Pickpockets in [wherever you’re going] and how to avoid them.
Bob Arno’s Travel Intelligence
Pickpockets in cities and towns around the world are ready and waiting for you. So are scammers and con artists. For detailed advice beyond this page, see the travel advice given on our blog, Thiefhunters in Paradise
We love travel and encourage you to explore the richness of our planet. Venture forth and gallivant in confidence! But, as the Boy Scouts say, be prepared. What else…? Knowledge is your best defense… Forewarned is forearmed…
First, a brief primer on street thieves.
Muggers. These are prone to violence and, obviously, extremely dangerous characters about whom we claim no understanding. They are crude, smash-and-grab desperados whose advantages are speed and isolation. These individuals must be avoided at all cost. Stay away from deserted areas after dark unless you know the place well.
Scammers. They have endless ways to separate a sucker from his money. Don’t believe you have a chance at the three-shell game, the “pigeon-drop,” or changing money on the black market. You will lose.
Pickpockets. They want to transfer ownership of your valuables in a non-violent way. Some of these characters are prepared to meet you face to face but they have no intention of bodily harm. They only want what you’ve got. Of these, there are two types.
Opportunists. They watch and wait, on the lookout for a sure thing. A perfect mark, to the opportunist, is someone who has left himself wide open. He’s practically painted the word victim on his forehead. He falls asleep on a late-night train and his bags are there for the quiet taking just before a station stop, where the opportunist can make his escape. The perfect mark may be a woman at a sidewalk cafe who’s slung her bag on the back of her chair—out of sight, out of mind. Again, it’s easy pickings for the opportunist. These knaves are easy to outsmart. Use common sense to protect your belongings. Other slobs are out there for the opportunist—it doesn’t have to be you. Once you understand the opportunist, you need not be his victim.
Strategists. Also non-violent, these are the crafty ones, and somehow worthy of admiration. They create their own situations, instigate a way to get you off balance, divert your attention. Examples: The waist pouch, or fanny pack, is popular with travelers and can be relatively safe if its zipper is on the inside, against your body. But with a little distraction, it’s the easiest thing for the strategist to steal from. In some parts of the world, Naples for example, pickpockets are crude. They’ll grab your watch utterly without finesse, breaking the pin or strap. They’ll zoom by on scooters and snatch the bag off your shoulder or the gold chain from your neck. It’s crude, but they get what they’re after. The strategists, on the other hand, are sly about it. They practice the art of distraction. See below.
Which Pocket is Safest? The tightest one! Somepickpockets specialize in pants front, pants back, or breast pocket. But most will try any of them, if they think they’ll find money or credit cards. A common technique is “fanning,” whereby the pickpocket brushes against your clothing gently, to locate a possible wallet or money clip. A wallet protruding from a back pocket is begging for an opportunist. Ditto for a loose, gaping front pants pocket. We always advocate the use of a small pouch worn beneath your clothing if you’re not familiar with your destination. We especially like our own VAULT under PANTS, which hangs from your belt, but inside your trousers or skirt. In some cities of Peru, Colombia, Brazil, and Chile, a snatch (or mugging) is possible if the shadow of a pouch is visible beneath your shirt, advertising your valuables, or if its cord shows above your t-shirt.
We also feel that fanny packs (excuse us, Brits and Aussies: bum bags) are fairly safe, but: a) they announce the location of your valuables; b) in some places (Spain, Italy, Russia, etc.) thieves specialize in them; and c) they are very occasionally cut off. We recommend “locking” your fanny pack simply by securing the zipper tab to a rubber band around the belt with a paperclip. A pickpocket who relies on speed and swiftness won’t bother.
Women who carry purses or handbags: please see Pickpockets Prefer Women—Why and What to do. Our bottom line advice: It’s not what you wear—just be aware!
NORTH AMERICA AND GENERAL
SAFETY TIPS USEFUL WORLDWIDE
Crowds: North America has plenty of professional traveling pickpockets who make a living among the happy crowds at sporting events. Races, fights, and major ball games are lucrative grounds for these ordinary-looking scoundrels, but they also mingle among the revelers at festivals and holiday festivities. Watch out at Mardi Gras, the Rose Bowl and other parades, and new year’s eve celebrations, among others. You won’t be able to spot the enemy in advance, so keep your possessions close to your body.
