Spain – Barcelona and Madrid Pickpocket Scams – A Must Read!

BY Beth Williams

Barcelona and Madrid Pickpocket Scams

Pickpocketing and theft can occur in any part of Spain; however Barcelona and Madrid are the top two reported locations.  As a matter of fact, the city of Barcelona was reported by Trip Advisor as the number one pickpocket location in the world in 2009. When you go to Barcelona, everyone tells you to watch out for pickpockets. The locals tell you to watch out for pickpockets. Even pickpockets tell you to watch out for pickpockets! Walking on the Ramblas Pickpocket Scams in Barcelona and Madrid Spain

While Madrid and Barcelona seem to have the lion share of pickpocketing reports, other attractive pick pocketing cities include Valencia, Granada, Seville, the Costa del Sol region and the island of Mallorca. Regardless where you are you should always pay careful attention to personal belongings when using public transportation, visiting national monuments or tourist attractions (e.g. Museums, Churches, city squares, popular shopping areas, etc.), dining in restaurants, and anytime you are in a crowded place or find yourself on a deserted street.  Many say Barcelona is the “Pickpocket Capitol of the World,” and you will find countless travelers and articles that document this statement.  Check out this article regarding an English couple who fell victim several times to scam on a recent trip they took in Barcelona.  Another first hand Barcelona pickpocket article to read involves two sets of tourists on a cruise ship day tour who fell victim to professional pickpockets on the Metro just outside of the Gaudi Sagrada Familia Museum – This read really get you in tune to how quick Barcelona pickpockets can ruin your trip.

Theft is simply a crime of opportunity. Educating yourself about some of the simple scams is a great first step to avoid being a target. Below are some examples of high pickpocket locations in Barcelona and Madrid, current tourist scams, and tips to avoid being a victim of theft.

Across Spain touching, even strangers is not taboo. When asking for directions, it is normal for people to put their hands on your back or even grab your arm to sell you something. However, the simple act of touching is also the pickpocket’s secret weapon.  A simple touch by a pickpocket can quickly move your attention away from your belongings.

You will find that people will touch you on the escalators to move by and when passing from the opposite direction, may bump into you without apologizing. Do not always assume that a touch is a pickpocket scheme, but immediately clutch your valuables to be safe.


Barcelona Pickpocket Locations

While pickpockets can strike anywhere, they do seem to target some locations more than others.  Obviously, a lot of this has to do with the

Pickpocket proof wallet with removable chain

Pickpocket proof wallet with removable chain

amount of tourists that frequent these locations.

  • The Central Area (Cathedral Square).
  • Las Ramblas
  • Plaza Catalunya
  • Plaza Real
  • Gothic Quarte
  • El Raval
  • Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square)
  • La Boqueria Market
  • Sagrada Familia
  • Via Laietana
  • Moll de la Fusta
  • Olympic Stadium
  • Barrio Chino

Transportation Pickpocket LocationsBe careful of pickpockets at the Barcelona Sants Metro Station

  • The metro, rail, and subway stations around central Barcelona have always been havens for pickpockets.  Just automatically assume that any time you enter these stations or trains in any station around central Barcelona will have pickpockets.  Taking that into consideration, there are some stations in the metro area that do have a higher victimization rate than others – and this has to do with the fact that these are the most popular with tourists – thus the larger amount of thefts.  The prime metro subway stations for pickpockets are the Barcelona Sants station, as well as Plaza Catalunya, Liceo, Drassanes, Urquinaon a, Jaume I and Barceloneta,  Placa Espania, and Passeig de Gracia.  Another prime pickpocket location is Lines L3 (Green) which runs through Las Ramblas, as well as the L4 (Yellow) and goes to the beaches from main city center metro stations.  The classic scams used at or between these stations include pickpockets who favor the group micro-crowding scam.  As people board the train, an accomplice unexpectedly stops just inside the door causing you to collide with them. As you’re expressing your apologies, your pocket is picked by a thief standing outside. The accomplice you ran into steps off the train as the door closes. You’re left on the train as you leave the thieves (and your wallet) behind at the train station.
  • City buses, e.g. Bus #24 direction Park Guell – This bus is always filled with unsuspecting tourists as it’s the best public transit method to get to Parc Güell.  Pickpockets who have been known to work this bus line are commonly known to carry a newspaper or coat over the arm to block the view or their other hand which steals your wallet out of your pocket or purse.
  • Lines for the tour buses, e.g. Bus Turistic

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Madrid Pickpocket Locations

Antitheft bag with locking zippers

Anti-theft bag with locking zippers keeps pickpockets out.

