Think you’re savvy enough to avoid being pick-pocketed while traveling?
Ok, so you’re abroad … the excitement has been building for so long, your luggage is packed, you've got your flights picked, your passport and travel sized liquids - you've notified your credit card company you're going overseas. Quite simply you’re prepared! In all likelihood your trip will be great and you’ll return with plenty of pictures and stories to share with family and friends… but what if something goes wrong, are you prepared for that?
Now this is not going to be an article advocating you “travel in fear” because that would be ridiculous. I’ve read too many articles with tips like “Don’t talk to any strangers”… are you kidding? You're in a foreign country, everyone is a stranger. So should you just stay in your hotel room and isolate yourself from the locals? Absolutely not.
All you can do is be prepared, be alert and be practical. Recognize that there are some people who make a living off of tourists like you. This simple realization alone should be enough to encourage healthy suspicion in certain scenarios keeping you a step ahead.
Most travelers give very little thought to the subject, however when you think about how much time is spent researching the destinations you plan to visit, getting the best airfare, as well as which hotels to stay, how much time do you spend learning how to avoid falling victim to a pickpocket? Probably very little. That's where reading this comes into play and for the traveler to grasp the fact that pickpockets operate all around the world and that the only way to truly avoid them is to understand how they operate. You should also know that while falling victim to a pickpocket is not a violent crime, it can ending up causing you to spend countless hours trying to stop identity thieves who ended up with your wallet. Read this article about pickpocket and identity thieves to understand how devastating having your personal information end up in the wrong hands.
This website has many pages devoted to the subject of understanding how pickpockets operate. Some of the pages have several videos that show you actual pickpockets in actions, and other give you specifics about the locations where pickpockets are frequently reported.
This page will provide some basis tips on avoiding pickpockets in a variety of locations such as while walking, using the train, or other travel situation where your valuables may be targeted.
The following are various ideas that travelers can use to protect their property - especially their wallets - from pickpockets
Watch videos of how pickpockets operate. This is the first step in avoiding pickpockets. By watching how they work, you have a basic understanding how they operate. Watch pickpocket videos found on our website that will give you several examples of how they operate.
In order to reduce your chances of falling victim to a pickpocket, you have to avoid being a easy target - which is what most pickpockets look for to begin with. Secondly, being prepared and aware, and most importantly, looking like a difficult target are equally important. The best pickpockets pick the easiest targets so they can do as many as possible without notice.
Here are some ways to avoid being an attractive target for a pickpocket:
What does a Pickpocket or Thief Look Like?
Don't always assume that a pickpocket looks like a transient or bum. Many of the most skilled and sneakiest pickpockets dress very well - they look like businessmen and will generally carry something official-looking in their hand. Many of these thieves will be women, some with children, just so them can better blend into the crowd so you will not be aware of them next to you. Some very smart pickpockets will pose as tourists with fanny packs, cameras, and even guidebooks. The best pickpocket is the best actor or actress.
Another thing to give additional thought to is the old adage - "don't judge by appearances." Some pickpockets work in teams where one of them dresses up in some type of uniform - done as an obvious measure to gain trust. In some Asian countries, pickpockets may dress up in a uniform that to you looks like that of a police officer - however it is just one of a security officer - but to the average tourist- you would not know the difference. The supposed "officer" becomes real friendly with tourists while his associate makes the "lift" of your wallet from your back pocket, or wallet from your purse. Be mindful of these confrontations. Also scrutinize over-friendly children and seniors because they generate much more trust - but can be just guilty of being a thief. Here is an actual photo of a pickpocket in action. A tourist was taking a picture of pyramids in Egypt when another traveler snapped a photo of a child thief trying to steal his wallet. Photos like this are rare and really give you an idea of how bold pickpocket are.
