Pickpockets are a pernicious problem all over the world, but 8 of the world’s 10 worst cities for pickpockets are top tourist destinations in Europe. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come to Europe ready to have a great time. It just means you should observe a few basic rules and techniques to keep your pocket change in your own pocket.
The best things you can do to protect yourself from pickpockets is to stay alert and to look like you know where you’re going. Criminals of all kinds prefer to target the clueless and confused. Beyond that, the pros recommend a few techniques to limit your vulnerability:
Wear a money belt
This is a thin zipper pouch worn under your clothes, an arrangement so pick-proof that Rick Steves calls it a portable safe. You can get one online for about twenty dollars.
Leave the expensive stuff at home
Simply leaving your valuables at home is the best way to keep them from getting stolen in Europe. Save jewelry for local outings, and use an older camera for vacation photos. Use an in-room hotel safe when ever available.
They jostle and distract, which is exactly what pickpockets use for cover when dipping into your things. If you must move through a crowd, stay on high alert about who’s near you and where your valuables are.
If you have to pull out all your valuables to reach a guidebook at the bottom of your bag, this tells everybody in the area exactly what you have worth stealing. When you pack back up, it tells them where you keep it.
Always zip your bags
An open pouch on your purse or backpack is an open invitation for criminals to help themselves. Use your zippered backpack pockets that press against your back for your most valuable or important items.
Even the most careful precautions can’t guarantee a pickpocket won’t successfully help himself to your valuables. Should this happen, you can turn a disaster into another story of local color with these precautionary steps.
Keep money and credit cards in a variety of pockets
Distributing money and credit cards throughout different pockets means you’ll have something left if one pocket gets successfully “dipped.”
Photocopy vital documents
Before you go, make copies of your passports, ID, rental agreements, tickets, credit cards and itineraries. This way you’ll have your vital information even if the originals are stolen. Notify your credit card companies of your travel plans (dates and places) in advance of travel. This can be done on-line or by calling the telephone number on the back of the credit card.
Back up digital files
It’s better to leave vital gear at home, but backing up the files in your camera and laptop means you won’t lose the data if you lose the objects. While you’re at it, clear off any sensitive info like account numbers before taking a computer abroad.
Tricks of the Pickpocket Trade
No matter how much energy you spend being alert for pickpockets, some criminal somewhere is spending even more money thinking about how to trick you. New scams pop up every year, but here are a few classics you’ll still see in Europe today.
Cover and Run
A pickpocket approaches your table, sets a piece of paper on top of your phone, wallet, or purse. He asks you to read the paper. When you pick it up to read, he slips your valuables into a pocket while your concentration is elsewhere. Beat this by always keeping valuables on your person, never in plain sight on a table.
Causing a Scene
While you’re looking at a crowd, fight, accident or other piece of street theater, a pickpocket takes advantage of your distraction to lift your valuables. It’s common for pickpockets to have an accomplice create the distraction in the first place. Beat this game by resisting the temptation to rubberneck, and by maintaining space around yourself if there’s something strange going on.
The Trick Warning
An accomplice will shout, usually in English, a warning about pickpockets in the area. Almost everybody who hears and understands will reflexively pat pockets to check their valuables are still there…immediately telling the pickpockets where those valuables are. Beat this by not falling for it. If you do fall for it, find a private space immediately and move your stuff to different pockets.
A small child might cry while his older brother picks pockets of adults trying to console him. An old woman might start an argument while an accomplice lifts your purse. Pickpockets like to get attention on one person while another does the dirty work. Beat this by staying aware of your surroundings even if somebody is creating a distraction — especially if somebody is creating a distraction.