Purseology 101 (How purses are picked)

How purses are picked. All about purses and the thieves who steal from them.

how purses are picked

To pickpocket is to steal valuables carried by a person. In real life, those valuables are most often in a bag carried by the person.


Why doesn’t Bob Arno steal from women in his pickpocket stage show?
He’d never get away with it! Women are more sensitive and more alert. (He has additional reasons, but we’ll leave it at that for now.)

Then why are women more often the victims of pickpockets?
It’s the damn purse. They don’t have nerve endings.

Okay, just give me the dos and don’ts for purses, handbags, pocketbooks, or whatever you call them. Tell me how purses are picked.
Yeah, there are lots of dos and don’ts.

  • If you carry a purse, try to give it nerve endings: hold it snug against your body, never let it stick out behind you, especially never let it stick out behind you open.
  • Use a wide-strapped bag and wear the strap diagonally across your chest; or use a short-strapped one with the purse tucked under your arm.
  • Keep your bag closed properly. If it has a flap, wear the flap against your body.
  • Keep your wallet at the bottom of your purse.
  • Never hang your purse on the back of a chair in a public place, where it’s out of your sight. Keep it on your lap. If you must put it on the floor, tuck the strap under your thigh, or at least put the chair leg through it.
  • Be sure your purse is in front of you as you enter revolving doors, board trains, etc.
  • Never leave your purse in a shopping cart or baby stroller. Don’t leave it at your restaurant table while you go to the buffet.
  • Never set your purse down in a shop so you can turn your attention elsewhere. (Number one bag theft venue: shoe stores!)
  • In a public restroom, loop your bag’s strap around the hook and keep your eye on the bag. Dropped coins in the stall beside could be a distraction ruse.
  • To prevent a drive-by bag snatch, walk far from the curb, on the side of the street towards traffic.
  • Don’t be fooled at outdoor cafes, where the space is bordered by potted plants. Thieves can reach in between the plants and grab your bag.
  • If your bag is snatched, let it go. It may be impossible to fight the instinct to hold on, but try to ingrain that thought. You can get seriously hurt in a bag snatch.

Fanny pack security; how purses are picked.

What about fanny packs, or bum bags? Are they safe?
They are if you secure the zippers, which are otherwise easily opened by practiced thieves. Use a safety pin, a paperclip fastened to a rubberband around the belt strap, or string. Anything to make opening the zipper more difficult. If it takes an extra few seconds, the pickpocket will move on to someone else.

Fanny pack security; how purses are picked.


I wouldn’t. Out of sight, out of control. Good for beach stuff, guide books, and non-valuables. Or wear it on your chest.

I carry money in my bra.
Good for you. Many women tell me that works well. I haven’t tried it.

How purses are picked

How purses are picked. Your backpack is much safer from pickpockets when worn in front.
Your backpack is much safer from pickpockets when worn in front.

Do some pickpockets specifically target purses?

Yes, many do. Pickpockets tend to get comfortable with a specialty or two. They may specialize in stealing from cargo pants pockets, or inside jacket pockets, or purses… They’ve perfected their specific technique and want to do what they know best. Remember, the job is highly stressful, with countless risks. So each practitioner repeats a posture, a movement, and a routine that has been ingrained, and he uses a tool (jacket, hat, satchel, postcard, etc.) to hide his work, as if it were a security blanket. On the other hand, the goal is to get money, and possibly a “spread,”* so if he sees another opportunity, or if he’s desperate, he may step out of his comfort zone and diversify. There’s no rigid job description. A pickpocket’s diversity is defined by his tolerance for risk.

*A “spread” is a set of documents that allow identity theft or cash withdrawal from a cash machine.

You keep saying “him.” Are pickpockets always male?
No, but I dislike the repetition of “he or she.” We need a new pronoun.

How purses are picked: the matador position.
In the “matador” position, the pickpocket (left) slings a coat on her shoulder when she’s ready to work. The coat blocks others from seeing her handiwork.

So what’s the least risky type of pickpocketry?
Picking from purses! Because, as I said above, purses have no nerve endings. And the “pickpurse” has a few extra tricks to be sure you won’t feel it. He may lift the bag slightly from underneath, to take the weight of it off your arm or shoulder. He might work while you’re in motion, walking, or on a bumpy bus. He prefers a bag that is carried behind the arm, or one that sticks out in back. He likes open (bucket-style) bags, bags with easy-to-open flaps, or with zippers. And he likes bags with the goods protruding from them. How purses are picked… the methods are endless. And so are the opportunities!

How purses are picked: the matador technique.
The woman on the left used the matador position. The woman in the center is her partner, and on this day, they also had two boys working with them. The woman on the right is the victim.
How purses are picked: using the matador technique.
The victim pointed out the thieves who tried to pick her purse. They failed, nonchalantly moving on to their next target.

