How to outfox pickpockets

By: Rick Steves
This item appears on page 53 of the January 2018 issue.

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 money belt 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.

A money belt tucked underneath your clothes keeps your essentials on you as securely as your underwear. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

It was my own fault. I wasn’t wearing my money belt — 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 section” 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 or wearing a money belt — 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 pickpockets keep you from traveling. Besides wearing a money belt, 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. 

Leave your fancy bling at home. Luxurious luggage lures thieves. They’ll choose the most impressive suitcase in the pile — never mine.

LEAVE IT BEHIND. Your valuables are most likely to be stolen when they are with you on the street. Your day bag is at high risk. I find my hotel room is the safest place to leave my passport, laptop and so on. I wouldn’t leave valuables out in the open in my room; I just tuck things away out of sight. (I have never bothered with a hotel safe.)

HARDEN TARGETS. 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 or leg or a 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 to make it harder to get into than the next guy’s.

Some thieves can even be so bold as to snatch something right out of your hands. I’ve even seen thieves on a bike zip by and snare a purse or bag that a relaxing traveler placed carelessly next to café table.

AVOID CROWDS. Thieves know where the crowds are — and where the tourists are — and they are very, very deft at their work. A petite bump and a slight nudge getting off the Métro in Paris and... wallet gone. (That’s exactly what happened to me.)

Be on guard in train stations, especially upon arrival, when you may be overburdened by luggage and overwhelmed by a new location. Take turns watching the bags with your travel partner. Don’t absentmindedly set down a bag; stay in physical contact with your stuff. 

City transit lines that cover tourist sights (such as Rome’s notorious bus No. 64) are happy hunting grounds for pickpockets. Stay alert and keep your valuables secure. Photo by Rick Steves

Be especially careful on packed buses or subways. On trains, I keep my luggage above me on the luggage rack rather than on the shelves near the door.

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 and opportunities plus easy escape routes.

DON’T BE DECEIVED. The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businesspeople. Some pose as tourists, with day packs, cameras and even a Rick Steves guidebook. You’ll meet a lot of people on the street 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.

IF PICKPOCKETS STRIKE… Getting everything straightened out can take a while. If you do 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 (if you have a security app, use your hotel’s computer to enable the “locate, lock and wipe” feature before you cancel service altogether). Above all, 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 may 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 plus Time equals Comedy.” 

Rick Steves writes European travel guides and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. Contact Rick Steves’ Europe (Edmonds, WA; 425/771-8303, www.ricksteves.com).