How to Avoid Pickpockets in Europe — Tips for Outsmarting the Thieves

pickpocket-europe

If you’re planning a trip to Europe you’ve undoubtedly been warned about the danger of pickpockets. It is important to be vigilant because thousands of tourists are victims of pickpockets each year — and no one wants to spend their hard earned vacation trying to cancel their credit cards, replacing their passport, and finding alternative means to access money. Luckily there are many things you can do to deter yourself from becoming a pickpocketing victim. This guide will explain where pickpockets target, who they target, different methods they use, and ways to protect yourself.

Popular Cities for Pickpockets

While pickpockets can be found in nearly any city, the biggest concentration are in cities that attract the most tourists (no surprise there). Here is a list of pickpocket hotspots in Europe:

  • Barcelona, Spain
  • Rome, Italy
  • Paris, France
  • Madrid, Spain
  • Athens, Greece
  • Prague, Czech Republic
  • Lisbon, Portugal
  • Florence, Italy
  • London, England
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands

But don’t think that pickpocketing only occurs in big cities. I have a friend who even had his wallet stolen in a small town in Switzerland.

Who are the Pickpockets?

paris-pickpocket

Most people assume pickpockets are sketchy looking men, but a large number of pickpockets are actually young girls and boys — usually around 10-16-years old. Most tourists don’t suspect that a young child would steal from them, so they’re less defensive around them. Additionally, Police can’t really arrest minors and most don’t travel with any identification, so even if they’re caught the police usually have to let them go. Other times pickpockets are well-dressed and you’d never expect them to be thieves.

122530276__387393c

Pickpockets almost always work in groups. One or two people will do something to distract you while another member tries to take your stuff. Once the theft has occurred, the thief who stole the item will often hand it off to someone else and they’ll all run in separate directions. This makes it very hard to track the culprit.

Where Pickpockets Hang Out

Tourists Attractions

Untitled-8

Weather it be the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Trevi Fountain in Rome, or the Charles Bridge in Prague, it isn’t a surprise that pickpockets hang out in busy tourist spots. Naturally, tourists are more concerned about viewing the sights and taking photos than being attentive to their surroundings.

Public Transportation

Paris-metro-007

Subways and city buses are prime spots for pickpockets — and after living in Paris I’ve seen my fair share of pickpockets on the Paris Metro. Public transportation is a great place for a pickpocket because it is often very crowded and it is easy for thieves to create confusion. Pickpockets normally target large metro/subway stations where many transit lines converge because it gives them plenty of places to exit if they’re being chased.

Museums

During the summer Europe’s most popular museums swell to maximum capacity and there are bound to be a few pickpockets among the lot. While the admission price deters most pickpockets, it doesn’t stop all of them from preying on unsuspecting visitors who are simply enjoying the art. In fact, in 2013 the workers at the Louvre in Paris went on strike because the pickpockets were getting so bad.

Train Stations

Trains stations are large, crowded, and full of confused tourists with their hands full of cumbersome luggage — which is exactly the kind of environment pickpockets love.

Restaurants, Cafes and Bars

Many people let their guard down when they’re enjoying a meal or a drink so it is easy for a crook to sneakily snatch a purse from the back of a chair or a mobile phone from the top of a table.

Beach

Pay attention to your stuff when you’re at the beach. Don’t leave your bag unattended or out of sight because there is a good chance someone might snatch them up.

Retail Stores

Clothing and departments stores in Europe can get extremely crowded — especially around the holidays. It is an easy place for a pickpocket to target tourists that are usually carrying a lot of money.

Tricks Pickpockets Use to Take Your Stuff

Distraction is the one tactic that all pickpockets use. They want to distract your attention just long enough to take your stuff.  The following methods are well-known ways that pickpockets and thieves steal from tourists.

clipboard

“Charity” Worker with Clipboards

This scam is very popular in Paris. It nearly always involves a group of young girls with clipboards. They’ll approach you and point to a clipboard while signaling that they’re deaf and mute. They want you to sign a petition for charity. If you sign they’ll ask for a donation to the charity. Of course the “charity” is fake — in fact, the money often goes to these girls’ “boss” (ie human traffickers). While the tourist is signing/reading the petition there is often an accomplice trying to pickpocket the victim.