Sounds like pretty easy pickings.
Not as easy as the ultimate favorite: the unattended handbag. That includes a purse put in a shopping cart, in a baby stroller, on the back of a chair, on the floor beside you, on the seat beside you, or any place where you don’t have physical contact. You may turn away from it for a second, or be intentionally distracted by an accomplice. Your whole bag may be taken, or just items from it.

I’ll keep my bag on a short strap, or a wide strap, close to me, and I’ll never lose physical contact. Will it be safe then?
Pretty safe. There’s not much you can do about bag snatchers. You can avoid the scooter-riding type by wearing your bag on the side of you away from traffic. But sometimes a bag snatcher appears suddenly, out of the blue, yanks and runs. In that case, let it go! Shout, if you can, and if you’re lucky, there will be a plainclothes police officer nearby, or a brave good samaritan who gives chase (like my good friend Terry.)

What about bags that have a wire cable in the strap?
Dangerous. The thief can’t tell he should avoid it, so he yanks and you fall down. Perhaps into traffic, or down some stairs. You can be seriously injured.

How purses are picked.
This purse was slashed with a razor while it was carried on a woman’s shoulder.
Okay. They can’t be slashed through, and slashing is a pretty common technique. It’s a step further than I care to go, though.

What do you carry?
We’re talking about travel here, right? Going out in unfamiliar areas? I prefer a purse with a short strap that I can wear on my shoulder and that rides high under my arm. It becomes almost a part of my body, is safe from most perils, and can’t be forgotten since I never let it go. When I want to be extra safe, I carry ID, cash and credit cards in a pouch under my clothes, and use a purse for bulky, non-valuable items. Oh, and I do love underwear with pockets.

Have a horror story?
I do, but there’s not much to be learned from it. I know of a woman who did everything right. After assessing the security of her hotel room, she chose to go out with all valuables in her purse. She never let go of it. At an outdoor cafe, she kept the purse on her lap. She felt a presence behind her and assumed it was the waiter. It wasn’t. A man grabbed her bag and ran.

Add your story below. Or, if it happened in Barcelona, add it to my Barcelona Scams page.

©copyright 2000-present. All rights reserved. Bambi Vincent


  • Hi Lily,

    Both your suggestions are good. (1) Fastening a zipper tab causes a thief to take extra seconds. After fiddling for a moment or two, she’ll likely move on—but it’s not guaranteed! Yes, a zipper can be opened without unfastening the tab, by poking a ballpoint pen smack into the zipper and sliding it. (Try it out yourself on an old duffle!) But I haven’t heard of this being done on backpacks. It’s usually done on zipped luggage. Would you be aware of the zipper being opened in either of these ways? Well, that depends on the situation: are you standing in a packed crowd on a bumpy bus or train? Are you distracted? Really, even with these precautions, it’s best to wear the backpack in front of you in these instances.
    (2) The bag in the example you show is a good, safe one. It has a full flap that covers the zipper and again, slows access. But it doesn’t prevent access—so again, I’d keep it in front when you’re in crowds or not paying attention.

  • Hello Bambi.

    As a backpack user, I am always concerned about thieves. I have two questins for you:
    (1) If the zipper is completely or partially exposed but it is secured in one way (with a locket or a paperclip), may the zipper still be opened without me becoming aware of it (and without removing the locket/paperclip)?
    (2) If the backpack has the zipper on the upper part and the zipper itself is covered with an additional pat (for example like this one: goo.gl/2HQfvo), may this discourage thieves or can they still dip into?

    Thank you.


  • A good adise is that if you are travelling in a city bus or train do not stay around. Try to find a place to sit. If you sit youaremuch more safe. If you have to stay then lean with the back on the wall or the closed door so that you can see what is happening around you. Hold your stuff at your body.

  • My husband and I try to only carry what we need for the day with us when we leave our hotel. We also split our money between us so that hopefully if one of us is pick pocketed we won’t loose everything. We take careful count of the money that we leave in the hotel and take pictures of everything. Going to and from airports and train stations is the time that worries me the most as of course we are carrying everything on us. My purse is usually clutched to my chest when going through a crowd or a place that’s known for pickpockets such as a train station. I’m sure at some point we’ll get pickpockets, with the amount of travel we do I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet! But hopefully with the precautions we take the damage will be minimum.

  • Seems that you’re doing all the right things, Silvia. You could wear the backpack in front when you’re in crowded places like the train/metro stations and onboard. But it might be too heavy for that. There are also some backpacks with only a single zipper—probably not as convenient as the one you have. You could fasten the zipper tabs with a paperclip or twist tie to make it a little slower to open. Lastly, you could put some sort of raincoat or fabric cover over the entire backpack to make it harder to access the zippers—like a giant shower cap with an elastic edge. But really, your wallet seems safe where you keep it, and no thief will steal your school books. Good luck!