  • Public Transportation
  • Plaza Major
  • Plaza Sol
  • El Rastro Flea Market
  • Puerta del Sol near the Atocha train station
  • Retiro Park
  • Older areas of the city including the Royal Palace

Pickpocket Scams to Avoid in Spain

The techniques used to scam tourists do not seem to be location specific; rather the same methods are used throughout the country and in many cases, the world. While the script for each scam may vary, the principles behind the scam generally are the same.
Typically a thief targets a seemingly naïve tourist and, attempts to catch them off guard, and distract their attention. Once the tourist is distracted, it is much easier for the thief to remove a wallet from a back pocket or lift a watch from a wrist, Lastly, it is important to note that a pickpocket comes in many shapes and sizes: young children, older women, well-dressed men, people disguised as fellow tourists, lone and gangs of thieves.  The below shows how a pickpocket operates – watch the video and listen to the great narration that is given.

Restaurant Scams and Pickpockets

    1. In Europe, it is common to pay a restaurant bill with cash. A bill totals, for example, €40 and the customer pays with a €50 bill. The waiter collects the money and returns regretfully, saying that the bill is counterfeit. The waiter then returns the bill, plus any change due to the customer (€10 change) and the customer provides the waiter another, authentic €50 bill.

Scam: The waiter returned the customer a “fake” €50 bill, plus due change. The customer has now paid €90 for a €40 meal.

Solution: Try to mark bills with pencil, so they are recognizable if returned or ask to speak with management if a waiter indicates a bill is counterfeit.

    1. A friendly tourist or well-dressed man recommends a bar for drinks or a restaurant for dining. Once the tourist enters the local, he is immediately served a drink (e.g. beer). Soon after a young woman seats herself next to the man and asks, “Can you buy me a drink?” He obliges.

Scam: The bill for the beer and the young woman’s drink totals €80. The bill must be paid, or the customer will have to deal with the rather angry looking, large bodyguard at the door.

Solution: It is smart to check menu prices for any restaurant or bar before ordering. If prices are not posted, ask to see a menu before being seated.

    1. On the street, you receive a coupon for a restaurant to buy one dish, receive the second dish free. You go to the restaurant and order the two dishes only to find out that the coupon has expired. You then order only one dish, but in the end, pay more than you had originally intended – the intention was two dishes for the price of one.

Scam: This is a tactic by restaurants to get customers to their restaurants, and perhaps spend more money than they had planned.

Solution: Make sure to ask about the terms of a coupon before ordering.

    1. While sitting in a restaurant near the door in a corner seat, you place your bag or camera on the chair next to you. Suddenly a man taps the window and motions, “what time is it?” You pantomime, “4 o’clock”, to the man and at the same time, another man appears near your table.

Scam: As you are paying attention to communicating the time to the man outside, the man near your table has just stolen your bag.

Solution: Do not set belongings on a chair, rather hold them in your lap or wrap a strap of the bag around your leg. If someone tries to take the bag, you will feel the weight removed from your lap or the tugging on your leg.

Pickpockets Scams at Monuments, Public Squares, and Other Public Locations

Keep valuables hidden from pickpocket is barcelona and madrid

Keep valuables hidden

    1. A woman with a French accent and clearly upset approaches you stating that her bags have just been stolen, and she has no money or identification. She asks for money for a meal or room for the night.

Scam: Many tourists have encountered such a situation in Barcelona. The tourist may speak English, French or even German. The woman is not a victim or a tourist; rather she is trying to try to manipulate actual tourists into giving her money.