The Old Mustard Trick: AKA the condiment con, a “good samaritan” (really a brazen thief) will kindly point out mustard, ketchup, or bird droppings on your clothes, and help you wipe it off. Never mind that HE put it there. You’ll never feel him “dip” your pocket or handbag as he expertly distracts you. Read about one of these perps—the man we call The Pigeon Poop Pickpocket.
Airports: Be suspicious if you are paged; it could be a ruse. Keep your eyes or a body part on your bags at all times. Be particularly vigilant at the security checkpoint. Do not put your valuables on the conveyor belt until you are certain you can walk through the metal detector without delay. If someone suddenly cuts in front of you, beware. A common criminal strategy swiftly separates you from your goodies when the interloper is required to back up and empty his pockets. While you are delayed, your belongings travel to the other side of security where, of course, they instantly acquire new owners. In this team sport, your laptop is both goal and prize.
Public Transportation: Subways and buses, like other big-city crowd situations, offer the ideal work environment for pickpockets. The thieves are anonymous, with a good excuse to be close to you, while you are distracted and possibly bogged down with bags. Watch for someone who gets on and then immediately gets off, before the bus or train departs; or at the last moment, never boards at all.
Escalators: Recognize the Pile-Up-Pick. The person in front of you drops something just as the escalator ends, bends to pick it up and causes a pile-up. As people compress in the crash, the person behind you picks your pocket.
Department Stores: Female pickpockets often specialize in lifting wallets from purses on the shoulders of the victims. We have seen this in many department store surveillance tapes. It usually happens at a busy cash register, where the pickpocket uses a coat over her arm to cover her stealthy moves.
Casinos: Distraction methods are hardly necessary in a casino, where coin buckets are snatched from unexpected directions. Keep a body part on yours.
Public Restrooms: Rude, but true: you may or may not notice a hand reach over the door and snag your bag off the hook at the most inopportune moment. Loop it around the hook and keep your eye on it. Dropped coins in the stall beside could be a distraction ruse.
Hotels: These days, most hotel room keys are electronic cards. Your room number is printed on an envelope, not on the key. When you go out, leave the envelope in your room so if your key card is lost or stolen, a burglar can’t easily get into your hotel room. If you get a key, as I did at the Disneyland Hilton in Tokyo, with the room number right on it, complain. This is a serious security risk.
Restaurants and Theaters: It seems obvious, but nevertheless, we see this done all the time: Do NOT leave your purse under or on the back of your chair in a restaurant or theater. Do NOT leave a jacket with valuables in its pockets on the back of a chair.
Bottom Line: Be AWARE of your surroundings and belongings.
EUROPE IN GENERAL
Poverty, open borders, and greener pastures combine to bring roving thieves to all parts of Europe. Some pickpockets are the masters of distraction. How do you recognize a roving thief before she recognizes you? They’re often young girls, either pregnant or carrying a baby. Under European laws, this makes them immune to prosecution. The infants may be supported in a sling, freeing both hands for more important work. They may carry a flower, which they’ll try to give you in exchange for a few coins. This is their excuse to get close to you, to make contact. Many carry a sheet of newspaper to shield their pickpocketing. It might be a piece of cardboard, a map, or flattened paper bag—anything to cover their hand movements and further distract you.
Gangs of roving children surround tourists and distract with noise and grabbing hands. Children and women expertly extract valuables from fanny packs and even zip them closed afterwards.
The roving pickpocket may also have a youngster with her, a child too big to carry, yet too young to be picking pockets himself. That child is the hand-off. As soon as the thief gets a wad or a wallet, she hands it off to the child, who instantly disappears with it. The pickpocket never carries stolen property, if possible.
Las Ramblas in Barcelona: According to Commandant Miguel Lalom Clotet of the Barcelona Tourist Police, there are two major groups operating in the city: the gypsies and the north Africans. Their techniques are as far apart as their homelands. Our own research confirm this, and more.
The “gypsies” we’ve seen working in Barcelona are mostly female, mostly in pairs or small groups, and always on the move. Be watchful of your bags in La Rambla hotel lobbies; there are frequent reports of mysterious losses there, where guests feel secure. Do enjoy the enticing outdoor cafés, but do not place your bags under your chair or slung behind you.
The north Africans are mainly illegal Algerians and Moroccans, according to the Tourist Police. They work alone and in pairs. They are both brazen and careful, working smack in the middle of moving crowds on Las Ramblas. Some specialize in stealth moves, while others employ a unique “soccer move,” whereby they manipulate the leg of the victim, then apologize. We’ve seen them extract wallets from backpacks, front pockets, back pockets, and purses. Your only defense is awareness.