Crowd the Metro

The metro (subway) trains can get very crowded. A common tactic is for a group of 4-6 kids to push on a crowded train shortly before the doors shut and crowd their target. They’ll swipe what they’re trying to steal and then they all hop off right as the doors begin to close. By the time the victim realizes what happened, it is too late and the train has already left the station.

Always be wary when a group of people crowd onto an already busy metro car. Also be wary of anyone who is standing very close to you on a train that isn’t crowded, as they might be up to no good.

Metro Smartphone Grab

People tend to zone out while they’re talking or texting on their phone. Be very careful about using your phone if you’re standing near the door of a subway car. Thieves will reach in and snatch your phone right as the doors close.

Help with Your Bag

Some metro stations have lots of stairs so “good Samaritans” will grab ahold of your suitcase to help you carry it up the stairs. This usually takes people off guard a little and this is when their friend reaches into your purse or pocket. There are actually a lot of nice people who will offer to help carry a heavy suitcase, but they’ll ask you before grabbing onto your bag.

Bump and Lift

When you’re surrounded by crowds it isn’t uncommon to accidentally bump into other people. However, this is a common move performed by pickpockets, so if someone bumps into you, it might be smart to take a quick inventory of your belongings.

Escalator Backup

Escalators are another area that pickpockets target because it is easy to created chaos. With this scam there will be one or two people in front of the target and a few behind the target. Someone near the top of the escalator will stop right when they get off and this will create a huge backup of people trying to get off. As the backup occurs, the people behind the target will reach into the target’s bag/pocket and hand off the goods to one of his buddies behind him. I’ve also seen it where they’ve handed off the goods to someone on opposite escalator, so it’s almost impossible to chase them.

Newspaper/Map Distraction

A common pickpocket tactic involves using a large map or a newspaper to cover the targets line of sight in order to take things out of their bag. The’ll often shove the map in your face, point to a part of the map, and then their friend will reach under the paper so you can’t see what they’re taking. This is a very common way people steal mobile phones from tables.

ATM Confusion

atm-pickpocket

Always be careful when using the ATM — especially when you’re alone. While you’re in the process of withdrawing money, a group of beggars will approach you from behind to try and get your attention. They might pull on your arm or shove a peace of paper in front of the screen. If you turn toward one of the thieves, another one will slip in from the other side and press the button for the max amount of cash. Then they’ll swipe the money and run off.

Also be sure to cover up your pin code when you enter it. Some thieves will try to see your code (some even use hidden cameras) and then they’ll follow you around for a chance to steal your card.

Ticket Machines Dupe

Always be a little leery of people who try to help you at ticket machines. I know some people who got scammed in Paris from a well-dressed man who “helped” them buy metro tickets. They wanted to buy two 5 day passes, which costs about 30€/each, so the man offered to use his credit card because he told them Australian cards don’t work in the machines. He said that they could just pay him in cash. He did buy them tickets, but he bought them a one-way child’s ticket (which looks very similar to a 5-day pass) that costs about 1€ and he pocketed 60€ in cash from them.

The Helpful Tourist

Don’t let pickpockets take advantage of your good nature. In this scam one of the scammers will drop something in front of you and while you’re helping them pick up the mess the other pickpocket will swoop in and lift something from you bag. That does’t mean you can’t help your fellow man, but just be careful about your own stuff while doing it.

Slashed Bag

slashbag

Some pickpockets don’t even bother trying to open your bag and they will simply slash it open with a knife. Pacsafe makes a range of slash-proof bags for extra security.

Turnstile Stall

paristrunstile

Busy turnstiles are a common area for pickpockets to strike. As you’re approaching a turnstile, one person will cut in front of you and then precede to stop (they might pretend that the machine isn’t working) and their partner will come up behind you — essentially trapping you between the two of them. The person in the back will lift something from your bag or pocket while his partner in the front is fumbling with the turnstile.

Scooter Snatch and Run

While not super common, some thieves will drive up on a scooter, snatch a bag from the victim’s shoulder, and then ride off into the sunset. I wouldn’t be too worried about this technique, but it can happen.

