Avoiding the Pickpocket

A lot of the questions I receive about traveling surround fear of getting pickpocketed in Europe.  It is such a stigma.  While in Europe, I did not encounter or hear about muggings or violent crime (exception Naples), but was constantly warned about pickpockets especially at major tourist attractions. On dozens of trips to Europe, I have a had a few “run-ins” where I was a target but I have never been actually pickpocketed.

PickpocketThis first time I went to Rome, my friend and I were terrified of getting pickpocketed. This was WAY back in the day before special bags that are slash proof and all the other commercial money belts came on the market en force. We actually put a little luggage lock on the zippers of our daybags. Wow – what a pain this was every time we wanted to buy something and after the first day abandoned this strategy.

Now, on this same trip, I was almost pickpocketed. We were on the metro in Rome. We had to stand as it was crowded and I had my crossbody bag in front of me with a hand on it and the other hand holding the poll.  There was a push of the crowd and I felt someone’s hand in the back pocket of my jeans. I just kept holding my bag and poll to not loose my balance and then when I was stable again quickly removed my hand from the poll and gave a quick jab with my elbow to whomever was behind me with his hand fishing in my back pocket. But let me tell you… there was no way my other hand was leaving that bag even it it meant being groped on my behind for a few seconds.  This incident actually gave me a little confidence to just remain calm and keep your wits about you in a crowds.

Here are some general safety tips I have picked up over the years, that I abide by and reduces my chance of being targeted.

Before you Go

Take a few steps to minimize your loss in case of theft.

(1) Backup Documentation

  • TripItFor anything you are taking or need on the trip, made sure you have this info backed up in case your bag is stolen or lost. I personally use TripIt for my travel itineraries so it’s available from anywhere (My Phone, Computer, Hotel’s Computer, I can give my “backup” person in the USA access to that trip, and also there is a nice printout). I store hotel reservations, car rentals, tour reservations, airline/rail etc).
  • Make a copy of your passport, extra passport pictures, prescriptions, medicine and keep in a safe place. I keep a copy in a secure email account that I could access from the hotel or embassy if needed and also have a copy with my “backup person in the USA”, who can send to me in an emergency.

(2) Insurance

  • If you have expensive electronics (Camera, Ipad, Phone, Computer), you may want to consider Insurance. I always believe Travel Insurance is a must anyways.  Take a picture and a log of you gear that you are taking and store in a safe place if you need to access it.

(3) Don’t take valuables

  • In general, if I can’t afford to lose it, I don’t bring travel with it ie irreplaceable family jewelry.

On your Trip – Avoiding the Pickpocket

(1) Don’t look like a tourist

Well, you are going to look like a tourist regardless, but try not to completely stand out.  The more I blended in with the culture, the more fun I had also as I was more embraced by the locals.

(2) If LOST, find an out of the way place to look at your map

I always try to look at my map and plan my route before leaving the hotel or during my lunch to avoid “looking like a tourist” with my map in the middle of the street. However, you will get lost at some point and need to re-look at that map. Try to “pullover” and get yourself into a corner or at least against a wall in a non-crowded area where you can be more aware of your surroundings while you consult the map and also not be the clueless tourist in the middle of the walkway staring at a map.

(3) Keep your bag zipped up

This may seem like a silly tip, but I see people all the time walking around with their bags hanging wide-open with wallets easily in view. I was on a Baltic cruise and a woman told me she was pickpocketed in Estonia. Honestly, I was not surprised as I saw her walking around earlier in the day and the cruise a little tipsy and with an unzipped bag and the wallet almost falling out. Easy target for a pickpocket to stick his/her hand in.  Use a bag that zips and keep all those zippers zipped up.

(4) Keep your bag in view when walking

Another thing I see a lot is bags carried with the bag behind you. I am generally not a fan of backpacks unless the zippers can be secured for this reason.   I often hear of travelers tell me how their money was stolen out of their backpacks used as a daybag when they were walking through a city and they didn’t even know it.  A money-belt is an option, but I personally carry a cross-body as my daybag with the bag in the front where my hand can rest on it OR a tote that is under my arm.