We have seen also observed devilishly deceptive pickpockets in man/woman couples.
A devious theft in Barcelona is the pigeon poop ploy, a local twist on the Old Mustard Trick, usually perpetrated by South Americans. The target mark is surreptitiously squirted with a gloppy liquid, and soon after approached by the culprit himself. It’s perfectly believable when he points out the pigeon poop on your pants, given the leafy green canopy above and fluttering cacophony around you. The concerned volunteer may help you brush off the mess right there, or he may take you into a nearby café to clean you up. In either case, he’s always long gone before you discover your pocket empty. These perps are prevalent in Barcelona. The local police call them “La Mancha,” the stain.
Watch out for the three-shell game—you cannot win. Operators whip out a cardboard box as a table and use hollowed carrot ends as cups, a green pea as the ball. A team can comprise a dozen or so with players, shills, and spotters. At the first sign of police, game’s over. Vegetables are scattered and the cardboard box is collapsed and tossed aside.
Sadly, bag-snatchers abound in Barcelona, but usually in the labyrinthine lanes off Las Ramblas, where they can disappear in an instant. Do not resist a bagsnatcher, as they have become more desperate and more determined in recent years. Several women have been killed and others injured in resulting falls. iPhones and iPads are also attractive snatchables, so keep them stowed to avoid “Apple-picking.”
Street Scams of Barcelona documents over a hundred interesting experiences posted by visitors to and residents of Barcelona. We love the city anyway.
La Sagrada Familia, the must-see cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi over a hundred years ago and still under construction: All Barcelona’s no-goods seem to converge at this important attraction. Go anyway! Just beware and keep your guard up. Pay the nominal entry fee and explore the cathedral.
Palma de Mallorca: Do not accept a flower from a woman. It’s a well-known ploy to get their fingers into your wallet. Believe it, it happens. If a girl or woman approaches you with a sheet of cardboard or newspaper, back off. Shout at them to get away. They’re experts at pockets and fanny packs.
Read about Barcelona street crime today.
Venice: Virtually pickpocket-free, don’t let anything keep you from visiting this magical city on water. No cars, no billboards, a feast for the senses. Eyes open when boarding the Vaporetto, however.
Rome: Pickpockets abound but now that you know, you’re well-protected. It’s not difficult to fend them off in the streets, but public transportation is another matter. Do not use the buses or subway without maximum vigilance—pickpockets are rife! The crowded environment and easy escapes tilt the tables in the thieves’ favor. In the summers, we often count more than 50 pickpockets in just one hour hanging out in the subway (on the platforms and on the trains) between Termini and Spagna stations.
Bus 64, which travels between the Vatican and the Termini bus/train station, is dubbed “the Heaven to Hell Express” and is an edgy blister pack of tourists, nuns, and pickpockets. By all means, use public transportation; but keep your hand on your wallet or your arm over your purse. The Colisseum is fairly well policed now, but pickpockets prey within spitting distance. The Vatican is not sacred, either. Read about street crime in Rome today.
Naples: Video cameras and cell phones surreptitiously offered on street corners are tempting, but you’ll walk away with a sack of salt in a bag, and wonder how it happened. Scooter-riding bandits buzz by and grab handbags and gold chains. Mini-muggings occur in some areas, with Rolex watches being particularly magnetic. Trams and buses are packed to bursting; do as the locals do, and hold your hand on your wallet when riding. Watch out for crazy drivers in this mad, mad, mad, mad city, where stoplights are merely a suggestion. Go and visit this birthplace of pickpocketing in the shadow of Vesuvius. Naples is the gateway to the ruins of Pompeii, the island of Capri, and the spectacular Amalfi-Sorrento coast. Pizza was invented here, and the coffee is legendary. The thieves we interrupt in flagrante invariably invite us for coffee. We call Naples “The City of Hugs and Thugs.”
Florence and Pisa: Many pickpockets, both roving, and north African. Women with children operate inside the dimly-lit cathedrals, where tourists least expect them. The train and bus stations, where tourists first arrive, are obstacle courses.
London: Street crime is definitely on the rise, but is not being ignored. Police are initiating innovative methods of control and surveillance. The usual pickpocketings occur in the streets anywhere crowds gather, and that means much of London. Tourist areas are, of course, hot spots. Leicester Square, Picadilly, Regent Street, Oxford Street, Knightsbridge, and around Buckingham Palace are prime danger zones. The Tube has maintained its well- deserved reputation for pickpocketing. Beware offers of assistance with bags, and separation scams around the train doors whereby a couple is separated from each other.