Solution: Offer to help the woman make a police report. This will let you know if she is truly a victim.

    1. A group of women approach you and try to sell you a map of the area.  The women get very aggressive, unfold the map in your face and try really hard to get you to buy the map as the rest of the women surround you.

Scam: The Ramblas and other public areas in large tourist areas seem to attract this type of scam.  The “Map Scam”  goes like this:  A band of somewhat disheveled women gathers around you.  They quickly pretend to sell you a map of the area.  These women get really pushy, open the map and hold it up to your face as the other women surround you.  If this occurs, get your hands straight to your pockets. These women are skilled at their chosen profession and will be in your pockets, even if zipped, in seconds.  Other Spanish cities have a similar problem. Madrid has the ‘map selling’ gangs of women.  In Madrid, several reports of this scam have been reported in Retiro Park.

    1. A group of women who are crying and wailing approach you and even bump into you with a cardboard sign. The sign has something written in Spanish on it. (This has also occurred with young women rushing tourists with newspapers).

Scam: The group catches you off guard and because they are so close to you, you become distracted from your surroundings. This makes it possible for your wallet to be stolen, for a purse to be unzipped and items removed, and even money belts located underneath your clothing to be found.

Solution: Be aware of your surroundings, observe the people near you. If a group of people or a stranger approaches you, try to maintain distance, or even walk away.

    1. A confused tourist approaches you asking for directions to a well-known monument. You pull out a map and point in the direction of the monument. The tourist becomes hysterical and points to something else in another direction.

Scam: The “tourist” is trying to catch you off guard and distract your attention. An accomplice now has the perfect opportunity to steal your belongings.

Solution: If someone approaches you asking for directions, place your bag across your body, so that it is harder to grab, or if sitting, wrap a strap of a bag around your leg.

    1. A woman approaches you and pins a flower on your shirt. If you do not reject the flower, the woman will then ask for money – perhaps
      Hidden Passport and Wallet Holster keeps valuables close

      Hidden Passport and Wallet Holster

      one Euro. You pull out your wallet to give the woman money.

Scam: The woman sees bills in your wallet and attempts to quickly grab everything she sees.

Solution: Do not accept any “gifts” from anyone. They are NEVER free. This scam is quite popular all over Europe, and you can experience this in trains, subways, on the street, while sitting at a café, etc.

    1. A man throws some liquid on your jacket and tells you that a pigeon had an accident on you. He conveniently has a tissue and offers to clean it off. You take off your jacket so that you and the man can clean it.

Scam: Now that you have removed the jacket, and the man has gained your trust, he is able to stick his hand inside and steal any money or credit cards.

Solution: If someone approaches you offering to help you, thank them for the offer, but insist on doing it yourself.

    1. There is a popular “three card monty”, “pea” or “shell” game on many side streets in Europe. A group of people will be huddled around a table. There are three cups and the point of the game is to know where the shell is hidden after the cups have been shuffled. You have now watched many rounds of the game and see that people are winning, plus every time you also knew where the shell was hidden. You decide to join in. The shell is shuffled, and you know exactly where it is. The shuffler lifts the cup, and you are wrong. You decide to play again, losing again.

Scam: This game is rigged from the beginning. The only winners of the game are also “in on it” and are usually natives of that country. Once an “outsider” starts to play, they will lose 100% of the time. At this time, the shuffler and “previous winners” very quickly collapse the table and disappear in different directions.

Solution: Do not ever gamble on the street. It is probably best to stay away from these types of crowds all together because the chance of being pick pocketed it too high.

    1. A young person approaches you with a clip board and asks for your signature to support a cause.

Scam: Now that both of your hands are occupied with the clip board, and pen, plus your attention is focused on reading and signing the petition, someone can easily steal your belongings.

Solution: It is advisable to keep one eye on a stranger who approaches, no matter how trustworthy they seem.

    1. As you walk along two or three woman approach and hand you a small rosemary plant as a “gift”, then begin a conversation with you.

