TripAdvisor used to announce the top ten places worldwide to beware of pickpockets. This was based on the number of references in readers’ posts to “pickpockets.” For example, in 2009, Barcelona, Rome, Prague, Madrid, Paris, Florence, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Athens and Hanoi occupied the top ten slots. In 2010, London, Tenerife, Lisbon and Costa Brava joined the list, replacing Florence, Hanoi, Amsterdam and Buenos Aires.
While some places have a reputation for being fertile terrain for pickpockets, it’s wise to work from the premise that pickpockets operate in all cities and all countries. As a result, build some tips on protection from pickpockets into travel habits, irrespective of destination.
Table of Contents
- 1. Develop a healthy “respect” for pickpockets
- 2. Do your research
- 3. Use RFID-blocking accessories
- 4. Invest in anti-pickpocket gear
- 5. Find a good tailor
- 6. Have digital backups
- 7. Carry a thin wallet
- 8. Scrutinize the in-room safe
- 9. Keep valuables out of sight
- 10. Separate stuff
- 11. Avoid touching valuables
- 12. Stay alert
- 13. Keep your bag close
- 14. Use a Smartphone with care
1. Develop a healthy “respect” for pickpockets
Pickpockets come in all sizes and packages. They could be young children, a man in a business suit or a woman pushing a baby carriage. They might work alone or in a pack of three or four, each with a separate role. Most pickpockets are very good at what they do and need just a second or two to make off with valuables. Assume that catching a pickpocket in the act is not something to be counted upon.
2. Do your research
While it’s wise to assume pickpockets operate all over the world, it’s useful to know if pickpocketing is prevalent in any of the stops on your itinerary. A good starting point is the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Or, use search criteria such as “pickpockets in __” (name of city or country) or “scams in __” and look for posts from travellers describing common tactics used by thieves.
3. Use RFID-blocking accessories
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) skimming is becoming more and more prevalent. RFIDs are the radio frequency chips in passports, credit cards and other forms of identification housing all kinds of personal data. With a portable RFID card reader, an electronic pickpocket can steal personal information. It’s a simple matter of getting close enough, without personal contact, to scan the contents of a purse or pocket. With the newly acquired data, a thief could make fraudulent purchases or drain a bank account in short order.
RFID-blocking technology has been widely utilized in the manufacture of many products such as passport and credit card sleeves, security pouches, wallets, purses, bags and clothing. When looking for travel accessories, include RFID-blocking features as one of the selection criteria.
4. Invest in anti-pickpocket gear
Pickpockets prefer easy targets. Choose quality bags, clothing and security pouches that are so difficult to access, it’s not worth a thief’s time and effort. Security pouches can be useful – the kind concealed under clothing. My favourite security pouch is a PacSafe RFIDSafe 100 travel waist wallet.
Look for clothing with deep or zippered internal pockets. If carrying a wallet in pants, choose a tight, deep and/or zippered front pocket – never a back pocket.
Experienced pickpockets can easily access zippered pockets. Slow the thief down by securing the zipper with a small safety pin. Scottevest is famous for its range of multi-pocket travel clothing. In fact, Scottevest has so much confidence in its products, it has an anti-pickpocket guarantee involving reimbursement of up to $1,000.
Wear a shoulder bag diagonally across the body. Shorten the strap so the bag sits in front or tucked under an arm. Position it so the zipper pull or flap is facing inwards. Slash-proof bags with wire mesh lining add a stronger measure of security. So does a bag with a wide strap, which is more difficult to cut than a narrow one. One of my travel mates raves about the many anti-theft features of her Pacsafe Venturesafe bag.
If wearing a daypack, keep valuables elsewhere and secure the zippers with clips, ties, S-biners or mini cables. Keep in mind some pickpockets carry razor blades to slit open bags (and pockets) so wearing it in front in crowded areas will offer better protection. Pack it so items you can’t afford to lose are deep inside, preferably in a zippered compartment or tethered to internal bag hardware.