Athens: Lots of pickpocketing on trains and subways. A common tactic is for two men to casually separate a couple, then work on one or both of them while standing in the crowded carriage. The congested Plaka area is a theft zone, too. The train between Piraeus and Athens is rich pickings—full of rich cruise ship passengers.
With the influx of immigration, Scandinavia’s once-pristine reputation for safe streets has begun to fall to ordinary levels. It hasn’t quite dipped that low, but one can no longer be totally carefree. Bag snatchings from restaurants are becoming common enough for warnings to be posted, and subway stations routinely make announcements reminding visitors to watch their belongings. “Breakfast thieves” are the latest phenomenon, snatching briefcases and, especially, laptop computers, from hotel breakfast areas.
Prague: Scoundrels abound in this lovely city, whose classic beauty makes a visit well worthwhile. If you arrive by train, you may have already met up with bag thieves; otherwise, your first introduction to Czech trickery may be a gross overcharge by your taxi driver. Prague is thick with pickpockets, and they’re next to impossible to spot. They don’t even carry props, except for a jacket or sweater, which might be quite reasonable depending on the weather. Be very careful in crowds, which means in most of Prague. The best you can do is be aware, stow your valuables deeply and safely, and turn up your sensitivity. Look around at anyone you feel is too close, especially when crossing a street in a crowd. This is a good place to use under-clothes pouches, particularly one that hangs inside your pants from a loop through which your belt passes.
St. Petersburg: Poor gypsy women and children beg outside the Hermitage and other major tourist sites, and will hang around tour bus parking areas. They do not seem to pickpocket in these areas, but will steal items left in buses if the driver leaves or sleeps. Pickpockets a-plenty operate on the streets and in the subway. Muggings are common after dark. Absolutely dress down. Lots of real life stories in Russian Rip-off.
Durban: Very dangerous. Stay with a group and do not wander. Even a park in broad daylight may be off limits. Pickpockets are rampant within the outdoor markets and craft fairs. Bag snatching and mugging occur regularly.
Cape Town: Follow the tourist guidelines and you’ll be well- rewarded for visiting this fascinating and unique town. The popular Victoria and Albert Wharf area is very safe. Take the cable car up to Table Mountain, visit the Mount Nelson Hotel, and with caution, browse the weekend art market in the streets downtown. But do not wander after dark. Take only recommended taxis (ask your hotel; never flag one down). Take an organized tour to wine country or safari. Consider carefully before traveling independently.
Johannesburg: Same as above but more so. Lately, it is not recommended that one wander the streets of Johannesburg even during the day. Muggings are common; cars are frequently stolen and worse, hijacked. We cannot recommend independent travel in Johannesburg at all.
Lagos: Be prepared for extortion scams everywhere, even by airport officials.
San Jose: Gentlemen, beware the sexy ladies. They’ll hug you, grab you, fondle you, and whisper temptations in your ear. Then they’ll leave you for a private love affair with your wallet, which they’ve managed to slip from your pocket.
Lima: Snatch and run is the most common style here, perpetrated by gangs of piranhas, homeless street children. These gangs include one member with a knife who’s not afraid to confront a victim who runs after the little thieves. Their M.O. includes changing their t-shirts on the run to disguise their looks. They’ll also reach into bus windows to grab cameras and cell phones, and rip a money pouch or gold chain from a person’s neck, if it’s visible.
Tokyo: Remarkably safe, though pickpockets occasionally operate in the subway. The usual precautions and awareness are sufficient. More disturbing are the surreptitious bottom-pinchers.
Streets are safe, taxis honest, merchants fair, and street food clean. Watch your pink, $10 notes—Malaysian 10s look similar but are worth only half as much.
Bangkok: Watch out for snatch-and-grab thefts. Sadly, this practice has exploded recently. Perps are backseat riders on scooters. Victims are walking or in tuk-tuks.
Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers will tell you that where you want to go is closed today—”national holiday!” Don’t believe them. They just have their own ideas of where you should go. Everybody and his brother seems to know a “special-price” jewelry store, and strangely, “you must go right now!” Don’t bother—it’s just a little commission for the person who brings you in.
If you buy art or furniture to have shipped home by the store, take a picture of it just to be sure you get the right items. The very act of photographing seems to increase your odds. This is a good practice anywhere, by the way.
Read details of individual thieves at Thiefhunters in Paradise.