Top Subway Pickpocket & Scam Prevention Tips

Subways are tempting locations for pickpockets to work. Subways with tourists and travelers are even more tempting.  Most people don’t think about how not to fall victim to a pickpocket or a scam when planning a trip. However, a little thought about how not to fall victim to theft in crowded locations, like subways, and a little clever planning about how to protect your valuables will help ensure your travels are bit more worry-free so you can enjoy the adventure. In reality, most travelers will return from a trip overseas without having anything stolen. The unlucky ones will spend hours, maybe days trying to get things straightened out like finding police stations with English-speaking officers, waiting in lines to make a police reports, cancelling credit cards, as well as going to a U.S Embassy if their passports were stolen.

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Top Pick-Pocketing Cities in the World

Theft by Pickpockets is Increasing

While NPR reports that the crime of pickpocketing in the United States has declined steadily over the last several years – that is not the case in Europe, South America, or other parts of the world – as reported by ABC News report of the “top 10 pickpocket cities in the world.” Falling victim to theft in a subway can happen in most any city whether it has a higher poverty rate or it’s a metropolitan destination favored by tourists.

How to Protect Your Wallet In the Subway 

Subway pickpockets and thieves are always in search of their “holy grail”….. the wallet.  When stolen from a pocket, wallet, purse, or day-pack,  it can bring joy and happiness to a subway pickpocket’s heart – and with it your cash, credit cards, and other valuable items.  A subway traveler needs to be as committed to protecting their wallet or purse as much as the subway thief is committed to trying to steal it from you in the first place.

Subway pickpockets always look for the weak and the vulnerable. If they had their way, they would prefer everyone to be blind and fragile to make there job easier. The next best targets for pickpockets are the tired, distracted, and the unaware, which is usually where tourists come in to play.  When it comes to tourists, they know that even if you try to look the part of being local, something else will give you away that you are a tourist, confused looks, hesitant steps, even your hand gestures, your haircut, and or your smile. Those are just some of the things that make you stand out from locals, and that’s before you open our mouth and start speaking French or Italian with a foreign accent.  Just remember, subway pickpockets are experts at spotting tourists.  So while it feels nice to blend in as much as possible, know that you probably won’t be able to “pass.”  This is not a bad thing – it’s just a fact.  What you do need to try to do is try not look like a clueless tourist… Some items of clothing will mark you as not just a tourist, but one who hasn’t traveled much. And that can make you a particular target.   The items that really stand out include big white tennis shoes, sweat suits and sweatpants, t-shirts with U.S flags, or printed with “I LOVE PARIS”.  Fairly or not, these items aren’t just interpreted as “I’m a tourist”; they’re interpreted as “I’m a tourist, and I’m on my first trip abroad ever!”.

Once you have though about how you look and act in a subway overseas to help reduce being targeted by a pickpocket, the most important subway pickpocket prevention tip comes into play – “subway travelers need to be totally conscious of their surroundings.”  Once you have this level of awareness, you will be able to reduce your victimization chances by half.  To reduce these odds even more, you need to understand the “modus operandi” (method of operations or skills of the trade) used by subway pickpockets.

Know that subway pickpockets call the back pocket “the sucker pocket” for the obvious reason that a wallet is easy to slide out from this pocket and many times the subway thief has a built-in shield from being observed as he/she try’s to steal it, such as an overhanging backpack or jacket. Everyone likes to carry their wallet in their back pocket – even me. However, when I’m in the prime hunting grounds for pickpockets, I always move it to my front pocket. Now this is not always fool-proof, as many subway pickpockets are very adept and can easily remove a wallet from a front pocket – especially when the pants are loose.

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Uniquely designed wallet fits deep down in your pocket to keep it farther away from slick fingered pickpockets

Since the front pocket is the one of the best places to keep your wallet while riding in subways, you need to make sure the wallet sits as far down in the pocket as possible. My favorite is a unique wallet called the Front Pocket Wallet which is designed with a curve that matches the curve in the pocket of most pants.  Pickpocket know that cargo pockets are usually good follow-up locations to find a man’s wallet if it is not in the front pocket.

Pickpockets particularly favor anyone whose hands are full, because that means the victim’s pockets will be easier to get to. If you are going to put items of value in your pockets, don’t put them all in one place, just as the old adage goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket – spread the wealth among several pockets. Of course a more secure way to carry valuables is to put them in a money belt or pouch that zips closed and is worn close to your body and hidden from view.  You would be amazed how many different types of money belt styles you have to choose from.  A  new light-weight style allows you to attach your valuables to your shirt tail or to the fabric of your pocket in your pants or shorts.  This is great solution when you’re not wearing a belt.