Being a Difficult Target – Make it Hard for them to Get to You
Walk with Purpose and Keep Moving
When traveling, it’s common to slow down and take in all the sights. Tourists want to linger in places and take their time. While enjoyable, meandering makes you stand out to pickpockets. Pickpockets know the look of obvious tourists - confused looks, hesitant steps and visible maps are the perfect indicators of a distracted person and therefore a good target. Take the time before you leave a safe area (a restaurant, your hotel, the train platform) to check your surroundings and directions before heading out. Perhaps write a few key indications (direction and street names) on a post-it for quick reference. If you do need to stop and figure out where you are - stop somewhere with a wall at your back in order to consult a map or stare at a landmark. If that’s not available, move to a wide open space where anyone approaching me can be seen. Consider ducking into a store for directions or to consult your map. Lastly, walk with purpose. Even if you don’t have a destination in mind, act like you know where you’re going – this makes you a less desirable target. Be especially careful to walk purposefully when in a popular tourist location.
If you suspect you are being followed/targeted by a pickpocket, change directions, stop and go in a different direction. Enter into the nearest shop for a few minutes to collect yourself and perhaps to make them lose interest. Pickpockets love stations because people entering and exiting them are very concentrated on getting to their next destination, and their paths are obvious.
Don’t Stop to Talk or Answer Questions from Strangers
Chances are, you look like a tourist more than you would like to, and pickpockets have learned how to recognize a potential mark. Therefore, it is very unlikely someone will need to stop you and ask for directions or assistance in English if you are in a foreign country. In all actuality, they probably know you are a tourist already and are seeking to confirm this and perhaps create some conversation to relax/distract you for a partner. We all want to be compassionate and help others, but when you are vulnerable with luggage and finding your way, think of yourself first. Walk with purpose.
Shake Hands with Caution
Locals are often hospitable to travelers – sometimes overly so. If a stranger is quick to greet and anxious to get near you, try to keep a hand on your belongings. A theft often starts with a handshake that lasts too long, which allows the thief closer access to you.
When Traveling in Groups, Designate Lookouts
When you are traveling alone, you may feel vulnerable because you are solo, but in groups pickpockets can take advantage of the confusion to pick on your most distracted members. Consider asking a member of your group who is planning to sit out, and can therefore concentrate on his surroundings, to keep an extra eye out. Keep the weaker members of your group in the middle when walking somewhere and those more attentive in the back.
Not in the Back Pocket!
Please don’t put your wallet in your back pocket, it’s a target on your butt. You may not like the bulge when storing it in your front, but you’re way more likely to notice a pickpocket reaching into your front than your back pocket.
When carrying a purse or bag, wear the flap against your body and keep a hand on it
If you are a woman who carry a purse, strongly consider a purse that closes with a single, central zip, (single entry point), and is carried with the opening against the body when possible.
Be wary of large crowds.
When walking through a crowd of people there will be lots of bumping and physical contact, you might come out the other side lighter than you went in. If you stop to watch a street performer be aware of your personal items, because a large group of distracted people is like a buffet for pickpockets. If your wallet’s in your front pocket then put your hand in there for additional security.
Keep your flag at home.
Many individuals, particularly those from the US, display the flag on their backpack, luggage, and even on their t-shirts. This tells them that you are visiting the city as a tourist. Do not get singled out in any way. Remember, the pickpockets are looking for these signals to identify their victims.
Never get familiar with local money in public
Since you will visiting countries overseas, you must get familiar with local money. But do this in private, before arriving in your new country - or in the safety of your room. It is not a good idea to advertise the money you are carrying at a public place. Also, keep the money and also your card inside a front pocket, and not in a purse or the back pocket. This will make the job of the pickpocket harder.
You’re not Bill Gates.
So don’t go through your wallet counting your money in public. I can't count the number of times I have been walking down a busy street and seen someone with a wad of cash, putting it in their wallet, fiddling with credit cards then putting the wallet in their back pocket; doing all this with their head down and still walking (not paying any attention to their surroundings). A street thief could easily grab their wallet and run. If you must count your money do it before you leave the hotel room, or at least somewhere private.
Don't travel with your entire budget
When in public, don’t go through your wallet counting your money. It is amazing how many times you will see people doing this - tourists, walking down a busy street and watching someone with a wad of cash, putting it in their wallet, fiddling with credit cards then putting the wallet in their back pocket; doing all this with their head down and still walking (not paying any attention to their surroundings). A street thief could easily grab their wallet and run. If you must count your money do it before you leave the hotel room, or at least somewhere private.
