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Meeting the Pickpockets in Paris

Unsure whether to post this here, trip reports or scams, but here goes... We had a "local cultural experience" in Paris which we could have skipped. All in all, no harm done, but just wanted to share our experience to help others.

Coming out of the Bastille Metro Station, I was walking ahead of my husband (mistake). He was wearing his day pack in front in the Metro but as we neared the exit he switched to wear it on his back (mistake). We were both tired and jet lagged and not paying enough attention to our surroundings (mistake). I looked back and saw a strange sight out of the corner of my eye. Two young men were walking single file behind my husband, very close to him. There was no one else in the corridor and I thought it was rather odd that they weren't passing him. It took a second for me to register what was really going on. I swung back and saw one of the backpack pockets was unzipped. I yelled at the young man closest to my husband, who gave me "angel eyes" (in the words of one of our French friends). He looked so innocent that I thought I must have made a mistake. However, both young men then quickly passed us and kept looking back at us with worried faces. At some point, they made a u-turn to head back into the subway to find their next victims.

The good news: we had absolutely nothing of value in the backpack. They did steal our shopping bag for buying groceries. We've been to Paris several times, but never in the summer when tourists and pickpockets are in peak season. We got a little too comfortable and learned a valuable lesson at little expense, although I'm sad to think of our nice little grocery bag now leading a life of crime in the Paris subway system.

For the rest of the trip, my husband wore the backpack in front at all times in the Metro and in any very crowded area. I walked with him and we both kept alert. No more problems, although we saw scams galore. My husband is a big, muscular guy. We thought it more likely that I would be a target than him. He had absolutely no idea anyone was behind him and never felt anyone touching or unzipping his backpack. To my fellow travelers - keep your travels wonderful by protecting your valuables!

Posted by
5715 posts

Backpacks are a pickpockets dream -- you were smart not to have valuables in yours. My husband once put his hand in his pocket and discovered there was already a hand there -- he did not feel a thing until that. He was also once surrounded on the stairs of a metro while he was carrying two suitcases (I was carrying the messenger bags and was unwisely out in front of him too far to ride shotgun. ) Three guys literally frisked him. He didn't have a wallet in his pockets so they got nothing, but if he had, they would have had it. A local shrieked at them and they ran off.

This is organized crime in Paris mostly run by Eastern European families of thieves and they are very good at it.

Posted by
2241 posts

Barbara, thanks for sharing. I use two of these for the zippers on my small backpack, attaching them to the nylon loops on the pack. Not foolproof but a good deterrent; a backpack is tough for us to do without in a day of sightseeing. I'm glad you both avoided losing anything!

Posted by
260 posts

My husband and I were also targeted in the metro. A group of very young boys climbed up the stairs just behind my husband. I was in back of the boys, and yelled out to my husband, who had no idea he was about to be a victim. They vanished as quickly as they had arrived. That actually just about the only time we were ever targeted in Europe. Or at least the only time we realize we were targeted. We always wear money belts, so we would have lost very little, but still. Bottom line: be careful.

Posted by
151 posts

Brilliant Dave! We were going to buy some small locking carabiners, but your solution might be better. For an immediate solution while in Paris, we headed to Monoprix and bought shoelaces. Not perfect, but a good deterrent and I got the bonus of asking for shoelaces in French. New word added to my vocabulary!

Posted by
8293 posts

Ben, I totally agree with you. The buses here in Montreal have signs ( in French, of course) reminding everyone to remove their backpacks while on the bus. Students seem to be the worst offenders. It's just a matter of being aware that you are sharing space and need to act accordingly.

Posted by
151 posts

Ben, you are right. I didn't say this in my first post, but whenever standing in the Metro my husband held his backpack by hand, low to the ground. He wanted to avoid inadvertently hitting anyone with it. He wore it in front when we were walking inside the Metro station or when there was room on the Metro for us to sit (not often). I should also add that twice younger women offered me their seats on the Metro. Not necessary, but it was a very nice gesture on their part.

Posted by
45 posts

Hi Dave,

In view of the experiences shared under this post, I want to purchase two of the rings you provided the link for. How do they work, and has anyone used them yet?

Patrick

Posted by
2241 posts

patrick, take a look here. The knurled part unscrews. Just put the "male" end through the hole that most zippers have and attach to loop or other good spot on the pack. The "female" of the cable ring is probably too large to also fit through a zipper, but if large enough you could simply loop both zippers. I found these at an auto parts store, a locksmith/key kiosk may have them too. Distributed by Hillman, among others I'm sure.

Posted by
842 posts

Back in the day (late 90s), Rick recommended bread bag twist ties for your backpack zippers. Won't stop anyone who can cut into your bag but would deter someone going for the quick zipper open and grab. Anything to make it more complicated for them.