  • I take a backpack to university and work, because the weight isn’t bearable with a shoulder-strap bag.
    I have to travel a lot between cities by train and there are a lot of pickpockets (there are always warnings in trains and so on).
    My backpack has a lot of compartements and I keep my wallet in the one directly at my back and even with an open zipper not easily reachable. Everything within easy reach is non-valuable and even if the backpack is slashed, there will be books and other stuff falling out and making a lot of ruckus.
    Also, there is a breast-strap on the backpack, which presses it more into the back.

    Still, I still feel vulnerable in large crowds or at stations. Is there something else I should consider?

  • Neha, in most parts of Italy you can have your camera exposed, but some areas do require extra caution. In Naples, I’d be more careful; and if you forget and walk around with your camera, the locals will caution you—unless you meet the wrong local first!

  • Quiet valuable tips.We are soon planning a trip to Italy.Now I have got some ideas on how to keep the valuables safe.I guess I would keep a money belt with important documents , strapped below my cloths. Can I carry my camera hung from my neck? Would that be safe? I am thinking to leave laptop and ipad, in case we carry them, in the hotel only.

  • Two years ago my wife and I were on the main street of a small town in France. I keep everything of value that I wish to take with me from our room in a slash-proof messenger-style bag worn strapped high across my chest with all exterior zippers closed and locked, the outer flap worn in against my body, and my left arm constantly resting on it holding the strap. Nothing is ever kept in my pants pockets. As we leaned up against a building’s front facade to get our bearings, I noticed an older man with a cane in his left hand staggering down the street, muttering out loud as he came towards us, acting quite drunk. Having a good idea what was about to happen, I pushed my wife behind me as he approached. Sure enough, as he went to pass in front of us, the cane switched to his right hand, he lost his balance and stumbled into my right side, face to face. Of course, his now-empty left hand went right around in back of me to my right back pant’s pocket where he felt…nothing. “Sorry, my friend, this tourist doesn’t keep anything there.” He then mumbled something in French and backed away, unsuccessful at obtaining my wallet. I do speak a smattering of French, so he received a very unflattering goodbye from me as he suddenly moved away from us, no staggering, and the “prop” cane back in the left hand. On to his next target, no doubt.

  • Never trust a Burkha-clad Woman next to U or Behind U. My wife’s cloth bag was recently Cut by a Burkha-clad woman(or is it a man in Burkha?) at a popular Chemist shop in Chembur Mumbai. She came next to her and while my wife had her eyes concentrated on the various drugs spread on the counter,the Burkha woman cleanly slit-open the cloth bag slung under her right arm and whisked away the Big Black Money Bag and her purse cleanly. The Drug Shop’s CCTV footage showed the Image of the Pickpocket but the cops in Chembur Mumbai were least hopeful of catching the thief pp. So 4 nos Credi/ATM Cards lost and INR 2000 cash lost along with IDs…So is there a Shopping Bag available at Online stores like Amazon that have a CAGED INNER BAG not amenable to cuts?

  • What a shame, Carol. It’s important to stay vigilant about valuables, always. The thieves watch for that short moment of distraction and, as you said… boom! They hit. Don’t blame the cafe.

    Bob and I just did a tv segment on pickpockets in Rome. It’s for a German station, RTL, and the program is “The Reisechecker.” It will be broadcast November 11 in Germany, and probably online after that.

  • I still feel bad about our really last minute in Rome … Where about to leave and having a flight at 11am ,
    At around 7 30am we enjoy our last
    Espresso at the hotel cafe, but sad to say my husband left his bag open
    In that last minute, and boooommm !! We lost the money we had. It’s so bad please Don’t trust this Hotel Planet at Rome Termini, this I think
    Their tactics of stealing money to guest . We learn our lesson . And hope that person took will have a very bad karma .

  • I’m moving to Madrid to take up language courses for several months. This actually worries me so much especially during my first few weeks when I have to do a lot of paperwork to get NIE, residence card, and foreigner’s identity card where I’d be carrying around a lot of important documents like my passport, birth certificate and other valid IDs. Of course I also have to carry around cash to pay for the administration fees. It’s just so unfair cause you’re already busy adjusting, trying to figure out where to go next, language barrier and then you also have to worry about pickpockets and thieves. Makes me think twice now about moving to Madrid. I’m from the Philippines which is a third world country and we don’t even have this kind of problem unless you’re extremely stupid and careless.

    It’s something I really have to adjust to because I’ve travelled to places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Los Angeles and you can literally leave your stuff on the table and people won’t even bother to come near your stuff. And now I have to live in a country full of pickpockets and thieves! :-(

  • im old fashion. i put my wallet directly inside my bra cup. i know it shows a bit but i dont care. a womans bra cup is safe and convient. sometimes simple is the best.

  • Locks on all zippers.
    They are getting aggressive. Some friends of ours came back from Rome recently. Falling gypsy handed baby to her. My friends pack was slashed and the camera was gone, the gypsy ran yelling in English baby thief!

  • My wife and I are visiting Rome. I was looking at securing my camera with a steel cable attached to my belt AND backpack. Your thoughts?

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