Think you’re savvy enough to avoid being pickpocketed??
A video recently made the rounds about some pickpockets in action at the Stazione Centrale at Milan (the main train station) and I thought about how I consider myself to be relatively paranoid when it comes to traveling and I am quite overprotective about my things. Now, hosting several visitors, I find myself trying to help them prepare for what has become standard behavior for me after traveling to over 25 countries.
Of course, I’ve been on the receiving end of a pickpocket.
We had drank too much wine the night before, and wandered the historic alleyways of Naples with a few random locals that were kind enough to escort us home. It was a blindingly sunny day the next morning and we got on a bus to see the bay of Naples. It was quite empty and being no strangers to public transportation, we relaxed and recounted the previous’ night’s events, constantly amazed at our luck to encounter such nice Italians. As we chatted, I noticed a man was standing a little too close to me and that while he appeared to be scratching under his arm, he was actually opening the outside pocket of my purse. Too shocked to react violently, I yelled at the man in Italian who refused to respond or meet my eye and moved away.
The truth is that situation could have happened anywhere – I was making myself an easy target. The best prevention is being prepared and aware, and most importantly, to look like a difficult target. The best pickpockets pick the easiest targets so they can do as many as possible without notice. Here are some ways to avoid being an attractive target for a pickpocket – divided into Being a Difficult Target, Protecting Your Belongings, and Using Public Transportation.
Being a Difficult Target – Make it Hard for them to Get to You
- Walk with Purpose and Keep Moving
Confused looks, hesitant steps and visible maps are the perfect indicators of a distracted person and therefore a good target. Take the time before you leave a safe area (a restaurant, your hotel, the train platform) to check your surroundings and directions before heading out. Perhaps write a few key indications (direction and street names) on a post-it for quick reference.
I prefer to stop somewhere with a wall at my back in order to consult a map or stare at a landmark. If that’s not available, I move to a wide open space where anyone approaching me can be seen. Consider ducking into a store for directions or to consult your map.
- Be Unpredictable
If you suspect you are being followed/targeted by a pickpocket, change directions, stop and go in a different direction. Enter into the nearest shop for a few minutes to collect yourself and perhaps to make them lose interest. Pickpockets love stations because people entering and exiting them are very concentrated on getting to their next destination, and their paths are obvious.
When my father came to visit and we were in Torino, I noticed three gypsies scoping him out as we waited to cross the street near the station. Instead of crossing the street which I felt would only create a cat and mouse game, I halted my father and pointed out a bus stop down the street as we stood aside, making idle chitchat. Everyone else crossed the street, we missed the light, but more importantly the gypsies lost interest when they saw they couldn’t take advantage of the confusion and went in a completely different direction to look for a new target.
- Don’t Stop to Talk or Answer Questions from Strangers
Chances are, you look like a tourist more than you would like to, and pickpockets have learned how to recognize a potential mark. Therefore, it is very unlikely someone will need to stop you and ask for directions or assistance in English if you are in a foreign country. In all actuality, they probably know you are a tourist already and are seeking to confirm this and perhaps create some conversation to relax/distract you for a partner. We all want to be compassionate and help others, but when you are vulnerable with luggage and finding your way, think of yourself first. Walk with purpose.
- When Traveling in Groups, Designate Lookouts
When you are traveling alone, you may feel vulnerable because you are solo, but in groups pickpockets can take advantage of the confusion to pick on your most distracted members. Consider asking a member of your group who is planning to sit out, and can therefore concentrate on his surroundings, to keep an extra eye out. Keep the weaker members of your group in the middle when walking somewhere and those more attentive in the back.
Protecting Your Belongings – Make it Difficult to get to Your Stuff
- When carrying a purse or bag, wear the flap against your body and keep a hand on it
I only travel with purses that close with a single, central zipper (single entry point) like this one or this one. I make sure every time I carry it with the zipper facing front and directly under my arm where I can keep an eye on it. Mini backpacks or purses that are open on top? Targets. If you have a flap on your purse or messenger bag, make sure it’s close against your body and not facing outwards. Get a messenger bag with a zip on top like this one.
- While drinking or eating outside, NEVER put your purse/bag on the ground or hang it on the chair behind you.
I can’t tell you how many friends have had their bags stolen while dining. Put it on your lap or on the table if it’s a small purse. If you’ve got longer straps or a single shoulder strap, do what I do and hang the purse off your knee in front of you. Maybe it’s a little uncomfortable, but having your bag stolen is more uncomfortable, trust me. If you have no other option, consider putting the leg of the chair through the straps of your purse or backpack.
