A reader from Arlington was taking in the sights in London a couple of weeks ago. His eye caught a fellow pedestrian, who was standing beside a woman on a Piccadilly street corner.

"He sure looks familiar," my reader thought. The man also looked something else: upset.

So my reader walked over and asked the man A) if he was from Washington and B) if something was wrong. He got two yesses.

The men turned out to have been colleagues in the service of Uncle Sam more than 30 years earlier. And the upset man's wife turned out to have had her purse lifted from a nearby restaurant just minutes before. Gone were the couple's passports, money, traveler's checks and plane tickets.

My reader urged his old colleague to go to the American Embassy for help. My reader went with him, to pay the cabfare and see how it all turned out.

A desk officer at the embassy listened to the story politely. But he said there was nothing he could do.

The embassy doesn't make emergency loans under any circumstances, the desk officer said. It doesn't arrange emergency credit. It doesn't reissue plane tickets, or help American citizens find a way to do that. And it doesn't act as a lost and found. The desk officer said the embassy would gladly let the theft victims use an embassy phone to call their bank in the U.S. -- as long as the victims paid for the call.

My reader ended up lending his old buddy $100, and the victims replaced their passports, traveler's checks and tickets within 48 hours. But the victims were mightily annoyed at the attitude of the embassy, as was my reader.

"I thought American embassies were supposed to help Americans who get in trouble overseas," my reader said. "Now I know better."

Actually, State Department people tell me that the victims probably would have done better in an embassy that was less busy.

"London is notorious," said one State Department hand, who has served in that embassy twice. "Sometimes you get 100 people a day coming through there who've lost passports, money, what have you. You can't bend over backwards for every one of them."

By contrast, this man said, a lost wallet in Dar Es Salaam would probably produce quick, personal attention, including an immediate cash advance. "The thing to remember is that there is no absolute policy," the State Department employe said. "We are supposed to help, but each embassy reserves the right to define what that help is."

I really don't see why each embassy couldn't routinely pop for a $100 loan, as long as the borrower signed an agreement to pay it back. Even a busy embassy like London ought to be able to handle the piddling paperwork that this would involve.

But a much more reliable bet is Travelers Aid International. There's a TA branch in every world capital, and TA will advance cash to the truly needy.

TA executive director Judy Hall says, however, that prevention is the best approach for Americans traveling abroad this summer. Her advice:Write down your passport number before you leave and keep it separate from the passport.Each member of your traveling party should have his own traveler's checks and passport, in case of death, illness, loss or theft.Don't keep all of your money and traveler's checks in one place.Check with your insurance company before you leave to be sure you're covered if you need treatment at a foreign hospital. If yes, be sure to bring insurance cards with you. If no, bring personal checks, which stand a good chance of being honored.Men should always carry tickets and wallets in the front pockets of their pants. Never carry anything important in shirt pockets or back pockets.Be sure that all luggage carries identification inside and out. And be sure that people who grab your luggage at foreign terminals really work there.If you're in a country where you don't speak the language, and you need help quickly, try a bank. Someone there usually reads and/or speaks English.

SEND A KID TO CAMP

We continue to poke along in our annual fund-raising campaign -- not stalling, but not setting the world ablaze, either. We aren't in desperate shape. But we're going to be soon, since we still need to raise almost $90,000, and we need to do it in slightly more than two weeks.

Formidable as that may sound, it isn't impossible. Won't you help us make this 40th annual drive a success? I'm hoping so -- and I know 1,200 young would-be campers who feel the same way.

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp, and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.

HOW WE'RE DOING . . . .

In hand as of July 4: $130,533.10.

Our goal: $220,000.