Three ways to get pickpocketed — and three ways not to


Travel is 90 percent fun, but there’s always that other 10 percent — the part they call the travel bummer. And one of the most common travel bummers is getting pickpocketed. Light-fingered thieves are always out there, and they flock to places where tourists tend to gather.

I’ve been pretty lucky in my travels. In more than 20 years of traipsing around the globe, I’ve only been pickpocketed twice, and had it happen to a friend another time. But even those experiences were enough to teach me a few lessons about how to stop a pickpocket from walking away with your travelling cash.

Here’s a look at those three incidents, which represent three very typical ways of getting pickpocketed. I’ve also included some strategies on how to avoid them happening to you.

The friendly stranger As I boarded a bus in Ecuador, a nondescript-looking fellow rushed to get People on a businto the seat beside me. I was a little suspicious, so I took a firm hold on my camera bag, where most of my valuables were stashed. Pretty soon he asked me to help him open the window, making me lean over. Then he wanted to change seats with me “so I could see the nice view”. Then, just before the bus departed, he abruptly got off.

I thought I’d escaped unscathed; my camera bag with all its expensive equipment was intact. Then I arrived at the next city, went to pay the cab driver, and found the $50 in my jeans pocket was gone. How he got his hand into my tight jeans pocket without me feeling it is a wonder, but he obviously used misdirection: touch you here, and rob you there while your attention is diverted.

How to avoid it Be suspicious of strangers who seem overly friendly or want to get next to you for no apparent reason. If possible, try to sit by yourself, or sit next to someone who was already seated when you got there. Then, keep your valuables stashed somewhere they can’t be taken with one thrust of the hand — under your clothes, or in a hidden pocket.

The begging sign Outside the Rome train station, I was hurrying to the money exchange with my bags in my hands when two children — Gypsies, I’m told — came toward me. The older one, a girl about 13, held up a sign in Italian that I assumed said something like “need money”. She came close and held it in front of my face, obscuring my vision, while her accomplice, a little fellow about five or six, stuck his tiny hand in my pocket and grabbed my wallet.

Luckily, I felt the wallet go and was able to grab both the little thieves by the scruff of the neck before they got away. A crowd gathered almost immediately — almost certainly composed partly of the kids’ parents and other co-conspirators. While they made a great show of admonishing them, I stepped back and felt something under my foot — the wallet.

How to avoid it This incident raised an enlightening question: what do you need a wallet for when you’re on the road? You’re not going to need your driver’s licence or library card, and a wallet in your pocket is a target for thieves. Better to use the traveller’s time-tested method: take out just the money you’re going to need each day and split it between two pockets, so no one can steal it all with one grab. Keep the rest — plus your credit cards and passport — in a money belt or other safe place, and just take it out when needed.  Anything else can go in your day bag. Leave your wallet or purse at home.

The hand in a crowd At a music performance in Cuba, a friend and I stood in the crowd, watching the performance while people moved and danced around us. Feeling a little People dancing in Times Squareuncomfortable, I kept my hands in my pockets, protecting my little stash of cash. My companion didn’t, and paid the price: all his money was stolen. Luckily, he’d left his passport and other valuables at the hotel, but stolen cash is gone forever.

How to avoid it Be extra careful when you’re in a crowd, whether at a performance, a festival or a train station or airport. These places provide perfect cover for thieves. They can bump up against you, stick their hand in your pocket and disappear into a sea of bodies before you even see them. Keep your valuables securely hidden in a day bag if you’re carrying one, and keep your eyes on it. Your passport and your cash (aside from what’s need for immediate use) go in a money belt or hidden pocket.

A number of companies, including Tilley, sell travel clothes that have hidden, Velcro-fastened pockets built into them. Clothes with a zippered pocket work well, too — the more barriers you can present a thief, the better. Some day bags also have hidden pockets: mine has so many pockets even I can’t find things I put in there. And if you’re one of the few who still travel with a fanny pack, it’s time to retire it: they’re another invitation to thieves, like a sign saying, “here’s my money”.

Those are just three of the more common ways pickpockets get their hands on your money, but they show how easy it is for thieves to steal your money — and how simple it can be to foil them. Above all, be aware of your surroundings, avoid perilous situations and steer clear of people who are acting suspiciously.

If you have your own pickpocket stories, please share — your loss can be someone else’s gain if it helps them not get pickpocketed.


About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.


