Avoiding Pickpockets

Although recently there has been a bit more violence in European countries, traditionally the crime overseas is less violent. Guns are not widely available in European countries, so drive-by shootings, hold-ups, and theft at gunpoint rarely happen.

Instead, thieves are more likely to focus on pickpocketing. They focus on travelers who may have wallets full of cash. Here are some guidelines to avoid losing your hard-earned vacation money to a crafty pickpocket.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Pickpockets know that most visitors will be found near the popular tourist attractions in each city. When visiting attractions, then, be especially aware about who is around you.

The Crowded Albert Cuypmarkt, Amsterdam, Netherlands

When there are crowds, a bump from behind may not cause alarm, but the bump may be someone looking for cash. In a crowded place, with wall-to-wall people, you expect to be bumped. In these situations, always keep an extra hand on your bag or wallet.

Sometimes, even small children are thieves. They are sent with a newspaper or other shield to use. Under the paper, they look for your wallet. My sister encountered a couple thieving children in a crowded plaza in Italy. When she noticed and asked where her wallet was, they pointed to the ground. A close call, but nothing was missing.

Don’t Talk to Strangers

Where there is a crowd, there are often survey-takers. Young people walk around with clipboards containing a survey they would like you to fill out. While you are filling out the survey, your hands are busy and you are not focusing on those around you, so you become a prime target.

Beggars are as prominent in Europe as they are in American cities. If you insist on giving money, just give coins from your pocket – do not get out your wallet.

Street performers are also common – on the streets, in the stations, and even on trains and subways. Some of them may have procured a license to preform for money, but others may not have. Street vendors often do not have a license to sell their products. Beware – you can be fined for purchasing illegally. You also may be buying counterfeit goods.

In one city, we saw several bike carts, offering site-seeing tours of the city for a reasonable price. I noticed a group waiting at the curb near a popular site. Suddenly, someone yelled, “Cops!” and they all took off. Apparently, they were working without a licence to avoid paying tax on their earnings. If you want to do a similar tour, arrange it online through a legitimate business or ask at your hotel for recommendations.

Know Where Your Stuff Is

Always know where your stuff is. If you have a purse or bag and stop to shop or eat, keep your bag in front of you or on your lap.

When I was in Europe this summer, one of my companions had his bag stolen from the back of his chair.  We were seated at an outside table at a nice restaurant. Even though I sat directly across from him, I did not see a thing. It was disheartening, since it was just the second day of the trip. He lost his wallet and credit cards, but had left his passport in the room.

Don’t leave valuable items like cell phones or tablets within the reach of a passerby. It is easy for someone to pick your phone off the table, then take off running. It is nearly impossible to realize what happened, push back your chair to get up, then chase the thief, and actually catch them. The thief will know shortcuts and back alleys and will soon be gone.

Bag Business
Tom Bihn Cross-Body Bag

Choosing the right bag is important for keeping it close. I recommend a cross-body bag – whether you are male or female. A regular shoulder bag can easily be slipped off by a runner or someone on a scooter. A cross-body bag can be pulled to the front in crowds. If you rest your hand on the top, it is much more difficult for someone to get their hand in your bag.

Using a backpack style day bag isn’t the wisest choice, but sometimes it is necessary. If you choose a backpack keep these tips in mind. Wear it on one shoulder if possible so you can have the bulk of the bag in front of you. If you need to use both shoulders, put the bag on your front – a little awkward but much safer. All valuables inside the bag should be fastened in or placed in an inside zipper compartment. When zipping the backpack, don’t join the zipper tabs at the top of the pack, but move them to the bottom on one side. It is easier for a thief to open the zipper at the top and reach in than to get in from the bottom.

The cross-body bag that I use is a Cafe Bag by Tom Bihn. The bag comes with a key tab that I use to clip to my wallet (see below). Tom Bihn has a large selection of travel bags and accessories.

I have a small cloth wallet* with a jump ring on it that I can attach to the inside of my bag. Imagine a thief’s surprise if he gets his had in my bag, finds the wallet and tries to take it.  Oops, it’s stuck. In the meantime, I become aware of what’s happening and can yell or scream. The thief would be gone in a flash.

I usually wear a neck wallet*- although men often prefer money belts *. This small pouch holds my passport and extra credit cards. (One credit card and a day’s cash are in my clipped-in wallet). The neck wallet goes under my clothes – usually between a camisole and my top, although the pouch is comfortable enough to wear next to my skin.

Wearing a cross-body bag with a clipped in wallet is not insurance, but rather a deterrent. When my sister was traveling a few years ago around Easter time, she and her husband were able to participate in a candlelight vigil. As she held a candle in one hand and her camera in the other, she became aware of a young man that was digging into her cross-body bag. He had lifted the flap and unzipped the zipper. She yelled, and he quickly ran off. Nothing was taken, but it was upsetting to come so close to losing her valuables.

Do Not be Over Confident

I haven’t had a pick-pocket experience myself, but know people who have. Even travel guru Rick Steves was pick-pocketed recently. At this point, I have to remind myself not to become over-confident. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, that doesn’t mean in won’t happen.  I still try to be diligent in my awareness of my surroundings and where my bags are.

Pickpockets are a nuisance, but with careful planning and paying attention, they can be avoided. I want to be the person in control of my possessions.


* I receive a small commission if items are purchased at Amazon through the links in this blog post. I do not receive a commission from Tom Bihn, but I love their products anyway.  Thank you for your support.

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