5. Find a good tailor
Design clothing and travel accessories to make it difficult for a thief to make off with belongings within a few seconds. For example, my travelling pants and skirts have zippered pockets with internal plastic D-rings for attaching small pouches with plastic swivel hooks. Each pouch contains either my iPhone or an aluminum RFID-blocking wallet. The design hasn’t been tested using an experienced pickpocket (at least not to my knowledge) but I figure there are enough steps to seriously slow down a thief. I can’t imagine his or her doing so without my knowledge.
One of the reasons I love the Tom Bihn Synapse 19 backpack is because of the internal hardware. Each of the five pockets has a plastic O-ring attached to the inside of the bag with sewing tape. There’s enough space to add extra O-rings to the main compartment. Packing organizes with their own O-rings can be attached to bag hardware with tethering straps.
For more ideas, see Anti-pickpocket gear.
6. Have digital backups
Don’t carry paper copies of credit and debit cards as the information can be useful to thieves. It’s one more item to keep secure. Besides, I don’t think the copies serve a useful purpose.
The most important information in the case of a lost, stolen or compromised card is the emergency contact details of the card issuer. These and other pertinent information can be stored in a password-protected digital wallet with a backup in a cloud-based account such as Dropbox.
Or, make several laminated credit-sized emergency contact cards containing emergency contact information. Scatter them throughout your belongings. If you are pickpocketed, contact your card issuer without delay. See How to make a traveller’s emergency contact card for more information.
7. Carry a thin wallet
A bulging wallet is difficult to manage and keep safe. It’s also difficult to pinpoint exactly what it contained if it’s lost or stolen.
Evaluate what is actually needed when travelling. To help you plan what put in your wallet and what needs to be carried elsewhere, see What’s in your travel wallet?
Make it a practice to never lose sight of your credit card. If a restaurant doesn’t have a portable credit card terminal to bring to the table, take it to the cashier. Immediately after use, return each card to its secure location.
8. Scrutinize the in-room safe
A safe, safety deposit box, locker or somewhere to secure valuables can be better than carrying them around if they’re not needed. However, do so with caution.
TripAdvisor maintains a long list of travellers’ comments describing thefts from in-room safes of holiday accommodation. Before using any safe, find out how secure it is. Test how easily it could be moved. Ask what procedure is used in the event a passcode is forgotten, or a key is lost. Does the hotel have to bring in a locksmith? If hotel staff can access the safe, what’s the hotel’s protocol? For example, some safes have a traceable audit trail capable of identifying who accessed the safe and at what time. Or, perhaps two or three hotel staff members need to be present when a safe is opened, and contents recorded. If in doubt, look into using the hotel’s safety deposit box and ask similar questions about its level of security.
9. Keep valuables out of sight
When packing or moving things around, do so in private. If something needs to be retrieved from an under-clothing security pouch, look for a washroom or other private place. Never access it in public. Pack or rearrange belongings away from prying eyes. Refrain from counting money or rummaging through a wallet in the open, as it’s easy for someone to snatch it out of your hands and disappear into a crowd. In some parts of the world, the contents of a wallet or security pouch is more than what some workers make in a year. Flashing it around is both dangerous and insensitive.
10. Separate stuff
Identify separate places for your debit card and credit card(s). If one is lost, the other(s) will be available. If you plan to visit an ATM, place the debit card in your wallet and your credit card(s) in a security pouch or inside pocket of your purse.
Also, split up cash between two or three locations. For everyday purchases such as a snack, to top up a transit pass, or to support local street performers, carry a few smaller notes and coins in a readily accessible pocket or coin purse. The larger quantity can be stowed in a security pouch or a zippered inside pocket of outerwear.
11. Avoid touching valuables
Pickpockets eye their marks for clues on where valuables are located. By clutching a bag tightly, patting a pocket or fiddling with what’s inside, you might be unwittingly revealing the location of your valuables. Official and “not-so-official” (as in fake) signs warning people about pickpockets can prompt travellers to check if their valuables are still intact. That’s just the sign a thief needs to hone in.
