Man reaching into girl's purse

Pickpocketing is especially lucrative in high-tourist areas. Will you outwit them?

Ever since the invention of pockets there have been pickpockets: those who are masters at separating you from your hard earned cash.  Pickpockets look for easy targets; they want to score quickly and easily.  They are experts at scanning a crowd and looking for the easy marks. If you don’t get serious about securing your valuables, you will likely be making a donation to their cause.

Pickpockets are opportunists who especially love to work crowds.   Should you avoid traveling to places where pickpockets are notorious?  Absolutely not – go and adventure! The best thing you can do is be aware of how to carry your bag, be hypervigilant in crowds, and be determined to outsmart  thieves at their own game.

The unfortunate reality is that even though the vast majority of people you will meet traveling are good, kind, helpful people, there are a few bad guys.  And not all are guys… a lot of them are girls and trained children.  They earn their living off picking pockets of travelers.  It’s not something to be scared of, it’s something to be well prepared for.    Laws to protect minors from being apprehended by law enforcement, in some countries, doesn’t help.

Where travelers flock, so do throngs of pickpockets.  Think major sites – on the Ramblas in Barcelona, under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and on public transport/subway/ train stations in big cities. Sometimes they work alone, many times in teams.  Make no mistake: it is an organized,  lucrative business.  Pickpockets make easy work of a traveler who is distracted on cell phone,  swooning over historic ruins,  overladen with shopping bags, or busy checking a map at a metro station. For a pickpocket, walking through a highly touristed area is like going to Disneyland.


Purse:  A cross-body bag with the bag falling in front of you  is ideal. women.  Keep it zipped, flap against your body, held close in front of you with an arm orpickpocket hand reaching into woman's purse hand on it. Apparently we women all like to be fancy free with our bags bumping along carelessly behind us.  Pickpockets love that too.

Wallets: Men, don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket.  Keep it in your front pocket, guarded by a free hand, or concealed as discussed below.

Concealment clothing: Confession: traditional money belts annoy me because they irritate/constrict my waist. However, protecting your passport and cash/credit card on your body underneath clothing is an excellent idea, and so I opt for soft cross-body pouch  under my clothes. I like something I can get into fairly easily, so that I don’t have to get all Cirque-de-Soleil just to get out a large bill.   There are a plethora of concealment options, such as  a pouch that hangs from your neck, or  a small bag attached to the  front or side of your bra. If you typically wear pants with belts this tuck-in-your-pants pouch is good. For those who wear tucked shirts, this  concealed pocket is well designed to tuck into shorts or pants.  These women’s tank tops with hidden pockets are brilliant, and the contents are easy to access. Crew neck T-Shirts with secret pockets  are also available. There are a number of ingeniously crafted security boxer briefs  available for men.    For the higher-end 007 traveler traveling in cooler climates security jackets/vests/coats with multiple hidden pockets are worth a look.  There’s even an NYPD-esque holster-type pouch which would require a heavier layer of clothing/jacket to conceal.  One SDSU professor, who travels as part of his work, swears by his beloved “Pickpocket Pants” A version is made for men and women.  There is a bit of a learning curve on these 007 caliber pants: think zipper inside of velcro inside of button.  But if it’s tricky for the wearer to learn, think of how hard it is for the pickpocket!

pickpocket in subway

Barcelona subway, pickpocket central.

Daypacks:  Wear them backwards so the goods are right in front of you.

Before you step out on the street, get in the habit of gearing up.  Think of preparing for a trip to Antarctica.  You’d wear protective clothing for the ice, the cold, and to prevent frostbite.  If you’re dressed right you feel invigorated by the cold… you have faced the challenge of the cold and you are toasty warm! Bring on that ice and snow!  It’s just like that preparing to go out on the city streets.   If you’re properly outfitted you can venture forth confidently into the wild world with your cash, cards and passport safely stowed, with an attitude of “hey pickpocketers, that’s right,  you’ll never get my stuff.  How you like me NOW?”

Whenever you find yourself in a crush of people as you travel, be on red alert.  It’s likely that the obstruction or disturbance and crush of people is being worked by a team of  pickpockets. Hold on to your goods!



Pickpocketing Tactic 1:  the crush getting on the metro

Here’s how it works.  A pickpocket team of four persons waits in the station for the subway to arrive.  As the subway approaches, they head towards the door, two of them moving towards the front of the crowd, two staying in the rear.   When the  subway doors open the two who are in the front get on and stop, creating an obstruction (holding a big bundle sideways,  positioning a baby carriage across entry) that prevents people from entering.    The crush of travelers are now sandwiched between the obstruction at the front and the pickpocket team at the back.   During those few seconds of distraction the team at the rear goes to work picking pockets.  These people are making a staggering amount of money.

Man reading map pickpocketed

Pickpocket team asking for directions… while you try to help out, someone gets into your backpack from the side or rear.

Pickpocketing Tactic #2: the crush getting off the metro

Another common tactic is used by pickpockets who are riding the subway: same sandwich idea, team of four, two in the front, two in back.  The front team stands near the door as it opens, and obstructs the exit.  As people crush towards the exit,  they are squished together trying to get off.   This is when wallets are lifted by the team at the rear.

Tactic 3:  Person “accidentally” falls into you 

This is typically done on a bus or subway, as it comes to a stop.  You are seated.  A person pretends they are exiting, comes down the aisle, and  they accidentally trip and  “fall” into you.  In doing so they have a “reason” to touch you, you are distracted, and they may reach into your bag/pocket and grab your wallet or phone, even as you kindly help them get back on their feet.

girl reaching into man's pocket

The fake petition: clipboards make perfect covers for pickpocket teams. While you are being distracted by the friendly girl with the petition, another girl uses a clipboard to cover her hand in your pocket.

Pickpockets frequent public places, scanning for easy to access and unattended bags.  If you’re sitting down, keep your bag on your lap, not under your chair.  If it’s a backpack, loop a strap  around your leg.  You don’t have to lock it up like Ft. Knox, just make it appear difficult to steal.   If you sleep on a train or bus, and thieves love sleeping passengers, have your valuables against your body in  a money belt, and clip your bag to yourself or to the luggage rack.  Even the slight inconvenience of undoing a clip will discourage most thieves. A twist tie on the zipper of your backpack doesn’t make your bag impenetrable, but it will probably make the thief pass you by and keep searching for easier targets.

Tactic #4:  The fake petition scam

Friendly girl approaches you and asks you to sign petition.  It doesn’t matter that you cannot understand the language, she sweetly keeps trying to explain it to you.  While you listen politely, someone else picks your pocket using a clipboard to cover the act.

Tactic #5:  The spill

You’re walking down a street and someone with a cup of soda accidentally bumps into you, spilling soda on your clothes.  She apologizes profusely, and she and her obliging friend help you clean up with a wad of napkins, all the while siphoning off whatever is available in your bag or pockets. Another version of this is a squirt of mustard is placed on your shoulder, and the guy behind you points it out and blames it on the big bird that just flew over.  The mustard scenario is then  followed by the pat-down-clean-up charade.

Tactic #6: The ATM

Avoid withdrawing from ATMs on the street. Go inside a bank and withdraw funds, if possible. If you’re on the street, pickpockets may be watching where you put your wallet.  There are even cases of people standing next to ATMs to watch you punch in your PIN so that when their partner steals your card, they’ll know your PIN.

Street scams are plentiful.  If you really want a savvy street education, spend some time on YouTube with key words such as “Travel” and “Scam.”  Again, this is not to scare anyone, but to build awareness so that the only one who spends your hard-earned money is you.