Scam:  Gypsy women who hang out around the most famous tourist attractions–they have a knack for robbing even the most astute and cautious traveler.  Their ploy is to give out rosemary plants as “gifts”, then as the recipient examines the plant the gypsy grabs the palm of their hand and begins to read it as if they were a fortune telling palm reader. Once they are finished, they will have either a) already stolen your wallet or other valuables in your pockets or purse, or b) demand money for the rosemary and palm reading.

Solution: You will come across countless variations of this scam.  Just change out the rosemary plant with a paper mache flower, a coin, or any other small item that can be used to start a conversation.  Their goal is to put it in your hand to begin the distraction. It is advisable to keep one eye on a stranger who approaches, no matter how trustworthy they seem.

    1. Street sales people sell cute, little cartoon cutouts that dance to music. They are often Disney characters. These sales people are usually on street corners, beaches or out late at night.

Scam: These cutouts do not dance as displayed by the salesperson there is a magnetic field usually hidden behind the boom box that makes them move. Therefore, when you purchase this toy, it will not work when you get home.

Solution: Be wary of items bought from street vendors, especially at night.

Barcelona Scams Videos

Barcelona and Madrid Public Transportation Pickpockets

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Leg Safe, won’t fall off, fits most leg sizes.

    1. You are riding on an escalator or walking a narrow staircase, and someone in front of you drops a cigarette. They bend down to pick it up, but you are blocked from exiting. You try to go around, but the person steps in front of you again. Another person bumps into you from behind.

Scam: The person in front of you has distracted you, and your full attention is now on exiting. The accomplice bumps into you, so that you don’t notice their hand in your pocket.

Solution: If someone drops something in front of you, it is most likely a good idea to put your hand on your wallet or bag and check your surroundings.

    1. You are standing in the metro, and the passenger next to you pushes you. While your attention is focused on avoiding physical contact with them, an accomplice is able to steal your wallet from your pocket or purse.

Solution: If someone bumps into you or makes contact with you, this is a signal to check immediately your pockets and belongings to make sure they are still there.

    1. While riding on the metro, a group of people will start rushing to exit the train, but they never exit. During this confusing commotion, the “gang” can surround a person, and they work together to pick their pockets. These thieves have even been known to steal from money belts secured under trousers.

Solution: Always be observant of your surroundings. Try to stand by other passengers and not alone in a corner of a train.

    1. At a metro stop, a person will enter the train. Just as the doors start to close, the person will suddenly and quickly exit the train. In this moment, you notice that your pocket feels lighter and that your wallet was stolen. The train doors close.

Solution: Do not stand directly next to metro doors if possible. Be observant of fellow passengers.Pickpockets and thieves arrested in Barcelona Pickpockets have been working the Barcelona Metro for years due to the ability to easily target travelers.

To give you an idea of the level of theft on the Metro, recently the Mossos d’Esquadra have arrested a group of 49 people who between them had accumulated more than 650 reports of thefts on the Barcelona Metro system as reported in the local Barcelona newspaper the El Periodico. Crowded bus in MadridIn recent weeks, Catalan police have detained 49 people accused of theft, who together had accumulated more than 500 previous arrests and more than 650 criminal charges.  The arrests of pickpockets were made in two operations which targeted the two most popular locations these professional pickpockets operated, the Barcelona metro lines L3 and L4. Sources at the Mossos d’Esquadra reported that the first police operation, which was conducted in late May, resulted in the arrest of 23 people, and was carried out in the Barcelona metro line L4 stretch between stations Passeig de Gràcia and Barceloneta, as well as the popular L3 metro line “Sants Estació” stop. The pickpockets who worked at these locations were very active in using a pickpocket method known in Barcelona as the ‘cap’.  This Barcelona pickpocket scam occurs when a group of pickpockets gathers around a victim as they are going up or down the metro escalators, were about to go through the metro turnstile, or when they are entering or exiting  Barcelona metro cars. One of the pickpockets within a group would stand in front of a victim and drop an object, which they then bend to pick up. This causes a large number of metro customers to back up, which is where the fellow pickpockets use this distraction to steal wallets or other valuables. The second Barcelona operation resulted in 23 people being arrested and detained and when they were targeting travelers on the L3 line from stations Espanya to Lesseps, a popular route for tourists.

