From time to time, TripAdvisor announces the top ten places worldwide to beware of pickpockets, 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.
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.
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. My usual 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.
Use RFID-blocking travel 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 by simply 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.
Invest in gear that makes it difficult for pickpockets to operate
Pickpockets prefer easy targets so choose good 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 in a back pocket.
Experienced pickpockets can access zippered pockets, so consider slowing 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 with the strap shortened so the handbag 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, as 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 preventing easy access. 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 fastened to internal bag hardware.
Use a luggage tag with a privacy flap. On a trip to New York City, I was on a congested sidewalk along Canal Street in Chinatown when I heard someone call out my name. It shocked me into stopping and turning around in an attempt to identify the speaker. I was distracted for several moments, and momentarily puzzled about how a complete stranger would know my name. Distracting a target is a tactic often used by thieves so soon after, I replaced my daypack luggage tag with one containing a privacy flap.
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 that 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. These allow me to pack items in small bags or sacks with built-in swivel hooks that in turn can be attached to the O-rings. Or, the padded bags I had made for my camera, iPad mini and sunglasses each has its own D-ring that can be attached to one of the Synapse’s O-rings using a small strap with swivel hooks at both ends.
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 be kept secure, and 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 memorized responses to the Personal Verification Questions (or whatever method used by the respective financial institution to confirm a person’s identity) and the emergency contact details of the card issuer. In the case of the latter, 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. I also carry a laminated credit-sized emergency contact card containing emergency contact information.
I carry a laminated copy of the passport information information page in my daypack at all times, and another copy in my luggage. A scanned copy is stored in my password-protected Dropbox folder, and details concerning my passport, other identity documents and financial cards are stored in the encrypted password manager on my Smartphone and tablet. DataVault by Ascendo has been my password manager of choice for several years and my confidence in its security, features and support has grown in the process.
Carry a thin wallet
A bulging wallet is difficult to manage and keep safe. The fewer items needing to be replaced if lost or stolen the better.
Evaluate what is actually needed when travelling and whether or not digital versions can be used in place of the actual cards. For example, the Stocard app is handy for storing frequent flyer and hotel loyalty program cards. 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.
Scrutinize the in-room safe
Having access to 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. For example, 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 policy? 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.
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 to do so. 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 culturally insensitive.
Identify separate places for your debit card and credit card(s) so if one is lost, the other will be available. For example, 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, 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 difficult-to-access compartments in your bags.
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 into checking if their valuables are still intact. That’s just the sign a thief needs to hone in.
It’s critical to remain aware of surroundings, especially in tourist areas, around ATMs, outdoor markets, transportation hubs and other places where crowds gather. Use ATMs located 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 on a cell phone or consulting a map while walking. Stop, sit down or back up against a wall away from passersby and stay tuned in to the environment. 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 operate and disappear out on to the sidewalk or subway platform with your valuables.
Beware of 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 or environment 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 and leave the rest of your valuables behind in a secure spot.
Keep your bag close at hand
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 down 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. Avoid using the overhead cubicle on planes and buses and if 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 and 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. For a long layover or train travel, pack a cable and lock to attach bags to your body, clothing, 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.
Use a Smartphone with care
While many apps make useful travel companions, accessing them may make a person more vulnerable to theft. Where there are viable alternatives, use them. For example, my All-in-1 Flashlight app provides a strong light but if I need it to read a map or light my way in public places, I’ll use the small LED light attached to my daypack. In addition, I’ve found the various subway map apps very useful but when I’m on a crowded platform, I prefer to consult one of the platform maps. For text and email management, it always feels safer to do so at locations such as 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 fence away from passers-by.
We shouldn’t let paranoia over pickpocketing change travel plans or ruin a vacation. However, adopting strategies designed to decrease our vulnerability to pickpockets and maintaining a high level of personal security awareness can go a long way to ensuring a positive travel experience.
What strategies do you use for protection against pickpockets?
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