Street Performances

There are many street performances that gather large crowds of tourists. These large groups of tourists draw pickpockets too, so beware.

Fake Fight

A large group of men might start a “fight” around a tourist, and in all the commotion one of the men will attempt to pickpocket the target.

Who Do Pickpockets Target? 

lovetourists

Anyone can be a potential target of a pickpocket, but they do tend to target certain types of people. Pickpockets will always look for the easiest target because they don’t want a confrontation.

Tourist

Tourist = money, in the mind of a pickpocket. If you look like a tourist, you’re automatically going to be singled out.

People with a lot of Luggage

If you are pulling along two suitcases and have a backpack you’re going to be a prime target for a pickpocket. You won’t be able to watch over all your things since you have so much stuff.

Asians

asian-paris

Asians (specifically the Chinese) are a top choice for pickpockets because many of the Chinese who travel are very wealthy. Additionally,  a large number of Chinese citizens don’t have as easy access to credit and debit cards, so they often carry large amounts of cash, and thieves know this. So even if you’re not Chinese, but have Asian heritage you might want to be more cautions.

People Who Flash Valuables

Walking alone at night while using your iPhone? Don’t be surprised if someone takes it away from you.

Trusting People

From all my travels I’ve rarely met a more friendly bunch than the Australians. I’ve also rarely met another group of people who’ve been victims of pickpockets than Australians. I think the people who think everyone else around them is nice and helpful are the ones who get taken advantage of most often.

How to Protect Yourself from Pickpockets 

If you’ve made it this far you might be thinking that there are thousands of pickpockets trying to rob every tourist in Europe. But that really isn’t the case and you’ll rarely have any problems if you take a few extra precautions. It is also important to remember that actual violent crime is really pretty low in Europe, so as long as you’re vigilant you’ll be perfectly safe. In this section we’ll take about what steps to take to avoid becoming a victim.

Limit What You Carry

Pickpockets can’t steal what you don’t have — pretty simple. That is why I prefer to carry very little while I’m sightseeing. I especially recommend not carrying a lot of cash.

Wear a Money Belt

A money belt is one of the most secure ways to carry valuables like extra money and your passport. However, many tourists make the mistake of thinking that they should use their money belt like a wallet — but it isn’t intended for that. Ideally, you should keep the money and debit/credit cards that you’re going to need for the day in your wallet and then keep all extra cash and maybe a backup credit card in the money belt. The money belt should be worn under your clothes and should be fairly inconvenient to access (to deter thieves).

There a multiple styles of money belts available:

  • Around the Waist — This is the traditional style of money belt. You wear it under your shirt and around your waist.
  • Around the Neck — Money belts that hang around your neck are another good option. These are a lot easier to access (especially if you wear it under a button-up shirt).
  • Hidden Pocket — These hidden pocket money belts are nice because they tuck into your pant leg and I think they’re more comfortable than one that goes around your waist.
  • Belt with Pocket — If you just want to stash some cash you can use a belt with a hidden pocket built in.

Secure Your Bag/Backpack

Your bag or backpack is probably the most vulnerable area that pickpockets love to target. Backpacks are especially vulnerable because you can’t see if someone is trying to get into it. Here are some tops for securing your bag.

  • Wear it Backwards — When you’re on crowded public transportation a lot of people will wear their bag backwards because this allows them to keep on eye on it.
  • Lock The Zippers — At a minimum you’ll want to lock your zippers. You don’t need anything fancy — a simple luggage lock will work well.
  • Sling Backpack — Sling backpacks are nice because they stay close to your body and they can be slung over your chest easily if needed. They do tend to be small, so you’ll have trouble if you plan on carrying a lot of stuff with you. Here is an example of a sling backpack but there many styles available.
  • Secure it to an Immovable Object — When you’re at a restaurant loop your bag’s strap around your leg or the leg of your chair so someone can’t come by and swipe the bag. Similarly, it is smart to secure your bag to a chair or luggage rack while you’re on a train — especially on overnight trains. A retractable cable lock will provide enough protection to deter most thieves.

