This page describes:
•How pickpockets work;
•Some very devious pickpocket methods and tricks;
•Other scams and cons that target travelers; and
•How to avoid becoming a victim of theft.
GO FORTH, Traveler! But watch out—you’re more at risk on the road, even if you’re only going across town. You probably know your neighborhood, when to give a wide berth, and who’s a potential bad guy. Elsewhere: maybe not.
Pickpockets, those quaint, invisible, storybook characters, really do exist, and are hard at work at a multi-billion-dollar industry—in some cities stealing 6,000 times a day. Pickpocket statistics are elusive, but the numbers are huge and growing. Chances are slim that you’ll discern a pickpocket, but he or she will identify you as a tourist and a target.
Maybe your brother’s going to Spain, and he’s always got a thick wallet poking out of his back pocket, and if you mention pickpockets, he chuckles. “They won’t get me!” he insists. Or your girlfriend’s off to London, and you know how she’s so casual about her purse, carrying it gaping open on her back, slinging it on the back of chairs, kicking it under the table.
These are only the obvious risks. Pickpockets and con artists are way more clever—they don’t stop at the obvious. They’ve developed strategies to trick you into making your valuables available. They perform tiny plays, micro-choreographed from intricate scripts, in which you are a participant. The whole act is over in an instant or two. There’s no applause, but if the pickpocket has done well, he’s got something better. And then he disappears.
Know what a pickpocket looks like? Could you spot a thief in a crowd? Picture a grandmother, a trendy teen, an older gentleman, an adorable child… Bottom line: a pickpocket could be anyone. That good samaritan who wants to help you heave your bags onto the train, or wipe the pigeon poop from your shoulder, or fix your flat tire—they’ve all got thievery on their minds.
Poor us—we’re pretty much trained to trust first, doubt later. We’re at a huge disadvantage in the cynicism department.
How to Avoid becoming the Victim of a Pickpocket
With a little effort, anyone can avoid theft from opportunist pickpockets. You know, the ones who look for the protruding wallet, gaping pocket, open handbag. If you leave your wallet, camera, or smart phone on a cafe table, you’re asking for it. If you leave it beside the keyboard at an internet cafe, beware the postcard trick. Sometimes, even holding your purse on your lap allows a snatch-and-run theft.
Our book, Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams has all the answers. You’ll find more throughout this site. For example, pickpocket-proof underwear. Sounds funny, but for certain destinations and situations, they can’t be beat. You can also prepare for the worst by using our Theft First Aid. Bottom line: opportunist pickpockets are easy to thwart. However…
The “strategist” pickpockets are cleverer. They create their own opportunities, and make participants of their victims. You, the savvy traveler, will simply refuse to participate.
That requires the intentional cultivation of your under-developed kernel of cynicism, growing it until, at least, it is large enough and accessible enough to kick in when needed. That would be just when the deal-that’s-too-good-to-be-true finds you; the moment you are offered a free flower for your lapel, and when approached by pseudo-cops (fake police), bucket bandits, and sandwich thieves (who do not steal sandwiches). “Look over there!” Ha-ha, got your goodies!
Do you ride buses, trams, or trains? The subway, the Metro, the Tube, the MRT, BART? Pickpockets love public transportation. Watch Pickpocket King, the National Geographic documentary about Bob Arno’s thiefhunting. You’ll see exactly how pickpockets steal on buses.
Pickpockets like stairs and escalators within the stations, where they can sandwich their victims, perhaps dropping something in front of the victim and causing a pile-up.
Pickpockets like platforms where swirls of people-in-a-hurry rush this way and that in a crush of body contact that doesn’t raise alarm bells.
Pickpockets love the doors of trains, trams, and buses, where they can assist a passenger, push a passenger, make physical contact, pick a pocket or purse, then jump off as the vehicle rides off, putting instant distance between perp and vic.
Pickpockets like turnstiles—natural bottlenecks that give them an extra second to get your valuables.
The thieves like ticket machines, where they can shoulder-surf to get your credit card PIN, knowing they can steal that credit card between now and the end of your journey (with so many opportunities!).
And did I mention pickpockets on airplanes?
