Although you may have heard a lot of negative publicity about Southeast Asia and the Philippines, Cebu is one of the safest cities in the world. I've often witnessed young women walk down dark alleyways unaccompanied, something unthinkable in most other urban centers of this size.
The Philippines often pops up when terrorism in Southeast Asia is discussed, but Cebu has been immune. Islamic terrorists tend to hide out in the Muslim island of Mindanao, far to the south. Davao has suffered bombings at the airport and ferry terminal, but we have not. Meanwhile, coup d'etats and bombings happen every now and then in Manila, but Manila too is far away. The left-wing NPA used to a dangerous force, but these survive only as ragged bands of bandits in the rural mountains.
The Philippines is a security guard state. There is a security guard at every corner. Expect your bags to be searched - cursorily inspected with a quick peek - as you enter malls, hospitals, and government buildings. The strong presence of security guards has perhaps helped deter terrorists, though they seem to powerless against bank robbers - bank robberies in Cebu are fairly common events which have everyone excited for a few days, until the next one several months down the road. In almost all cases, however, no-one gets hurt.
Drugs & Crime
Overall public safety in Cebu City is surprisingly good, considering the size of the impovishered sector of the population, perhaps because the mandatory punishment for kidnapping and rape is the death penalty. Kidnapping is punished more severely than murder in the Philippines, and that has helped protect the wealthier members of society from the desperate masses. As a result, unlike other countries with similarly stratified societies, such as Colombia or Mexico, kidnappings are extremely rare events.
Drug addicts are responsible for most of the petty crime in this city (unless, of course, you count bribery and graft). The drug problem in Cebu is almost entirely comprised of methamphetamines, called shabu after the Japanese slang for that substance. Glue sniffing is common but the sniffers, called rugby boys, are generally harmless. Marijuana is prevalent - I'm told that the marijuana grown in Cebu is the best in the world - but, again, marijuana addiction is hardly ever the cause of secondary crimes.
The scourge of shabu has hit just about every family in Cebu. Every Cebuano, rich or poor, knows at least one relative who was or is addicted. As with heroin or cocaine, addicts will do and steal anything to get their next fix. While not all criminals are shabu addictes, I'd venture to say that most are. And while not all shabu addicts are criminals, almost all eventually turn to crime to feed their habit, unless their family makes the wise decision to pack them off to a rehab center - which are plentiful - before it's too late.
On the plus side, the authorities have been cracking down harder on the pushers and smugglers, though - given the experiences of Western developed countries - it is unlikely they'll ever succeed in stamping the epidemic out completely.
The most common crime in Cebu is arguably snatching. Snatchers will snatch a cellphone or necklace as you are walking along the street, most commonly in the downtown area, and scurry off. Sometimes, they work in teams, passing the stolen item from one member to the next. Most victims never chase the snatchers, knowing that they could get stabbed or beaten up by the snatcher team. Snatching is a dangerous pursuit, security guards and cops who shoot snatchers are hailed as heros. I remember one story about a snatcher I'll never forget. The snatcher grabbed a necklace, found himself pursued by cops, and swallowed it. The cops took him to the station, and, in an effort to make him pass the snatched item, plied him with food - barbecue, rice, noodles. The impoverished snatcher wasn't used to eating well - it was probably years since he had a proper meal - and kept vomiting up the food. It was a few days before the necklace emerged.
In Cebu, muggers and armed robbers are both called hold-uppers. There has been a slight increase in hold-uppers lately. You might want to leave your Rolex in your car if you go for a walk, especially near the downtown area.
Car theft or the theft of items from a car are both rare. Unless you leave your car in a known high-crime zone such as downtown, specifically the vicinity of T Padilla Street, your car will be safe. European visitors are often paranoid about people breaking their car windows and stealing stereos and belongings, but Cebu is a bit more civilized than Europe in that respect. It never happens. More common is the sale in Cebu of cars stolen in Manila. If you buy a stolen car, even unwittingly, the car will be confiscated and you will probably end up in jail. This is covered in more detail under Driving.
Random burglaries are also fairly rare. They do happen, especially to houses not within gated villages, but most burglaries are inside jobs, perpetrated by former employees or associates of the domestic staff. As long as you are careful about who you hire and how you treat them, you should be fine (this is covered in more detail under Servants.
Pickpockets frequent the malls. As in any city in the world, don't walk around with your bag open, or your wallet protuding from your jeans pocket.
White Collar Crime
Con artists and scams are common, but most are targeted at Filipino victims. The only scam I know of specifically targeted at foreigners involves real estate, so getting a reputable and trustworthy broker is important - even if you find your property directly. Have the broker check the deal. This is covered in more detail under Housing.
Existing along the fringes of society is the New Peoples' Army. Ostensibly a communist terrorist outfit, the NPA has become, like the Abu Sayyaf group in Mindanao which bear a Muslim identity as a pretext for their terrorist activities, a band of outlaws who use ideology as a pretext to make a living via extortion. They are found only in the mountains, particularly in the central highlands on the northern half of Cebu island.
The NPA is fairly well disciplined, and they tend to leave civilians - and that includes foreigners - alone. Their income is derived from extorting tribute from bus companies and the like. Shockingly, every so often - perhaps once a year - they will actually mount a military operation against a police or army outpost. The military and the police retaliate by conducting sweeping anti-NPA drives which, occasionally, result in the arrests of NPA members.
In their heydey during the era of Martial Law - the Marcos years - the NPA were a force to be reckoned with, but this is no longer the case. Perhaps out of habit, Cebuanos are somewhat paranoid about the NPA, and will fervently warn you if you plan a trip to the mountains. But the do not engage in murder, robbery or kidnapping - neither of foreigners nor Cebuanos - and are nothing to worry about.