When visiting tourist destinations such as museums, monuments and other things in the city, you are going to need money for entrance fees. The majority of the time you will have access to automatic tellers all over the city. There is no need to have all of your money with you. Take out what you need, per day, or alternatively keep your cash (what you don't need during the day) in a safe in your hotel room. Plan ahead, and you will be fine, because by planning ahead you can also avoid long lines (where thieves love to hang out).
All or nothing.
When going out you don’t have to take everything do you? Think, only take what you need. This means emptying your wallet a little: leaving some money, ID, credit cards etc in the hotel room so if you do get pickpocketed you don’t lose everything!
After you have bought something put your wallet away quickly. Be mindful of walking out the store and “fiddling” with it. Put your wallet away when at the counter not at the exit of the store. It’s surprising how many times I see this. All you’ll do is highlight your wallets location to a pickpocket or present a snatch and run situation.
Know the Pickpockets and Scam Artists "Trick of the Trade"
For years, pickpockets have honed their skills on countless victims so the thieves and pickpockets don’t need to change their methods much; they just practice them until they’ve got it perfect. If a pickpockets is successfully in stealing your wallet, it will be because their method was new to you, but not to them. Here are a few of the distractions that pickpockets use to distract travelers and steal their property (refer to our other web pages for a more extensive list of these scams):
The Coin Con
Someone drops a bunch of coins on the floor of an airline terminal. Nice person that you are, you stoop down to help pick them up. Then an accomplice waltzes by, taking your laptop or luggage. Sexy distractions. A skirt is lifted, and so is the wallet of a man distracted by the sight. He should have kept that wallet in a hidden pouch instead of his back pocket or jacket pocket.
"Can I Read Your Palm and Tell You Your Fortune?
In Spain, scruffy women offer you sprigs of rosemary (as if in friendship), and then grab your hand, read your fortune, and demand payment. Don't make eye contact, don't accept a sprig, and say firmly but politely, "No, gracias."
You may think a swimmer is drowning, so -- Samaritan that you are -- you dash into the water. While you're paddling out to the "victim," an accomplice swipes the items you've left on the beach.
Some white matter lands on your coat, and you assume a nasty pigeon has flown by. But, oh no, it's a pickpocket who has distracted you with ice cream, toothpaste, or cigarette ashes. An accomplice wants to help you clean up and advises you to remove your coat. You know the rest.
"Hey Brother, Can You Spare a Dine?"
No matter where you are in the world, from New York to China, you must assume that beggars are pickpockets
"Hey, that many just hit that woman"
Know that pickpockets are very skilled in the art of theft and will create a variety of distractions to get travelers to "not pay attention to someone bumping into them" or "picking up a purse or travel bag" while they are watching what looks like some type of fight, scuffle, or shouting match. Know that when these acts occur around you, it may be a "set up" for other thieves who are working the crowd and looking for you to be distracted while they rip you off.
"Set Up Scams"
Set-up scams are time-tested and popular. On the busy streets of Barcelona, Berlin, and Florence, you'll find the shell game, or its variation, the pea-and-carrot game. Players pay to guess which of the moving shells hides the ball. It looks easy, but the winners are all ringers, and you can be sure that you'll lose if you play.
"Can You Tell Me Where I can Find an ATM Machine?"
Whenever cash is involved, it pays to be alert. If someone offers to help you use a cash machine, politely refuse (the person wants your PIN code). If a cash machine eats your ATM card, check for a thin plastic insert with a little flap hanging out — crooks use tweezers to extract your card. Cashiers, and even bank tellers, thrive on the "slow count," dealing out change with odd pauses in hopes that rushed tourists will gather up the money early and say "Grazie." Also, be careful when paying with large bills in restaurants and stores, and always inspect your change — in Italy, the old 500-lira coins (worth nothing) look like 2-euro coins (worth nearly $3).
We're the "Tourist Police" and we're here to Help
Just because someone looks official doesn't mean they are. In Italy, "Tourist Police" may stop you on the street, flash their bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or "drug money." You won't even notice some bills are missing until after they leave.