(5) Crowds and tourist attractions

Crowded areas and tourist attractions are the areas where you have to be most on guard of your bag.  The pickpockets are looking for easy targets, so just keep your wits about you. If you feel anyone is scoping you out or hovering around, just move on.  Another area to be aware of this is street performers. I do stop and watch them, I am just more aware of my daybag/wallet when I do.

(6) Distractions

Pickpockets generally want to pick your pocket and move on without any confrontation, so one of their main tactics is working in teams and using a distraction. If there is a distraction, just make sure you have your money secured. Some common ones are:

  • Drop something on you: This tactic involves dropping mustard or a white bird like dropping on your arm or back of jacket. When they stop you to help you, another person will pickpocket you.
  • Drop something in front of you: I was warned about this often in Southern Italy where gypsies will drop a fake baby in front of you. You will bend down to help and someone will pickpocket you.
  • Asking for directions: This one is tough, because as someone who does ask for help, I want to help others if I can. However, pickpockets will ask you for directions while another pickpockets you while you are hovering over a map.  When strangers approach, keep your money secure.
  • Escalators:  This was a new tactic I heard about in 2014 and occurs especially when you have your luggage. If you are on an escalator, someone ahead of you will trip/fall. Someone behind you will then offer to help with your bag in the pile-up. Keep control of your belongings.
  • Fight: A fake fight will breakout or pushing. Something to knock you off balance or distract your attention.
  • You dropped something: They will also say you dropped something and hand you a small trinket. This happened to me in Paris where a gypsy woman handed me a non-identified metal ring. When I refused the ring she put in my backpocket as I was walking away. I made a loud commotion and a nearby policeman intervened and told me to get somewhere inside (aka a museum) as I was now a target for the gypsies in the area as I had their ring.  The ring looked like a large men’s gold wedding ring – I had it tested when back to the USA and noone could determine what it was and it’s know a good story. Key lesson was confront the person and make some noise… they will go away.
  • Children: The last tactic I am often warned about is children. They will swarm you and put tiny hands in your pockets.  I often chat with children while traveling, just be aware of your wallet.

(7) Keep your bag in view in restaurants

Ok… you’ve kept your wits about you while visiting all of these attractions and walking the streets, and now you sit down at a restaurant, sling your bag over the chair and let your guard down.  Well, you should enjoy your meal or your savory coffee, just keep that bag in sight.  Hang it on your knee or on the empty chair if it’s in a corner where someone cannot easily grab or go into it. I often also see people put their bags by their feet but on the outside of the table at cafes where people can easily go by and grab it and be gone before you can get up from your chair. Same goes for cameras… don’t leave them sitting on the table where someone can snatch and go.

(8) Don’t pull out large bills

Pickpockets are not only looking for easy targets. There is a risk/reward calculation and they are going to try and get some major bills and not a few euros. Don’t pull out large bills especially in the street and flash them around. This will make you a target.

(9) Two wallets

This is something I started doing in Europe last year and found it very useful. I keep a small change purse in one of my purse pockets with change, one credit card and small dollar amounts that I will need during the day. This way, if I buy a gelato on the street my wallet does not look very attractive when I pull out a 2 euro coin. I keep another wallet with another credit card, my passport, and major bills in a different inner zipped compartment of my bag. If I decide to buy something more expensive, it is usually going to be inside a nicer store where I can access the 2nd wallet more discretely. If my first wallet is taken or I am mugged, I have a backup to get back to the hotel on.

(10) Be Aware

Lastly, pickpocketing is not the only way to ruin a vacation—pickpocketing paranoia can too!  The common denominator in all the tips is to BE AWARE. This is good practice while traveling abroad or not.  While in the USA, you hear plenty of stories of people being mugged or car-jacked when they walk out to their cars from a store or their office. They are often on their phones and distracted and the attacker sees them as an easy target.  Yes, whilst you are a tourist you will be looking around and be in unfamiliar places, but walk with a purpose, be aware of your surroundings and the people in it, and stay off that phone – you will enjoy the vacation more also by being present in your location.