How to foil Europe's clever pickpockets

Courtesy of ricksteves.com -- City transit lines that cover tourist sights (such as Rome's metro Line A) are happy hunting grounds for pickpockets. (photo: Rick Steves)

By Published: January 4, 2018

I don’t give much thought to petty crime when I travel abroad. I’m well aware that it happens: I’ve been preaching about the importance of wearing a moneybelt for decades. And for decades — probably about a total of 4,000 days of travel — I’ve never been hit by a thief. Well, my happy streak finally ended: I was pickpocketed in Paris last summer.

It was my own fault: I wasn’t wearing my moneybelt — a small pouch worn at the waist under your clothes. I lost my driver’s license, credit cards and some cash. I went back to my hotel, referred to the “in case of emergency” advice in my Paris guidebook and set about canceling my credit cards. My experience just goes to show that, sooner or later, if you’re not on guard, wearing a moneybelt — or at least keeping everything properly zipped and buttoned — you’ll likely be a victim.

Thieves target tourists, not because the thieves are mean, but because they’re smart. We’re the ones with the good stuff in our purses and wallets. But don’t let the fear of groping grifters keep you from traveling. Besides wearing a moneybelt, here are some other tips for keeping your valuables safe:

• Be prepared. Before you go, take steps to minimize your potential loss. Make copies or take photos of key documents, back up your digital data and password-protect your devices. Consider getting theft insurance for expensive electronics (your homeowner’s insurance may already cover them). Leave your fancy bling at home. Luxurious luggage lures thieves: They’ll choose the most impressive suitcase in the pile — never mine.

• Leave valuables behind. Expensive gear, such as your laptop, is much safer in your room than with you in a day bag on the streets. But don’t tempt sticky-fingered staff by leaving a camera or tablet in plain view — tuck your enticing items in a safe or at least well out of sight.

• Limit access and stay vigilant. Thieves want to quickly separate you from your valuables, so even a minor obstacle can be an effective deterrent. If you’re sitting down to eat or rest, loop your day-bag strap around your arm, leg or chair leg. A cable tie, paper clip or key ring can help keep your bag zipped up tight. The point isn’t to make your bag impenetrable, but harder to get into than the next guy’s.

• Be aware of who’s around you. Some thieves can even be so bold as to snatch something right out of your hands. For instance, if you’re holding up your phone to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower, a thief can grab it and run — and he can navigate his escape route far better than you can.

• Don’t be deceived. The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businesspeople. Some pose as tourists, with daypacks, cameras and even a Rick Steves guidebook! You’ll meet a lot of people with beautiful eyes, beautiful children and sad stories — but many beggars are pickpockets. Don’t be fooled by impressive uniforms, femme fatales or hard-luck stories.

• Avoid crowds and commotions. Thieves know where the crowds are and they are very deft at their work. A petite bump and a slight nudge getting off the Metro in Paris and . . . wallet gone.

• Be on guard in train stations, especially when you might be overburdened by luggage and overwhelmed by a new location. Take turns watching the bags with your travel partner. Don’t absent-mindedly set down a bag; stay in physical contact with your stuff. On the train, be hyper-alert at stops, when thieves can dash on and off — with your bag. Be especially careful on packed buses or subways. Often artful-dodger teams create a disturbance — a fight, a messy spill, a jostle, or a stumble — to distract their victims. Crowds anywhere, but especially on public transit and at tourist sights, provide bad guys with plenty of targets, opportunities and easy escape routes.

If pickpockets do strike, getting everything straightened out can take a while. If you get robbed, file a police report; you’ll need it to file an insurance claim and it can help with replacing your passport or credit cards. Cancel both credit and debit cards. Suspend your mobile service. Do your best to be flexible and patient.

Nearly all crimes suffered by tourists are nonviolent and avoidable. Be aware of the pitfalls of traveling, but relax and have fun. It might not help at the time, but if you are a victim, remember that your loss will make for a good story when you get home. Like a friend of mine says, “When it comes to travel, tragedy + time = comedy.”

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.