Tourist Pickpocket Warning Sign in Paris

How to Keep Pickpockets Out of Your Purse in the Subway

For women who carry a purse or handbag on the subway, the number one security tip is to wear the purse cross body with the opening flap against your stomach – making it impossible for pickpockets to get their hands inside.  For additional protection against slick fingered subway thieves, consider a travel handbag with anti-pickpocket features like security zippers, snatch proof straps, security pocket flaps, as well as slice resistant straps and bag side panels constructed into the bag’s design. The worst purse or handbag to carry in a subway is an open bucket bag, followed by a simple flap without locking features, then followed by a purse with an exposed zipper which is extremely easy for a subway pickpocket to gain entry without your knowledge.

Daypacks  Subway Pickpocket Prevention Tips

For both men and women who carry a day pack, know that subway pickpockets love travelers who wear them on their back. That’s because the majority of packs have external pockets which can be easily unzipped from behind your without you noticing it. When in crowded subway car, or any type of public transport, move your backpack around to the front of your body. If you have a regular day pack without anti-theft features, when ever you get close to entering a subway, wear it in front, kangaroo style.

Never put anything of the slightest value to you in outside daypack pockets (emphasis on “value to you” – thieves steal stuff “by accident” – the address book with every contact you’ve made in the past fifty years may not be of value to a pickpocket, but you’ll surely be sorrier to lose that than to lose three twenty euro notes).

For additional security consider a daypack or backpack with anti-theft features such as pickpocket resistant zipper locks, as well as special external compartments which cannot be entered from behind. Many of these security daypacks and backpacks also feature an anti-slashing security mesh material which is built into the bags external panels for additional security.  More on these bags later.

Are You Using a Fanny Pack – or Anti-theft Waist Pack?

Subway pickpockets are also tempted by non-security style fanny packs because they know that’s where you’re likely to keep your wallet, phone, and camera. In a crowded subway car, the rear strap of a regular fanny or waist packs can be easily sliced with a razor blade from behind causing the pack to fall into the thieves hands and you won’t a thing. Like the security purses and handbags discussed above, there are several different styles of security waist packs that have anti-theft features incorporated into their design.

Top Subway Pickpocket Locations 

Metro / Subway Escalators

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Pickpocket sign at an escalator in Europe

Professional pickpockets love to work escalators and stairways that feed into subways because they are easy locations to create quick chaos to distract travelers.  The scam goes like this and is usually executed by a pair of thieves working together.

The pickpocket’s partner gets in front of you going up (or down) the escalator. When you reach the top/bottom, the person in front doesn’t get off the escalator (the person has usually ‘dropped’ something which he then bends over to pick up) causing people to conveniently bump into you from behind. And guess who is right behind you? You are correct, the subway pickpocket. Amidst the chaos your pocket or bag is picked!

If you run into this situation, keep your hand covering your pocket where your wallet is, and/or hold your purse / travel bag or day pack in front of you. Escalators are another area that pickpockets target because it is easy to create chaos. With this scam there will one or two people in front of the target and a few behind the target. Someone at near the top of the escalator will stop right when they get off and this will create a huge backup for people trying to get off. As the backup occurs the people behind the target will reach into the target’s bag/pocket and hand off the goods to one his buddies behind him.  I’ve also seen it where they’ve handed off the goods to someone on opposite escalator so it’s almost impossible to chase them.picks-1233

Subway / Metro Ticket Machine Scams

Thieves and scammers always look for the vulnerable, and if you don’t have experience using metro ticket machines overseas you could be that “vulnerable” person they look for. Scammers like to hang out at the metro ticket machine area looking to scam first time users. They will offer you assistance.

Often they are “well-dressed” locals who seem honest.  Do not let anyone offer to help you buy tickets with their credit card and tell you some story that your credit card won’t work in the machine or that they have cheaper unused tickets (usually a lie).

Subway Turnstiles Pickpockets

Pickpockets can easily remove your wallet from your back pocket at subway turnstiles

Pickpockets can easily remove your wallet from your back pocket at subway turnstiles

Busy subway turnstiles are another natural location for subway pickpockets to operate – especially during prime travel hours.  There are different variations how  pickpockets target travelers at this location – here are just a few.  As you approach a subway turnstile, one of the pickpocket team members rushes in front of you and then stops (they might pretend that the machine isn’t working).  While you are stalled, the co-pickpocket comes up behind you — essentially trapping you between the two of them and lifts something out of your bag.

Another variations of this scam is the lone pickpocket who will simply target you as you slow down and pass through the turnstile. The thief will be right behind you trying to remove your wallet from your back pocket or purse. Keep aware of your valuables during these times.  Always have your subway card or fare ready when entering the subway. This way potential thieves never see where you keep your wallet.

Subway Platform Pickpocket Scams

Packed subway escalators are prime locations for pickpockets

Packed subway escalators are prime locations for pickpockets

This is the location where many subway pickpockets “size-up” their victims. Many times subway pickpockets will sit on benches or against a wall scanning the crowd looking for unsuspecting travelers.