Fake "Hotel Inspectors"
Never open your door to "hotel inspectors." These scammers will knock on your door, look official, and may even show some type of bogus ID to make them look the part. One and tell you that they are "Hotel Inspectors." One of the thieves waits outside while the other comes in to take a look around. While you're distracted, the first thief slips in and snags valuables off your dresser.
You Can't Come to This City Without Seeing a Play or Concert
In Vienna, official-looking women decked out in long velvet capes roam famous sights, claiming to work for the opera house and offering to sell you tickets. The tickets are fakes, and the only seats you'll be buying are the ones on the bus back to your hotel.
Protecting Your Belongings – Make it Difficult to get to Your Valuables
When carrying a purse or bag, wear the flap against your body and keep a hand on it
If you are a woman, only travel with purses that close with a single, central zipper (single entry point) or travel security purse that has built in security features that keep out the hands of pickpockets. Travel purses or handbags like these are great. If you carry a regular, not security travel purse make sure it is carried with the zipper facing front and directly under your arm where an eye can be kept on it. Mini backpacks or purses that are open on top? Targets. If you have a flap on your purse or messenger bag, make sure it’s close against your body and not facing outwards. If you do decided to carry a day pack, consider a security daypack such as one of these which have built in security zippers so pickpocket can't get into the rear zippered compartments when you wear it in a crowd.
When eating or sitting, NEVER put your purse/bag on the ground or hang it on the chair behind you.
Countless bags are stolen from women when dining. Put it on your lap or on the table if it’s a small purse. If you’ve got longer straps or a single shoulder strap, hang the purse off your knee in front of you. Maybe it’s a little uncomfortable, but having your bag stolen is more uncomfortable, trust me. If you have no other option, consider putting the leg of the chair through the straps of your purse or backpack. The Clipa purse hanger is a new breed of purse hook which is very different from the older models.
The Clipa is something that many women use when they want to keep better track of their purse when dining at a crowded restaurant. This way you can hang the purse directly from the table where you can see it but it’s not on the ground. You could also use it to hang a shopping bag. Highly recommended!!
Don’t keep important things in ANY outside pockets in your suitcase, jacket, or purse.
If you have to give pickpockets access to something (you have too much luggage or several bags) make sure it’s not worth taking. Keep underwear in outside luggage pockets and not important documents. Use inside pockets of jackets and purses that have a zipper and/or button to hold important documents, and take advantage of clothing layers to keep your documents buried as much as possible.
Be Careful of Purse and Pocket Cutters
Some pickpockets use a very unique way of stealing wallets from the pockets of men, or from within purses. Some pickpockets are known as ""purse Cutters" or "pocket cutters" who use a thin razor blade to cut the pockets of pants or outside material of purses. While this is a very limited subset of skilled pickpockets, they do exist around the world. Read this posting and see the photo of a man's jeans which were cut by this type of theft.
Use a Money Belt
This is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to lower the impact of a pickpocket. Use a money belt to keep your passport, extra credit cards and cash safe and out of sight. Keep that day’s cash and a credit card in your day purse/wallet for easy access. If you must get into your money belt, do it in a safe area like a bathroom stall or changing room. Getting into your money belt to make regular purchases is not an effective use of it and draws attention to where you store your money.
If you prefer to carry a money belt and/or passport holder, make sure you don’t advertise where it is. Many times I’ve seen tourists walking around with a very visible passport holder bouncing freely under their t-shirt, or with the neck cord poking out and trailing down their back. They might as well wear a bull’s-eye! I prefer to use a neck passport holder like this one and actually wear it around my waist, tucked into my pants (also a good alternative for summer when wearing light tops). It was comfortable and not as noticeable, or you can get the traditional money belt version or an actual belt to conceal currency. Some travelers prefer to hide things in his socks. I’m not sure I recommend that, but if you’re interested in a leg pocket, those exist too!
Bring the Bare Essentials When You Can
If you have a good base location such as a hotel or a friend’s house, why not lighten up what you’re carrying with you when going shopping, walking in crowded markets or areas? Some reputable hotels also offer safe services for valuables.
