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What to do if you’re robbed in Costa Rica

Last week, I told you about a friend of mine who had the unfortunate experience of being robbed in his apartment after living here for only two months. It was a nightmarish ordeal and one that we an all learn from in terms of what to do, and what not to do, to avoid becoming a victim of crime.

Nevertheless, crime does happen, even to the most cautious of us. If it happens to you, and you are robbed, the first step is to report the theft to the police. Be aware, however, that the officer who responds to your call will probably not fill out a written report or take any statements, other than verbal, regarding the crime. It will be your responsibility to get yourself to the appropriate government agency to formally report the crime, ASAP. In this case, that’s the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).

The main OIJ offices are located in the judicial office complex in downtown San José, in front of The Tico Times. Take as much information with you as you have, particularly your credit card data. If you lost your passport too, take that full-size copy you made (TT, April 1). They have English-speaking officers who will help you fill out a report.

Assuming you have followed all the precautions but lost your passport anyway, the next thing to do is to report that loss to the U.S. Embassy and get a replacement. 

To obtain your new passport, take the OIJ report and any personal identification information, including that copy of your passport, to the embassy. The copy is essential for embassy workers to identify you and prove you are a citizen. Without that data, establishing your identity can be a difficult and time-consuming process. With good documentation, however, obtaining a new passport is not difficult or excessively time-consuming (plan on spending two to three hours), but it is going to cost you approximately $100, so take some money along.

At some point you will need to make a decision about what type of passport to get – temporary or permanent.  A temporary passport is good for up to 30 days, and then it expires. If you plan to return home in that time a temporary passport may be the appropriate choice. When you get back you can use the temporary to obtain a new, permanent passport without paying any additional amount.

If you decide on getting a new permanent passport issued, you should know that it takes about ten days to complete the process. That means you will be without a regular passport for that time. If you intend to remain in Costa Rica, other factors, like needing the original document to obtain money from the bank for your daily living expenses, may need to be considered.

Once you have been to the embassy and started the process for the new passport, the third step is to file reports with the companies who issued you the credit cards that were stolen. Under U.S. law you are only responsible for up to the first $50 of loss. If you are departing soon, don’t wait until you return to call them; the credit card companies are much easier to deal with if you report the theft as early as possible. A contact telephone number is usually printed on the back of the card, so when you make copies, make sure both sides are included.

MasterCard and Visa will give you a cash advance by simply presenting your card and an I.D. or two at a bank. In the case of my neighbor, however, even after he had his passport replaced, it wasn’t possible to get any money because he didn’t have any of the card account data. 

If you were in your home country this would probably not be a problem. There, you at least speak the same language and can explain the problem. That is not easily accomplished in Costa Rica unless, possibly, the card issuer is a Costa Rican bank.  However, the banks in Costa Rica sometimes have even tighter security requirements than those in other nations and may operate even more stringently. 

If that lost card was your only card, possibly with a police report that shows the account number of the stolen card, as well as a good quality photocopy of the card and a replacement passport, you might get the bank to give you a cash advance. But I wouldn’t depend on it. 

My neighbor didn’t have any copies; therefore the data could not be recorded on his police report. As a result, his accounts couldn’t be used at the bank and he was unable to obtain any money via a cash advance. If, however, you are smarter than my neighbor and have another card squirreled safely away, that card along with your new passport will make getting a cash advance more likely.

There is one additional thing in regard to personal documents that needs mentioning.  My neighbor wasn’t here long enough to have gotten a Costa Rican driver’s license, but if he had he would have lost that too. Driver’s license theft should also be reported to the OIJ. 

If only a driver’s license was stolen and nothing else, or if it’s been lost, the process is slightly different. Still, it’s simple to get a replacement. The first step is to go to a Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) and tell them you need to pay for a replacement driver’s license.  The fee is ¢5,000 ($10). Next, take that receipt to the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI), part of the Transport Ministry, along with your passport or a good copy (I suggest the original), and request a new license. A new blood test or physical exam is not required.  

If your passport was part of the loss, things get a little trickier because Costa Rica uses the passport number as the driver’s license number. If you try to get a replacement license and have a new passport, the number will be different. Cosevi will not issue a replacement based on the passport in-hand, because the numbers will not match the record they have of your original application. Even if you have the OIJ report showing your passport was stolen, you will not be given a replacement.

To avoid this, when you are at the embassy getting your new passport, have them give you a letter that states that a new passport has been issued. It should include both the old passport number and the new one. Presenting that letter to Cosevi, along with the new passport, should remove the hurdle. It may go even smoother if you also have a good copy of the old passport to show them.

So, in summary: 1) Copy your passport information and entry date pages and carry them with you, not the original passport; 2) Store the original passport in a safe place; 3) Copy all your credit cards, both sides, and keep the ones you don’t carry in a safe place; 4) Never carry all your credit cards with you; 5) Be sure to report any theft to the authorities immediately; and, 6) Report any stolen credit card(s) to the issuing bank(s) as soon as possible.

And there you have it.  Now, it’s up to you to take the steps necessary to safeguard your valuable documents and cash – and not be like my neighbor.

The focus of this article was on residents and visitors from the United States. The author apologizes for the lack of information on other countries.  His assumption was that the steps for surviving a loss of credit cards and cash are applicable to all persons, and the embassies or consulates for other countries will handle the passport issue in essentially the same way.


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