When the thief is sizing up his mark he’s looking for where they keep their money and the best way to take it from them. Tip, when waiting on the platform, stand far back from the subway tracks, with your back to a wall, or other solid object, in order to lessen your chances from being bumped into from behind.  This helps reduce your victimization chances by subway pickpockets who work the crowds on subway platforms.

Here is a video showing a band of young female pickpockets roaming a subway platform in Paris near the Champs Elysees. Watch as you see the girls try to cover their faces when they see they are being filmed.

Help Me, I’ve Dropped Something, Can You Help Me Pick it up Scam

This is a standard variation of a typical street scam.  It goes like this, you’re standing on a metro platform, and someone walks past, dropping to the ground something that appears important to them. Being a helpful human being you bend over to pick up the item – or the scammer may ask you to help them find what they dropped.   This scam works well for woman scammers asking for the help, as many tourists equate pickpockets and scammers with men.  However, as you bend over to help someone else comes up from behind you, bumps into you, and removes valuables from your back pocket, or unprotected purse or daypack. If this happens to you take a step back and take a good hard look at the people around you. If after the coast seems clear, and if you still feel the need to help, find a way to do your good deed for the day, without letting a thief ruin yours.

Hurry Up and Get In or Get Out of the Metro Car Before the Door Closes Scam

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You can see how easy subway pickpockets can operate when you are trying to pass thru subway car door choke points

Many times subway thieves will target victims as they begin to board the subway car.  This is an opportunistic time for thieves to operate.  When possible, subway pickpockets will try to stage themselves right behind their victim to take advantage of the jostling of the crowd. As the crowd squeezes through the “choke point it’s the key time to reach into a pocket or bag without being detected.

Solution:  Keep your valuables on your person  or  make sure purses, travel bags, camera bags, and daypacks are worn in front, and wallets are removed from back pockets. Here is a video showing young teens trying to target tourists in the “choke point”  You will also see that one of the thieves is carrying a “fake baby” to help blend into the crowd – because who would think a woman with a young child was a pickpocket?

Classic Pickpocket Scams Inside Subway Cars

Standing Up In the Subway Car Aisle Way

When inside the subway car, pickpockets like to target travelers who are standing, especially when near the subway car doors.  Most of the times subway thieves will commit these thefts when the doors open and close – which naturally allows the thief to bump into you and into your pockets.  Remember, pickpocket’s favor the locations near the subway doorways as these locations also allow them to exit quickly after the theft. 

Newspaper – Jacket Distraction

A common subway pickpocket tactic involves the subway pickpocket using a newspaper to cover the targets line of sight in order to take things out of their bag.  Many times the pickpocket will use a newspaper or a jacket hung over the their arm to block the view of a bag so they can use their other hand under the newspaper or jacket to steal from it.

The Shove

One of the classic tricks of the trade.  You are in a crowded subway or train car and you’re suddenly, inexplicably shoved, that’s a red flag. As you catch your balance, your hands go up (away from your purse or pockets), you stop paying attention for a split second… and it’s the perfect moment to lift your wallet.

Just Before the Door Closes

You’re on a crowded metro or subway car that’s packed to the gills, but just as the doors begin to close, one or two people force their way on at the last second — despite there being clearly no room at all. Of course, lots of people try to shove on. But if you see someone squeeze on and then continue to work their way through the car, despite the crowd, that’s a sign of something fishy. Another classic pickpocketing trick: Boarding the metro right before the doors close, grabbing a wallet (perhaps with the shove-and-surprise move), and then exiting just as the doors are closing.

When Exiting Subway Cars – Listen for the Door Closing Buzzer

The buzzing sound that the doors about to close should alert you to pay attention to your surroundings. It’s at this point that snatch and run thieves will take advantage of the doors closing and car pulling away. These thieves, usually young males who are quick and nimble, will wait near the subway door.  When the subway door is about to close and the door alarm or buzzer sounds they often make their move. If you are sitting or standing next to the door be extra vigilant of your possessions.  This noise signals the thief that the subway doors are about to shut, and the train is moving on to the next station. The thief needs just a couple of seconds to grab a phone or purse and run out the door of the departing train Solution:  Try to stand or sit away from subway doors, or anywhere a thief could make a quick exit.

Here is a video of a traveler who has her iPhone stolen right out of her hands by a subway thief who was waiting by the door.  Watch this video carefully and you will see some unique things the thief does.  First, he obviously looks for a victim using a smart phone next to the subway door – as well as someone not paying attention to their surroundings. Solution – Be vigilant of those around you when sitting or standing next to subway doors.

Below is a another video showing young female pickpockets who operate in subway cars.  After the train arrives at the metro station, and the door alarm sounds, two girls attempt to steal a man’s wallet just before the doors close.  But they were not fast enough and the victim catches them in the act by grabbing the arm of one of the thieves.  Listen for the door alarm and watch for the attempted theft.