Don't Place Your Wallet in Your Back Pocket
Pickpockets call the back pocket of a man's pants the "sucker pocket" for a reason - it is the most easiest to get into and remove a wallet. When possible use your front pocket to hold you wallet, as possibly consider carrying a special wallet designed with a material which is hard to remove without your knowledge such as those found on this website that features anti-theft wallets. If you have your heart set on keeping your wallet in your back pocket, you should understand how thieves remove wallets from them, then take a few counter measures. The most common way for this to occur is by a pickpocket who places two fingers into the top of your back pocket and carefully lifting the lining of the pocket to bring your wallet to the thief's hand; this is commonly referred to as “reefing.” Reefing keeps contact to a minimum and makes a much quicker retreat of the pickpocket possible. To make this type of theft more difficult for a pickpocket one can do two things (other than not carrying in the back pocket to begin with). First, place a thick rubber band around your wallet. This is designed to make the rubber band's rubber material to make contact with your pocket lining so you will hopefully feel it being removed. Second, place a semi-rigid card (a name card or a tag does nicely) in the pocket in order to obstruct the lift. Again, this is done to give you more time to notice the pick before the thief ends up with your wallet.
Using Public Transportation – Stay Balanced and Aware
Pickpockets are counting on your being unbalanced, distracted and crowded on public transportation. If you can, read about certain buses or public transportation that are most used by tourists – these are usually pickpocket buffets (the 64 bus from Termini to St. Peter’s in Rome is notorious for this).
When at Train or Subway Stations
Some thieves hang out at train-ticket machines, eager to assist you in buying tickets with a pile of your quickly disappearing foreign cash. When you are in the train station and someone who looks like an "official railroad attendant" offers you some help finding your seat - polietly say "no thanks." This is a common scam at many European train stations (especially in Rome). These "official looking railroad attendants" will surly take you to your seat, but once you are there they will demand a tip. These are not railroad employees, just local scammers taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists.
Stand defensive and prepared.
Swing any backpacks around to the front of your body and put your arms through the straps to keep your hands free. Not only will this help you keep an eye on it, it will make you more appreciated by regular riders as backpacks usually swing into people and take up more room. I used to tie the cords hanging off my backpack zippers together so it was harder to open. If rolling a piece of luggage, place it in front of you between you and your handhold, as close to a wall as possible.
Keep the right hands occupied, and the right hands free.
Keep a hand on your purse and close to your body and the other hand to stabilize your body while the public transportation is in motion. Don’t hold on with the same arm that should be protecting your bag! To further stabilize yourself, if you can’t get a seat, make sure to center your body in front of the pole, seat or other handhold so you won’t be thrown off-balance. Stand with your knees slightly bent to react with turns and bumps. Angle one foot in the direction of the braking action (forward for example).
The most rampant scams are subtler, such as being overcharged by a taxi driver. Some cabbies will pretend to drop a large bill and pick up a hidden small one, then tell you that you didn't pay enough. Others will select the pricier "night and weekend" rate on their meter, even on weekdays. To decrease your odds of getting ripped off, call for a taxi from a hotel or restaurant. If you do hail a cab, choose one with a prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Either way, insist on using the meter, agree on a price up front, or know the going rate. If, for whatever reason, I'm charged a ridiculous price for a ride, I put a reasonable sum on the seat and say goodbye.
Preparing Yourself Before a Trip
Before leaving, photocopy important documents and leave a copy with a relative/friend who can fax them to you if necessary. Keep a list of contact numbers available in your suitcase for reporting stolen credit cards along with a copy of your passport and other important documents. I also keep these support numbers in an email draft in my email so that I can access them from any computer (please note: I am not recommending you store credit card numbers in an email, just the customer support numbers).
Things to make a copy of and leave with a friend:
Credit card contact numbers (leave a copy of the front and back of your credit cards at home, not in your suitcase)
Tickets and travel reservation numbers
A Final Note
The above pickpocket prevention information is the most practical and logical way you can easily integrate pickpocket prevetnuion techniques into your trip without ruining your trip. Keep in mind that trips are to be enjoyed - but just remember that a little preparation goes a long way. You never fully appreciate how important your wallet or purse contents are until they’re gone. And being just a little cautious will result in a better experience for you and those around you. Use your instincts and a little common sense to avoid being a victim, so you can enjoy the sights and beauty of your host country!
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