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

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If you’re planning a trip to Europe you’ve undoubtably 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 prefect 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 know a friend who have even had his wallet stollen in a small town in Switzerland.

Who are the Pickpockets?

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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 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.

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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

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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

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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.

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“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 door 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 that 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 vary careful if about not using your phone if you’re standing near the door of the 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 main 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 one or two people in front of the target and a few behind the target. Someone at near the top of the escalator will stop right when they get off and this will create a huge backup for 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 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

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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 cost about 1€ and he pocketed 60€ 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

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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

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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  vicim’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 do 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? 

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Anyone can be a potential target of a pickpocket but they do tend to target certain types of people. But 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

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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 the 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 areas 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 in 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

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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 tamperproof zippers, cut-proof straps, anchored straps, and a slash-proof metal mesh sewn into the bag.

Pacsafe had 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’ve 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.

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  • 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!