Not all beggars are pickpockets, but how is one to know? We had a long conversation with a pair of pickpocket beggars who explained just how they steal, then how they change their looks and get lost in a crowd.
Tens of thousands of gypsy beggars are part of an organized criminal ring whose enriched kingpins build expensive houses in their poor Romanian villages. Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, this trend has gradually exploded.
Rolex and What it Says about You
Do you wear a Rolex? If you do, you’re well-aware what a strong statement it makes. Why you chose it, right? In some cities, Naples, Italy being primary, they’re regularly snatched off wrists. I know—the clasps double lock and the links are strong. That’s not how thieves steal Rolexes. In other cities, wearing a Rolex sends a direct message to the thief: I’m rich beyond your imagination and my wallet is fat! Flashy clothes and jewelry send the same message. Yes, fake jewelry and knockoffs do, too. If you were a pickpocket or bag-snatcher, wouldn’t you rather steal from a wealthy-looking luxury tourist than a backpacker? That’s why conventional wisdom says dress down. It’s good advice.
Pickpocket Hot Spots
Thinking about visiting one of the cities known to have high rates of pickpocketing? Barcelona, Naples, Paris, Rome, Lima, St. Petersburg, London, Istanbul, Prague, to name a few favorites. Bone up on our Theft Thwarter Tips. Boiled down to its essence: know the risks; stow your stuff safely. But there’s so much more you can do to avoid becoming a victim of theft.
So many ways to lose your handbag. A bag-snatcher stepped right up to me once, face-to-face, grabbed the leather strap of my purse and simply broke it over my neck. Then he ran down an alley.
Back-seat riders on scooters and bicycles zoom up from behind, not only snatching the bag, but sometimes dragging the victim to the pavement, sometimes into traffic. There are ways to avoid this risk.
Do you hang your bag on the back of your cafe chair? Do you put it on the ground under or beside your chair? Bad idea. Potted plants around a sidewalk cafe give a sense of security, but don’t be fooled!
Scams and Frauds
Greed—yours—drives most scams. Want something for nothing? You’re not going to get it. If it’s too good to be true… run the other way! Good example: the bait-and-switch, in which you’re offered a hard-to-refuse price for a smartphone, iPad, or other goodie on the street. Watch out—you’ll end up with a box of rocks. A stranger on the street who asks you for money is up to no good.
The Shell Game
The 3-shell game is another scam, another money-sucker. You think you can beat it. You think you can win. You can’t. It’s fixed. It’s for suckers only.
Is the safe safe? Sometimes, sometimes not. What about the lobby safe? Where are you, what kind of hotel? What if there’s no safe in the room, or you don’t like its looks? How do you do a hotel room security check?
Pickpocketing and bag-snatching are first steps in identity theft and credit card fraud. Shoulder-surfing, Dumpster-diving, mail theft, and data-trafficking all open the door to financial fleecing. Online tricksters inveigle their ways to your most sensitive information. Hoax websites beckon and demand account numbers and passwords that go straight to thieves.
Skimmers, which suck up your credit card data and funnel it to fraudsters, are affixed to ATMs, in the apron pockets of waiters, inside gas pumps, and hidden in bank doors where you have to swipe your card to gain access.
One Pickpocket can Ruin your Trip
I hope I’m not making you nervous. Bob Arno and I are travel enthusiasts. We love the variety of being in London one day, Johannesburg the next, Mumbai, New York, Florence, Sydney, Cairo, Buenos Aires… all in a year’s work. The last thing we want is to frighten travelers. We mean to empower!
We believe that awareness and forewarning put a serious dent in the number of needless thefts that occur. One wallet stolen: it’s a small crime, not devastating. But its likelihood and consequences do not spontaneously occur to people traveling to unfamiliar destinations. Since the threat never enters their minds, they are not prepared to protect themselves.
Yet, the after-effect is annoying at the least, troublesome and humiliating at worst, with the added potential of identity theft, which begins with stolen information.
Bob and I say awareness is your best weapon. We say do your research, raise your antennas, and go forth: explore and savor the natural and cultural differences that make each country and city unique. Rejoice in your fortune to be able to travel. Bon voyage and travel safe!