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 into 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 uncomfortable, 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.