Pickpocket Proof Bags

pacsafe

If you want to be extra safe you can get yourself a specially designed “pickpocket proof” backpack, bag, or purse. The most popular anti-theft bags are made by Pacsafe. Their bags have tamper-proof zippers, cut-proof straps, anchored straps, and a slash-proof metal mesh sewn into the bag.

Pacsafe has a large variety of styles and sizes of handbagsbackpacks, and travel accessories. Travelon is another company that makes anti-theft bags.

Zippered Purse

Make sure your purse has a zipper and don’t forget to actually zip it up. Keep valuables in internal zipped compartments if possible.

Wallet in Front Pocket

A lot of guys keep their wallet in their back pocket, but this is an extremely easy target for a pickpocket. And that is why it is advisable to keep your wallet in your front pocket. I highly recommend getting a super thin wallet because a bulky wallet feels very strange in your front pocket — and it looks kind of dumb. The Big Skinny Multi-Pocket Bifold Wallet gets a lot of great reviews for having a low profile.

Keep Your Phones Off The Table

Smartphones are a super popular item for pickpockets to target. Many people will simply leave it on the table while they’re eating and someone can come up and snatch it up.

Split-up Your Valuables

Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket so if you are pickpocketed you’ll limit the amount you’ll lose.

Final Thoughts

Traveling through Europe is an amazing opportunity and it shouldn’t be spoiled by a nasty pickpocket. As long as you follow a few of the guidelines from above, you’ll be just fine.

email
  • CruiseMagic

    Lots of great tips here! I know I’ve had my phone on the table while at a restaurant and I’m going to stop doing that.

  • Marek

    You’re so right! Example of mine: bus station next to train station, Rome. Me and my girlfriend, a backpack put down by the bus post, we look at the schedules, look at the backpack, its gone;) I ran through the whole area for 3 minutes only to understand that the thieves snatched the backpack and got on a bus next to us, it got them 3 seconds. Happy to have lost only the clothes not our valuables, we spent unnecessary time that Sunday shopping for primary clothing… Beware of the bus snatch!

  • Fatma

    Now im scared

    • http://thesavvybackpacker.com James

      No need to be scared. As long as you pay attention you’ll be fine. Go travel!

    • savvybackpacker

      No need to be scared. You just need to be aware of your surroundings.

  • Laura

    In the little bit of traveling me and my sister have done in Europe we found that to lock our book bag is to get mini carabineers that twist open and close, they are cheap (you can get them at REI or other outdoor gear stores for about $1 each) and it takes time to undo them, hopefully giving you enough time to notice if someone is trying to get into your bag, especially if you make sure they are tightened really tight

    • savvybackpacker

      Thats a good idea. Thanks for the tip!

  • raluxia

    Hey!

    Thanks for sharing these tips and trick about the pickpockets. There is also another trick I’ve seen in Paris last year. They are faking the finding of a wedding-ring. I don’t know what happens next because a lady who saw the whole scene told me about this trick.

  • Luv2runmurphy

    Thank you! Great advice!! :-)

  • hollywood

    If you were to catch a pickpocket in the act what would be the repercussions of beating the crap out of them?

    • savvybackpacker

      I have no idea. I would be cautious if you want to resort to violence.

    • Cecilia

      I would never risk having to try to prove your innocence in a foreign country! And their laws may not be similar to yours- in which case your embassy can only help you to a certain extent. In any case, I would think detaining someone until police arrive is okay, but perhaps hold of on resorting to violence to retrieve your things.

  • Mia

    Great tips!
    I am often in Oslo and are often in the area where pickpockets happends most (like the sentral station) and I know how to act, My favorite thing to do when im on the treinstation and dont feel completly safe are going to army people (they are there most in the weekends when they are off) and talk with them. But I am always aware of what I keep with me and I never have to much cash.

  • spyros

    since Romania and Bulgaria become members of European union, Europe is not safe as used to be……….they went all over Europe and they win a lot of money….they use metro system and buses…they work as a group of 5-6 persons.they don’t speak eachother ,as you do not understand that they are friends..they are all of them around you,and they push you or they close the exit in metro station or in bus…….they take you everything from your bag……please my friends,you must use moneybelt,put your money ,cards and passports,in this moneybelt..no wallets………..Albanians start doing the same to win money…..