Something I carry with me always is a “Purse Hook/Hanger” which a colleague gave to me. This way you can hang the purse directly from the table where you can see it but it’s not on the ground. You could also use it to hang a shopping bag. Highly recommended!!
- Don’t keep important things in ANY outside pockets in your suitcase, jacket, or purse.
If you have to give pickpockets access to something (you have too much luggage or several bags) make sure it’s not worth taking. Keep underwear in outside luggage pockets and not important documents. Use inside pockets of jackets and purses that have a zipper and/or button to hold important documents, and take advantage of clothing layers to keep your documents buried as much as possible.
- Use a Money Belt
This is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to lower the impact of a pickpocket. Use a money belt to keep your passport, extra credit cards and cash safe and out of sight. Keep that day’s cash and a credit card in your day purse/wallet for easy access. If you must get into your money belt, do it in a safe area like a bathroom stall or changing room. Getting into your money belt to make regular purchases is not an effective use of it and draws attention to where you store your money.
If you prefer to carry a money belt and/or passport holder, make sure you don’t advertise where it is. Many times I’ve seen tourists walking around with a very visible passport holder bouncing freely under their t-shirt, or with the neck cord poking out and trailing down their back. They might as well wear a bull’s-eye! I prefer to use a neck passport holder like this one and actually wear it around my waist, tucked into my pants (also a good alternative for summer when wearing light tops). It was comfortable and not as noticeable, or you can get the traditional money belt version or an actual belt to conceal currency. My father prefers to hide things in his socks. I’m not sure I recommend that, but if you’re interested in a leg pocket, those exist too!
- Bring the Bare Essentials When You Can
If you have a good base location such as a hotel or a friend’s house, why not lighten up what you’re carrying with you when going shopping, walking in crowded markets or areas? Some reputable hotels also offer safe services for valuables.
Using Public Transportation – Stay Balanced and Aware
Pickpockets are counting on your being unbalanced, distracted and crowded on public transportation. If you can, read about certain buses or public transportation that are most used by tourists – these are usually pickpocket buffets (the 64 bus from Termini to St. Peter’s in Rome is notorious for this).
- Stand defensive and prepared.
Swing any backpacks around to the front of your body and put your arms through the straps to keep your hands free. Not only will this help you keep an eye on it, it will make you more appreciated by regular riders as backpacks usually swing into people and take up more room. I used to tie the cords hanging off my backpack zippers together so it was harder to open. If rolling a piece of luggage, place it in front of you between you and your handhold, as close to a wall as possible.
- Keep the right hands occupied, and the right hands free.
Keep a hand on your purse and close to your body and the other hand to stabilize your body while the public transportation is in motion. Don’t hold on with the same arm that should be protecting your bag! To further stabilize yourself, if you can’t get a seat, make sure to center your body in front of the pole, seat or other handhold so you won’t be thrown off-balance. Stand with your knees slightly bent to react with turns and bumps. Angle one foot in the direction of the braking action (forward for example).
If A Pickpocket Happens to You
In Italy, the only thing you can do is to go to the Questura or local police station to report the crime. Wherever you are at the time, make sure you file your report with the proper authorities and get a copy of the report and/or a file number for reference.
Note: You may encounter a lack of compassion or urgency when filing a report for a stolen purse or wallet, as unfortunately there is little that the police can do to find or punish pickpockets in Italy. Many of them have no identification/papers and can be held only for a few days before being released, and the younger ones can’t even be arrested. Report the pickpocket immediately anyway and keep a copy of the report for your records and/or for insurance reasons.
Preparing Yourself Before a Trip
Before leaving, photocopy important documents and leave a copy with a relative/friend who can fax them to you if necessary. Keep a list of contact numbers available in your suitcase for reporting stolen credit cards along with a copy of your passport and other important documents. I also keep these support numbers in an email draft in my email so that I can access them from any computer (please note: I am not recommending you store credit card numbers in an email, just the customer support numbers).
Things to make a copy of and leave with a friend:
- Credit card contact numbers (leave a copy of the front and back of your credit cards at home, not in your suitcase)
- Tickets and travel reservation numbers
- Hotel reservations
- Other identification
A Final Note
All of these precautions are not to make you so paranoid on your next trip that you won’t enjoy it! But once learned, they can only add to your awareness when in unfamiliar situations. Use your instincts and a little common sense to avoid being a victim, so you can enjoy the sights and beauty of your host country!
Have you been a victim of a pickpocket? Could it have been avoided? Have a tip to avoid being pickpocketed?? Put it in the comments!!