of your passport in the event it is lost or stolen. It will make things much easier to return home.
2. Watch your surroundings
Whether you are in the airport or have arrived at your location, you should observe your surroundings. Many thefts occur when one person distracts the tourist, so an accomplice can snatch their phone out of their hand or pickpocket. You don't have to look over your shoulder every 5 seconds, but you should be aware of your belongings and people too close for comfort. It's also best to separate your passport, money, and credit cards in the event one thing is stolen you'll still have your other resources.
3. Be cognizant of how you appear to others
Usually locals can sport tourists a mile away. If your head is on a swivel while constantly checking a map or a cell phone, you're a tourist and a potential target. If you have different physical characteristics than the natives (e.g. skin color, hair type), you should expect to attract more attention and stay on your toes. In the airport, sporting expensive purses, heels or flashy USA apparel could attract the wrong type of people. I'm not saying you can't travel with Louie Vuitton bags, but just recognize it will make it harder to stay under the radar.
4. Trust your gut
I know it's very Olivia Pope of me but it's a reliable instinct. The entire time this was occurring, something in my gut just didn't feel right. While it is scary dealing with unpredictable situations especially in foreign countries, make sure you stay calm and make decisions with your safety as your first priority.