  • Rene

    The title confuses me. Are pickpockets in f.e. the US using different methods?

  • Nick

    Just a heads up, I believe the Pacsafe products are not waterproof, so if people plan on backpacking they should consider other products.

  • James

    Another trick that groups operate – they spread out in a busy tourist attraction or shop and one shouts “thief!” and pretends they have had something stolen. Then, as everyone in earshot instinctively checks to see they still have everything, the others watch to see exactly which pockets you are keeping your most valuable items.
    In this situation I’d suggest avoid panic checking for your valuables and walkaway before giving your pockets a sly pat.

  • Alex

    The “ticket machine dupe” recently happened to me. Me and three other family members were buying tickets from a machine in the metro and were having some trouble. A man walks up to us asking if we needed help buying the ticket then proceeds to help us. He acts like he bought the tickets we needed, with his credit card, but only bought one way child tickets. He then stands with us for a few more minutes asking for money back for the tickets. By this point my parents were suspicious and went off to find help. A few moments later he scurried off to another part of the metro. Advice: always trust your instincts around people you don’t know.

  • Madi

    I am going to Spain, France, and Italy in three weeks so this will definitely help seeing it is my first trip to Europe! Thanks!

  • Cecilia

    So true about Australians! We’re not used to the level of crime abroad, and we go out into the world with an attitude of “everyone is a friend”. Unfortunately it’s that attitude that led to me getting my bag stolen in the US. Aussies- we love to travel and everyone’s a mate, don’t give up our great values but PLEASE remember that Europe (while amazing) is a little more dangerous than home, watch your stuff ALWAYS!

  • Jennifer

    I lived in Poland for 16 months and never had a problem (though some friends of mine did). My #1 rule was a “double barrier”. Anything valuable had to have 2 layers of protection. I.e. my coin purse was in my back pack in a pocket that was zipped inside another pocket that was also zipped. I figured…reaching into 1 layer is quick, it takes more time to peruse extra levels and gives me more time to feel something.

  • Adam

    I’m new to the international travel scene. I was looking at the Pacsafe line and wondered about airport security and possible metal detectors in museums. Has anyone had any problems carrying these products?

    • savvybackpacker

      I wouldn’t worry about it. You’ll have to xray the bag at the airport and museum metal detectors aren’t an issue.

  • Shannon

    Thanks for all these tips, I have a question maybe you can just give a suggestion. I have a dSLR camera that I’d like to be walking around with around my neck, would you say this is a bad idea? If I keep it in my hands in front of me the entire time? Tuck it in my coat maybe? Would a potential thief try to rip it off my neck? Basically I’m asking how aggressive a pickpocket can be… if you have any suggestions about this. Thank you in advance.

  • Silvia

    This year one of my guests was pickpocketed in Florence (Italy). She had things nicely split and the pickpockets only got to her driving licence. This lady was Australian and in a group tour…..

  • km

    Thanks for the advice

  • http://boomerinas.com/ Tina Boomerina

    I’ve never been pickpocketed but I’ve had the ladies try to dupe me with the “gold” ring trick and I’ve had men approach me in Montmartre Paris. I’ve heard someone yell that he was pickpocketed on a Paris bus, and the police were there within a minute to apprehend the guy. I was in Eastern Europe with a tour group and I kept telling women not to let the guys wear baseball caps, because it makes them look like clueless Americans. It may be okay to wear a baseball cap if you’re a thirty year old (or younger), but these guys were in their 60s and 70s… just clueless. When the tour bus stopped at a McDonald’s one of the baseball-hat guys had his wallet lifted. He had it in his back pocket of his jeans… like he was in Kansas… not the Czech Republic. On the other hand, no one is going to shoot you in Europe. They’re just going to take your money if you’re old and clueless and think you’re oh so cool in your silly jeans and baseball cap. Try to look EUROPEAN.

    Tina

  • http://budgetinn-artesia.com/ Kevin hart

    We must be always alert