12. Stay alert
Remain aware of your surroundings, especially in tourist areas. Other vulnerable spots are around ATMs, outdoor markets, transportation hubs, and public transportation routes from the airport to the city centre.
- After a long flight when you’re tired and disoriented, try to appear alert and decisive about where you’re going. If you’re in Barcelona or Rome, chances are there are pickpockets assessing you as a target.
- Use ATMs in bank lobbies during banking hours, preferably when accompanied by another person. Always shield the keypad when entering a PIN.
- When out and about, travel earphone-free so as to concentrate on the surrounding sounds.
- Avoid talking or texting or consulting a map while walking. Stop, sit down, or back up against a wall away from passersby.
- When entering a building, bus or train, keep your bag in front and move away from the doors as quickly as possible. In those few moments before the doors shut, it’s a prime time for thieves to disappear out on to the sidewalk or subway platform with your valuables.
- Beware of distractions. These might include people bumping into you, asking if the money on the ground is yours, spilling something on your clothing and trying to wipe it off, falling down in front of you, or some other distracting manoeuvre. There are countless tactics to divert your attention away from your valuables. While focussed on the distraction, that same person or an accomplice is moving in on your valuables with lightning-fast speed. If you suspect you’re a target, create a diversion of your own by jumping out of the way, suddenly changing direction, or doing something unexpected. It may be enough to turn the tide if it’s done quickly. Every split second counts. Trust your instincts and remove yourself from a situation if things don’t feel right.
- As alcohol can impair a person’s judgement, plan “happy hour” back at your holiday accommodation or in safe surroundings. If you must go out at night to party, take just enough cash and minimal identification. Leave the rest of your valuables behind in a secure spot.
13. Keep your bag close
- Get into the habit of wearing your bag while doing other things – taking photographs, visiting the washroom, heading for the buffet table, trying on shoes, or stopping for a snack.
- In a washroom cubicle, don’t hang it on the door or place it on the floor where someone can reach in and grab it. Look for a shelf or hook within sight and easy reach, wear it on your back or place it in your lap.
- When sitting in airports or restaurants, wrap the strap around an arm or leg or the leg of a chair or table and keep it in your lap.
- On crowded public transportation, keep it in front – in your lap or worn across your body.
- Don’t place your purse or personal bag in the overhead cubicle on planes and buses. Keep your hand over the zipper or access flap.
- When taking a nap, loop the strap(s) around your body or legs and cover the bag with a pashmina or jacket.
- To avoid a drive-by bag grab, choose the sidewalk facing oncoming traffic. Walk some distance from the curb with your purse away from the street traffic.
- In the case of larger bags or suitcases, place them in front of you rather than to the side where they could more easily disappear. If the bag has backpack straps, slip your foot through one of the straps.
- For a long layover or train travel, pack a lightweight cable and lock to attach bags to your body, belt, belt loop, chair or luggage rack.
- Watch your bags being loaded into the taxi or shuttle bus, and keep an eye on the unloading procedure at each stop.
14. Use a Smartphone with care
While many apps are useful travel aids, accessing them in public may make a person more vulnerable to theft. Where there are viable alternatives, use them. For example…
- A flashlight app is handy, but to light your way in public places, use a small flashlight.
- When you’re on a crowded platform, consult one of the platform maps instead of the one on your phone.
- For text and email management, do so in a coffee shop or restaurant as opposed to out on the street.
- If you need to review directions on your phone or check a guidebook, stop walking and back up against a building or wall away from passers-by.
Don’t let pickpockets ruin a vacation, or be the reason to change travel plans. Adopting strategies designed to decrease our vulnerability to pickpockets can go a long way to ensuring a positive travel experience.
What strategies do you use for protection against pickpockets?
Care to pin?
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