When Exiting a Subway Station – Don’t Sign a Petition or Make a Donation

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Scammers trying to get tourists to sign fake petitions at subway exit point

This  scam has been popular in Europe for years – and is always targeted at tourists. Usually found on a busy street or at the entrance of a subway station it is often committed by teens, or young adults. They act as activists and pretend to be collecting for a charity. Don’t sign anything,  If you were to fall for this, they try to compel you to make a donation after signing the petition.

Numerous travelers in Southern Europe report that while they were distracted by the children or teens trying to force them to sign fake petitions or engage them in giving to some type of charity, they were being set up for a distraction where an accomplices begin to bump into them and try’s to steal your smart phone, wallet, or any other items of value which they might be able to easily remove from you.

Subway Security Tips for Women 

Unfortunately, crowded subway cars can be perfect breeding grounds for antisocial behavior. Some men will use this opportunity to touch or pinch the female passengers close to them. If this happens to you, make a fuss in any language you choose. Point at the offender and chastise him in a loud voice. He’ll probably just slink away.  However, don’t become so offended that you stop paying attention to your belongings.  In some countries, when women travel in subways and trains women are often groped on packed subways simply to divert their attention while their purse or backpack is being pilfered.

Be ever watchful, ladies. Both pinched bottoms and stolen wallets are not fun! When using the subway in developing countries in male-dominated societies, make every effort to behave modestly. Wear a fake wedding ring to deter unwanted advances and sport sunglasses to hide your eyes. In some cultures, simply meeting a man’s gaze means that you welcome both his attention and his company.

How to Keep Valuables Secure and Out of Reach of Thieves

While there are all sorts of pickpockets with varying levels of skill, many simply watch for people who’ve been naive and left themselves vulnerable.

  1. Use a money belt:   Using money belts are one of the best ways to secure your valuables such as your cash, passport, credit cards, and wallet.  Remember that money belts are designed to hide your valuables, not to be used as a wallet, which many travelers mistakenly do.  You need to divide up your valuables in two places, one locations which you need to access frequently, and the other location for your other valuables which you hardly need access to.  Use a money belt to carry the bulk of your cash, your backup credit card, and your important travel documents. Keep in mind that money belts are to be worn under your clothes and designed to be difficult for pickpockets to get to.

  2. Use a Security Waist Wallet — This is the traditional style of money belt which is a little easier to get to, but is still made to be worn under your shirt or blouse.  They have several different versions of these, some with slash proof rear straps, and others that feature RFID protection against electronic pickpockets.

  3. Neck Wallets and Pouches — These are designed to be worn around your next – another good option, and depending on the type of shirt or blouse you wear, may be easier for you to access.  Like the waist wallets, these too can have a variety of anti-theft security features such as cut proof rear straps and RFID protection.another good option.

  4. Hidden Belt Loop Pocket Wallets — These look like regular wallets buy have a belt loop tab sewn onto one end, allowing it to be attached to your belt and easily tucked into your pants or shorts.  This is a very convenient option, but you must wear a belt for this to work.  They are lot more comfortable and easier to use than other types of money belts and are great for those who need quick access to money and credit cards.  For travelers who wear pants or shorts without a belt, they even have a special hidden money and document pouch that can be attached to you shirt tail when tucked into your pants.

  5. Shoulder and Leg Wallets — These types of travel security wallets are designed for those who want to have easy access when worn under a shirt or jacket, as well as on your calf when worn on your leg. Again, many of these specialty security wallets and pouches even come with RFID protection such as this RFID blocking shoulder wallet.

Securing Your Travel Bag, Backpack or Day Pack In Subways

Pickpockets prefer stealing from bags over pockets. bag or backpack is probably the most vulnerable areas that pickpockets love to target. Backpacks are especially vulnerable because you can’t see if someone is trying to get into it when you’re wearing it. Here are some tips for securing your bag.

  • Wear it Backwards — When you’re on crowded public transportation a lot of people will wear their bag backwards because this allows them to keep an eye on it.
  • Use Anti-Pickpocket Zipper Clips – At a minimum you’ll want to lock your zippers.  You have several options to lock your bags external zippers.  You can use a zipper lock clips which can be used on a variety of different size zipper pulls, or you can use a flexible steel cable luggage lock.

Pickpocket Proof Travel Bags

For the highest level of pickpocket proof protection which traveling in subways, are a variety of “pickpocket proof” travel bags, daypacks, and purses that utilize a variety of anti-theft features to protect the bag’s contents from pickpockets. These features include tamper-proof zippers, cut-proof straps, anchored straps, and a slash-proof metal mesh sewn into the bag.  Pacsafe and Travelon are two brands that feature these types of bags and various anti-pickpocket features.