Posted by
12123 posts

Hi,

Thanks for the details. Your experience is one reason I don't carry a day pack. Obviously, the most important thing is to realise what is going on, that moment when caught off guard, then how long does it take to recover from it. At that moment seeing them trailing your husband so closely when they could have passed him, you could have let out some yell , startling the culprits. I remember an incident similar to yours in 1995 going from Hamburg Hbf to the S-Bahn platform, I noticed two guys trailing my female companion who was carrying small day pack on her back., waiting for moment to make their move. She was ahead of me going down the stairs to the platform, I wanted to find some way to signal or warn her that she was being trailed. She already knew and at one of the guys looked him dead in the eyes, ie, I know you're up to. They backed off.

Posted by
113 posts

Very helpful ideas. I'm surprised at everyone's restraint to not punch or slap the pick-pocket offenders, especially the ones with their hands inside your clothing.

Posted by
57 posts

I believe it is called assault.
And then we have foreign police with there own legal systems.

Posted by
1633 posts

We have been content with simple, drawstring nylon bags that can be carried on your shoulder or worn backpack style. No pouches or zippers. They're suitable for a tour book, caps, folding umbrellas or the jacket when it warms up, and can hold quite a bit if carefully squashed and crammed. I think we got 3 for under $10 or so. The important stuff is stashed in neck pouches by Lewis N Clark, which we like a lot. Last year we shopped around for a conventional back pack but we found it too cumbersome and heavy for our needs and will return to the old nylon cheapies.

Posted by
4507 posts

Glad nothing of value was lost. One thing this highlights is that no amount of "being extra vigilant" will protect you if you happen to run across pickpockets. You mention how your husband was careful with his bag on the metro, but this occurred walking out of the station. People often write here that they just carry a wallet or purse or backpack and put their hand in their pocket or hold their bag/purse when on a bus or metro, etc... But those people are just lucky; pickpockets work lots of places and have lots of schemes for distractions and such. Those of us that have a secure system (like Barbara and her husband using waist moneybelts), never really have to worry because the pickpockets can't access their valuables no matter where they strike.

Posted by
11437 posts

Its not assault if you are simply pushing back offender.. I have done it twice ( before you get all paranoid and scared.. let me explain.. twice in over 35 years of travel) ... and in both cases I discovered thieves in process of stealing. First one was when walking down a street .... suddenly realized a man was walking way too close to me( and sidewalk was not busy) looked down at my bag to discover the zipper was open,, this all happens in seconds, so I immediately knew what was happening ( pretty good since I was only 23) and pushed fellow away from me. He ran off.

Second time was only maybe 5 or 6 years ago.. alone in a metro tunnel.. a fellow walking too close to me.. and I had same reaction.. screamed at him too ( it was funny since I yelled in English " go get a f king job" and shoved him away too.. he also ran away.

Now.. assault would be winding up and punching him.. shoving them away.. slapping their hands away.. sorry ,, that is not assault.

My best advise is simply not to carry anything you can't lose. I know for some that seems impossible in this electronic age though.. ( what.. no phone ?) .. but its how I stay happy.. Wear a money belt inside clothes for excess cash , cards and passport, or leave in hotel safe( which is what I do ) then really worst case scenario is losing 50 or 100 euros

Posted by
5467 posts

I was walking in Amsterdam with my Dutch friends five years ago. Ad had a backpack and we got into a crowded spot. Ad saw some ahead of him and called out to beware, not realizing that at the same time they were going after him! Fortunately Anamiek and I were behind him and slapped the hands away. It was unpleasant.

Posted by
260 posts

I should add that although I wear a conventional money belt, my husband has switched to the type that is looped on his belt, then worn inside his trousers. He hated the other style, and finds this type of money belt much easier to get out, when necessary, for a ccard, etc. On my last trip I started wearing my money belt in the back rather than in the front. Looks a lot less lumpy. Still not so easy to get to, when needed, but hey, worth it in feeling of protection from thieves.

Posted by
12123 posts

But it is very tempting to punch the culprit...very tempting, just jacking him up , but pushing him away effectively will have to do. Making a scene is also an option, which is the last thing they want to see as a reaction.

Posted by
45 posts

Hi Laura,

I was planning on wearing an RS silk money belt looped inside my trousers, but when I take it out to use it in a restaurant, for example, I will make known where my valuables are. I don't know a way out of this dilemma, except maybe paying for everything with a credit card instead of cash. I haven't decided which is better: wearing it in the front or back. I am not a big, muscular guy.

I have a camera case that I intend to carry around the city instead of a backpack. Any suggestions?

Patrick

Posted by
11437 posts

Patrick ... you are not supposed to use whats in the moneybelt to pay for lunches or admissions.. keep that in a wallet or pocket or your wifes purse.. the moneybelt is DEEP STORAGE... and should only be accessed in private.. like a bathroom stall ( be careful nothing drops out ).

You carry your days spending money normally.. like all Parisians do.. ( do you think locals wear moneybelts?) .. the moneybelt if for excess cash., your passport.. irreplaceable things.

Posted by
1464 posts

No wallet but only a few loose banknotes, just enough for small expenses in the back pocket, metro ticket(s) in the other, coins in the front, other banknotes and valuables in the moneybelt and trying to use it as less as possible works for me well.