A trip away is a time to unwind, recharge and take in new experiences and last thing you want to do is haul back baggage of horrid pickpocketing experiences and be wistfully talked of as ‘that cousin who was robbed in Madrid’ at family gatherings to come! Pickpocketing is rampant around the world and their techniques are so highly refined they would outsmart most of us. Staying vigilant in potentially vulnerable situations and having your wits about you can help thwart many a nicking attempt.
Pickpocketing in action: Bump into the victim
In a split second, victim is distracted by someone bumping into him, as he has his wallet pinched by another. There was no coercion or running away – just age-old techniques of misdirecting a person and drawing attention away from his belongings. Pickpockets on the streets use a variety of excuses to justify getting close to the victim and sometimes bumping into the victim as the demonstrated below, skillfully diverts their focus to steal an item from their person.
The Stain Scam
Seen all over Europe, in this scam the pickpocket creates an ‘Oops’ moment by deliberately dropping ketchup or some such stain on your clothes and shoes. They get all apologetic and offer to clean it up. Amidst the commotion, with your attention suitably diverted, an accomplice will pick your pockets and wipe you clean in a different sort of way! Should this happen to you, hold on to your belongings at once, end the conversation saying you don’t mind the stain and walk away.
The Sob Story Scam
A stranger approaches passers-by pretending to be in dire need. This may be for fundraising, food or medicine. Unfortunately they often have rather uncharitable intentions. In a bid to appeal to one’s inherent humanity, this scam sometimes employs seemingly deaf children. Compassion invoked, you engage with their heartrending cause or petition while beneath their clipboards the children get busy expertly frisking through your pockets. Avoid exposing yourself to this scam by walking away without engaging with them at all.
Street Game Scam
Dodgy street games come in all shapes and sizes, but the most ubiquitous one is perhaps the three shell/three cup guessing game. The participant is invited in to guess which shell the pea is under. These are particularly popular in Barcelona and Paris. The ‘participants’ are all accomplices who feign excitement to lure you into the game and compel you to part with increasingly large sums of money. Do not ever play this game. The man handling the shells uses sleight of hand, so they always win. Also keep in mind that participating in this game places you into a small crowd and you become a sitting duck for these potential pickpocketing accomplices.
Who are they?
Unfortunately pickpockets are not easily recognisable, they look as commonplace as you and me. In many places, pickpockets often tend to be children and for good reason too. People usually let their guard down around kids, kids are the least suspicious in a large crowd and these child filchers cannot be easily reprehended by the law. Often pickpockets work in groups, sometimes even as large as teams of 5 to 10. While one casually distratcs, another steals your wallet, a third one whisks it away and the rest stand nearby pretending to looking an innocent as possible.
The major European cities get more than a fair share of tourists and thereby, inevitably, more than its share of dodgy folk who want to make a quick buck the easy way. Barcelona is considered to be the pickpocket capital of the world. There over 300 thefts reported every day in Barcelona. Rome, Paris, Madrid, London and Amsterdam are also at the top of the list. That is not to say the relatively less frequented European cities are any safer as Athens, Prague, Lisbon and Florence make the cut too.
While any theft is disastrous, the most dreadful kind is one where documents are involved. Having your passport stolen in a foreign country could make a holiday. Photocopying the passport including the visa pages or better still storing scanned images in the cloud would certainly help in the event that the passport goes missing. It is good practice to photocopy prescriptions, train tickets and other hard to replace documentation too.
Take pictures of the camera and other expensive equipment that you are likely to bring with you on the trip and keep receipts of purchases of these items. This will help if an insurance claim were to arise. The camera may be pricey but losing those early morning shots of the Venetian canals could be the bigger disappointment. Make the best of technology and back up travel photos on the go.
Secure your Bag
One way of minimising your chances of being robbed is to deter thieves, by adding an element of effort. So before you sit down to enjoy a leisurely midday meal in the busy plaza, make sure you loop a strap of your bag around your arm, leg or chair leg. If you are taking an overnight train journey, sleep easy by locking your bag and fastening it to the luggage rack or to yourself. No matter how small, the very fact that there is an extra impediment to overcome to get to the bag, is likely to deter the thief and make them seek easier targets.
Beware of people getting too close
There are a lot of friendly people out there, but even at the cost of being written off as a grump it pays to be suspicious of anyone getting to close, or those trying to strike up a conversation. Not all helpful strangers have ulterior motives, but there’s no harm in being wary of that obliging London local who points out that you may have dropped something or that smartly-dressed Berliner who stops to ask you the time. Stooping suddenly to tie one’s shoelaces and asking for a cigarette light are other popular ruses. And if someone gets extra close or bumps into you, its definitely time to switch to high alert mode.
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Wear a Money Belt
Old-fashioned as it may seem, there is something to be said about the age-old practice of keeping one’s valuables tucked away under clothes. The money belt serves this purpose and is a small, zippered pouch that fastens around your waist under your pants/shorts or skirt. While not wholly pick-proof, there is significantly more effort required for the thief in retrieving goods from your money belt than your back pack. This is the best place to store valuable belongings that you absolutely must carry with you.
Leave Valuables in Hotel Room
Very often there is no safer place than your hotel and valuables such as laptops and tablets are best left behind in your room. Most hotel rooms these days come equipped with safes and as long as you don’t forget to retrieve the stuff that you store inside, they are great for safe-keeping of high value items. Even if you don’t use the safe, make sure you put your valuables away from sight and not tempt sticky-fingered hotel staff. Despite all precautions, thefts do happen in hotels too but the well-monitored nature of the hotel environment and surveillance cameras makes this a less common occurrence.
Stay Vigilant in Crowds
Thieves thrive in crowded places, especially those only frequented by tourists, markets and popular events. These types of places offer easy pickings for the pickpocket on the prowl. In very busy areas, it would be wise to wear your backpack in the front, keep your pockets empty and put your money inside your shoes! Be extra careful when you have just arrived and have a load of luggage to contend with along with the crowds. Remain in physical contact with your luggage at all times and if you check them in, tuck away the key or ticket in a secure place. Keep away from public commotions such as a jostle or a street fight as these are often orchestrated by pickpocket groups to misdirect your attention away from your belongings.
Watch your Wallet
Undoubtedly, a wallet has to be the most pickpocketed item. Make your pocket hard to pick by putting your wallet away in the inside pockets of your pants. This makes it more difficult to slide it out of your pocket thus possibly giving you enough time to be aware of something not being quite right! The seasoned pickpockets can extract cash even without removing a wallet. Therefore, as a precaution always put the wallet in your pocket with the open side facing down.
What to do if you get pickpocketed
It would be advisable to take immediate action as soon as you realise your valuables have been stolen. If your credit cards have been stolen, contact your bank to cancel them. If your passport has been stolen, contact your the nearest consulate, to have it replaced. You should also contact the police to obtain a statement and your insurance company to report the incident. Unfortunately the chances of recovering your items are usually low, but at least you will know that your stolen credit cards will not be usable, and you have taken the necessary action that is required for your insurance claim.
Thefts and rip-offs are unfortunately a reality of travel. However, with adequate planning and caution, they can be kept at bay and not be a deterrent to exploring new and exciting destinations.
If you have any tips you would like to share, or you have a story you would like to share about keeping safe while travelling, leave your comments below.