  1. Good practical advice, Paul. Several years ago, in Florence, we met an athletic-looking woman from the U.S., who told us about a scruffy looking guy who bumped into her at a train station. She moved away. Not long after that, he showed up again and bumped into her again. Her response? She moved back a couple of feet — and kicked him in the chest! I’m not advocating that approach, but my wife and I were greatly impressed. Her story came out because we had told her about my wife being pickpocketed a day earlier in Florence. Fortunately I saw it happening, and yanked away the young woman who was trying to steal my wife’s wallet.
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  2. Thanks, Loren. Kicking him in the chest — I guess that’s the proactive approach. But even if it’s a bit extreme, it’s probably a good thing that the odd victim gets a boot in, just to remind these thieves that everything has a price. Congrats on catching the woman trying to rob Jan — that’s keeping your eyes open, and that’s probably the biggest defence.
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  3. WE had a weird experience in Madrid where a woman pretended that my purse had fallen out of my bag and picked it up for me.I thanked her profusely and then as I walked away discovered she had stolen the cash and returned me the wallet as a diversion,so she could escape as I was looking inside.She had removed it from my backpack as I looked in a shop window (yes stupid I know). Europe seems to be much worse than Asia for this in my opinion.All the times I have had this happen has been there,whereas in China,Thailand,Laos,Korea,Taiwan and India we only once had a problem…
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    • That’s a new one on me, Ruthi, but I guess it falls under the category of misdirection — she gave you something else to worry about while she got away with your cash. There’s another old ruse where the pickpocket squirts mustard or ketchup on you in a food market, then draws your attention to it. While you’re worrying about your clothes, he or she slips a hand into your pocket or bag.

      I’m not sure if Europe is any worse than other continents, but I think the problem is worse in some cities than others — the Rome train station is notorious. South America can be bad, too: aside from the bus incident, I’ve had strangers scold me on the streets for carrying my camera over my shoulder, or hanging my bag on my shoulder instead of carrying it in front of me.

  4. While walking in Jerusalem, a bunch of noisy kids on bikes surrounded us and suddenly I felt a bump on my back and the kids were gone. I had forgotten to zip my backpack and sticking out was my camera bag. Fortunately, I had my camera around my neck and they only got away with the leather camera case. Since then, I not only always zip my backpack, but bought a small lock to keep both parts of the zipper from being opened. My husband and I also have leg wallets that seal around our calves with velcro. When we need cash, we find a restroom and take out what we need. We also use waist pocket security that clips around our waists. It’s a shame to have to go through all this, but it certainly safeguards our valuables.

    We also never leave anything valuable (passports, extra money, jewelry, etc.) in our hotel room. I leave all my expensive jewelry at home and take inexpensive jewelry along. Then again, some crooks don’t know the difference between real and fake jewelry, so it’s best not to wear any at all.

    Above all, we don’t announce our vacation plans to anyone but our closest relatives and friends. Doesn’t pay to advertise an empty house that may be ripe for picking. To further safeguard the house and our belongings, we pay a house sitter to come and spend time in it while watching our pet.

    Hope this helps. Best, Arline

    • A lot of good information there, Arline. Sounds like you’ve really given this a lot of thought.

      Maybe I should do another post dealing with the other aspects of travel security. Hotel rooms are a concern, of course. I look for a room with a good safe, especially when I’m travelling with my big telephoto lens, although I’ve heard stories of hotel staff getting into those too. And I would never wear anything more valuable than my trusty old watch — bling is a big temptation to thieves.

      To me, leaving the expensive stuff at home and not giving thieves a target is the best approach. That way, you can enjoy your trip, and if someone gets away with some little piece of gear, well, that’s just the cost of seeing the world.

  5. Hi Paul, my husband and I were on the Metro in Paris when my husband had someone try to pickpocket him. He felt the guy (he apparently wasn’t very good) and said “Pardon” Luckily my husband didn’t have anything in any of this pockets (we both carry zip packs under our clothes when we travel), but he still told a security guard. He just shrugged his shoulders and said “glad he didn’t get anything”. I think he just didn’t want to have to write up a report, lol. I guess it happens a lot. Thanks for all the great advice and for sharing your stories.
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    • Thanks, Samantha. I think you’re right — if the pickpocket had been any good, he would have been long gone before you even knew your husband had been robbed. You have to make a strict habit of protecting your valuables when you travel, especially when you’re in crowds and on public transit.

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