Ever had your pocket picked while traveling? If so, you have plenty of company: One source estimates 400,000 pickpocket incidents, worldwide, every day.
Although pickpocketing is seldom a serious crime, if you’re hit, in addition to monetary loss, you often have to endure a lot of hassle to set your life and travel arrangements back in order.
Clearly, there are no absolute defenses against pickpocketing, but you can at least improve your odds of avoiding problems when you travel.
How Pickpockets Work
Classic pickpocketing, if you can call it that, is the act of slipping a hand or tool into your pocket or purse and extracting a wallet or other valuables without you being aware at the time. Because most of us are pretty sensitive about being touched, pickpockets try to divert your attention, one way or another, to conceal their stealthy touch by somehow lessening or overcoming your awareness.
One of the most common ways pickpockets conceal their touch is by bumping you. And they often operate in pairs or teams for maximum effect:
- The simple bump: A pickpocket or accomplice bumps against you, typically from the back or side, disrupting your body awareness, and grabbing your stuff while you’re still off-balance.
- The sandwich bump: One member of a pickpocket team walks in front of you and suddenly stops, causing you to bump against the team member, while almost immediately the other team member bumps you from behind and makes the grab.
- The crowd bump: A pickpocket gets next to you in a situation where you’re automatically being bumped due to crowding, such as in an elevator, on a crowded train or bus, or in a busy line.
Rather than bump you, some pickpocket teams set up their opportunity by distracting your attention:
- The spill: One member of the team spills something on you, and immediately tries to “help” you wipe off or clean the spill. While that’s going on, another team member makes the grab.
- The sale: One or more members of a team make an aggressive effort to “sell” you something, often waving it in your face or pushing it up against you. The “sellers” are often young children. Again, while you’re trying to fend off the sales attack, a team member makes the grab.
Pickpocket teams often pre-select or target potential victims, especially those that appear most vulnerable. They may stake out ATMs or popular souvenir stores, for example, to determine where and how you keep your wallet. That way they’ll know exactly which pocket or purse to target.
Pickpockets also generally work in areas that are rich in targets. Typically, that means places crowded with pedestrians, ranging from public transit to big events.
Classic pickpocketing relies on stealth and technique. But some versions rely on a brazen assault:
- The grab: If you leave a smart phone on a cafe table or put your wallet down on a counter, an aggressive pickpocket may just swoop in and grab your stuff and run off in the crowd before you can make a countermove.
- The slash: Pickpockets often target travelers with fanny packs or women carrying purses. Rather than use stealth, they carry a sharp knife and cut the pack straps or a woman’s purse straps. Or maybe they just grab the entire pack or purse. Some even slash away at a man’s jacket or pants. Often they’ve organized to get away on a motorbike.
No Sure-Fire Defense
You can see hundreds of variations on these simple themes, but the basic principles remain. And make no mistake: Career pickpockets practice their technique like any other professionals. No matter how aware you think you are, you aren’t immune.
You get the idea: There is no perfect defense. The best you can do is reduce your risks and your odds of being caught.
Minimizing the Risk: Deterring Pickpockets
You can do a lot to reduce the odds of having your pocket picked by taking some simple precautions in the way you handle your wallet or purse:
- Most experts say that a moneybelt or equivalent, worn under your outer clothing, is a very good barrier to almost any pickpocket. The problem, of course, is that it’s a barrier to you, too, when you want to buy something or use a credit/debit card.
- Travel clothes with zippered pockets also make a pickpocket’s life difficult. Travel stores typically sell various jackets and other clothing with one or more zipper pockets. Zippered interior pockets are especially effective. And if you prefer your regular travel clothes, you can easily have an alterations shop install a zipper.
- For men, even using an ordinary interior jacket pocket is the preferred place to keep a wallet. If you aren’t wearing a jacket, wear a shirt outside your belt or sweater that is long enough to cover your pants pockets. Some experts suggest sticking a rolled-up sock above a wallet in your pocket. And in crowds, keep your hands in your pockets.
- Avoid fanny packs or back pockets. You can’t see what’s going on back there.
Minimizing the Risks: Limiting Potential Losses
Beyond tweaking the way you carry your wallet or purse around when you travel, you can also limit your exposure to risk and greatly reduce the hassle even if you do become a victim.
- Don’t carry a lot of cash. Instead, rely on credit and debit cards for most purchases and getting the cash you need.
- When you’re moving around in a city, leave at least one credit or debit card in your hotel safe so a stolen wallet/purse won’t leave you with no way to pay for anything.
- Unless you know you’ll need it for ID, leave your passport in your hotel safe.
- Keep separate records of credit/debit card details in case you need to replace any of them—paper records in your hotel safe or baggage, electronic records in your smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
- Minimize your exposure to crowds.
- Leave all expensive jewelry and accessories at home when you travel.
Minimizing the Risks: Avoiding Hotspots?
You don’t find much in the way of reliable pickpocketing statistics. For what it’s worth, one source lists the 10 worst cities for pickpockets around the world as Barcelona, Rome, Prague, Madrid, Paris, Florence, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Athens, and Hanoi. That same source claims that the safest countries are Iceland, Norway, Finland, Ireland, Hong Kong, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, Canada, and Switzerland. But nowhere is immune. The Brits reported lots of pickpocketing during the 2012 Olympics, and it’s frequently mentioned as a problem in New York.
Overall, most of you won’t decide on a destination to minimize your chances of having your pocket picked. But no matter where you go, chances are some pickpockets will be there to greet you, so exercise the usual common sense and caution.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.
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