Sunday, September 7, 2008

Travel Tips: How to defeat pickpockets

You can hardly pick up a travel guide for a city like Rome without finding a warning about pickpockets. Are these warnings actually necessary? Well, yes. Is petty crime really a reason to be afraid to visit a location? Not at all.

I’m not going to lie. Both times I’ve been to Rome, I’ve had experience with pickpockets. The first time, I was riding on the metro with my parents and my sister, and someone reached into my dad’s pocket. Later on, on the same three-day trip, a group of preteen girls tried to separate our group as we stepped off the car. Neither attempt was successful, since we were prepared to deal with the small annoyance pickpockets really are.

Some places get a bad rap with pickpockets. Rome happens to be one of them. Granted, pickpockets seem to be more common in that city, but any metropolis will have them, especially around the touristy areas. The following tips will help you keep your cash out of their grasp.

● First, be aware. If you look like you’re alert and paying attention to your surroundings, you’ve just become a hard target. Any would-be pickpocket will choose the aloof traveler over the one who scans a crowd. On my second trip to Rome, I was on the lookout for them, and I had no problems. My mom, on the other hand, had a man stick his hand into her pocket on the metro, while her attention was elsewhere. When she felt him, she slapped his hand, called him a name, and that was it.

● Use a money belt. I know they can look dorky, but if you’re going to a place where pickpockets are known to frequent, a money belt will keep your money, ID, credit cards and passport safe. I wore mine in Rome and most of the time I was in India. In Paris, London, Munich and Salzburg, I was less worried about the petty crime, so I just kept my wallet in my pocket like I do at home.

● If you carry a purse, don’t hang it over one shoulder. Purse snatchers on Vespas aren’t uncommon, and if you wear it across your body, they won’t even bother. If you use a backpack, be it large or small, make sure you either wear it backwards or keep it pressed up against a wall when you’re in a metro car (Small carabiners or even safety pins through the zippers are a good extra security measure).

● Don’t get distracted. The best pickpockets work in teams. One will distract you somehow – be it bumping into you, asking you to take a photo or playing an instrument – while the other one makes off with your wallet. This ties in with being alert. If you’re carrying your wallet in your pocket, make sure no one is close enough to make off with it. If you do get bumped into, quickly check to make sure everything is where it should be.

● Know where they congregate. Pickpockets love crowded places where there is a lot of movement. Airports, train stations and metros (subways) are favorite hangouts, as are crowded city centers and tourist attractions. The chances of someone taking your wallet as you amble down one of Venice’s deserted back alleys are small. A crowd gives a pickpocket anonymity.

● Some clothing companies have added hidden pockets to their articles. I have a pair of pants with a zip-up pocket inside the front pocket. I feel safe keeping my money there, as no one could get to it without my knowledge (I say that now). I also have a jacket with a Velcroed and zipped breast pocket. I keep my wallet and everything in there whenever I wear it. The bottom line is to be smart about where you put your money.

Practically every traveler I’ve talked to has a pickpocket story. They range from the mundane (like mine) to the outlandish (a group of Australians who were partying in Rio de Janeiro when a pickpocket struck. They supposedly handed their beers to a couple of cops and chased the guy down, gave him a thrashing and got congratulations from the police).

It’s nothing to be overly concerned about.

I like to look at it as a game. I’m tempted to photocopy a 10-Euro note and stick it in my pocket, with a corner hanging out for them to see the next time I go overseas, then see if I can keep track of it – while the rest of my money is safely in my money belt or hard-to-reach pocket.

Some people will read the alarmist warnings in guide books and naturally be afraid of how bad the situation will be. Take it from someone who has been there – it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s something you should be aware of, but it’s not something you should let ruin your trip.


Nate said...

Cool, useful post.

Linda Le Park said...

They also make underwear that have pockets in them. They are BIG! Ha!

I think it would be nice to leave a little bit of money, maybe a few cards (like useless cards, ie gift cards, safeway card, etc.) and other things to make it look like a "real" wallet. That way, if you get mugged, they will stop with what they have.

I liked this blog. I went to Vietnam many years ago, and was super paranoid about being mugged or pick-pocketed. Extra safety tips always help, especially for the super-paranoid person like me.

I also heard that they carry like box cutters, will walk right by you if you have a purse, cut it open and steal your stuff without you ever knowing it.