Scams that Occur when Traveling by Car

    1. You are driving, and as you come to a stop, a man tells you that you have a flat tire. You are unaware of the flat tire but pull over. The man offers to assist with the flat tire.

Scam: First, it is possible that an accomplice gave you a flat tire when you pulled over. Second, once you step out of the car to look at the flat tire, the accomplice steals your belongings in the car. Solution: If you step out of the car, make sure all doors are locked and that you have the keys securely in your possession. Or call for roadside assistance.

    1. When parking in a parking garage, you see two attendants working. They gesture for you to pull over. At this moment, they attempt the flat tire scam or another ploy to get you out of the car.

Solution: Most parking garages are unattended and have machines where you can pay for parking. Look for signs when pulling in.

    1. A person in uniform gestures for you to pull over and asks to see your passport. You show your passport, and then they request to take you to the police station.

Scam: This is not a real police officer, and they may try to steal your passport.

Solution: Ask the officer to see their identification card and offer to meet the officer at the police station.

    1. Note: Always drive with all car doors locked because car jackings can occur.

Taxi Scams in Spain

  1. You have just arrived in Spain, and you don’t know the country well. You decide it is less stressful and safer to take a taxi to the hotel. Once you arrive, you hand the driver a €50 bill for the €24 fare. As you wait for change, the driver waves the bill in your face, saying you gave him mistakenly €5. Because the currency is different, this is an easy mistake to make, so you give the driver another €50 and let him keep the €5 as a tip.

Scam: Once you are in your hotel room, you notice that you have less money than you thought, about €50, the taxi driver scammed you.

Solution: Try to pay taxi fares with close to exact change. If the driver tries to take too much money, first let them know that you are aware of the scam and if that does not work, write down his plate number and make a police report.

  1. When you step into a taxi, the taxi driver keeps saying, “Euro, Euro.” You show the driver that you do indeed have money to pay the fare and he reaches over and takes a €50 bill from you. The journey begins and then the taxi stops. The driver informs you that he is unable to take you to your desired destination and that you will have to find a new taxi. He returns the money, you step out, and he speeds away.

Scam: You now realize that he replaced the bill with a fake one, but he has already sped off before you can write down his plate number.

Solution: A taxi driver should never ask for money at the start of a journey. Note taxi identification numbers at the start of a journey. And never travel in a taxi without a meter.

Simple Tricks to Keep Your Belongings Safe while Traveling in Spain:

Before Traveling

  • Make two copies of your passport and plane tickets. Leave one set of copies with a friend or family member back home, and put one copy in your wallet.
  • Purchase a money belt or a special travel security purse with zipper locks and anti-theft straps for a secure way to carry valuables.
  • Prepay for accommodations.
  • Gather contact data for credit cards, banks, US Embassy, and plane tickets.

While Traveling

  • Carry small sums of cash plus one credit card when traveling and lock remaining cash, passports and credit cards in the hotel safe.
  • Use ATMs located in bank lobbies and preferably during bank opening hours.
  • Men carry wallets in front, preferably slanted pockets and women carry purses/bags across the body, rather than over one shoulder. Make sure they have security or anti-theft features.
  • When using public transportation, wear a backpack on your front and hug your arms around it. Try to find a seat rather than stay standing up where a thief can rub up against you.
  • Never set luggage down. Try always to keep one hand on it. Never hang a purse on a chair-back.
  • Safety in numbers – keep to the more frequented streets.
  • Try to avoid full metro trains, especially if you have luggage.
  • Try to dress like a local – no baseball hats or tennis shoes, or travel t-shirts.
  • Leave valuables such as jewelry at home.
  • Make sure to observe not only the beautiful sites but also the people around you.

Take a few minutes to review a variety of unique travel safety products that can help you protect your valuables from the hands of slick pickpockets.