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Being Pickpocketed - If I knew then what I know now.

We recently came back from a great trip to Spain and Portugal. Unfortunately the first two hours in Barcelona weren’t much fun. Four of us were on a RS Spain trip starting in Barcelona. When we arrived at our first hotel, I noticed my wallet was missing from the FRONT ZIPPERED POCKET in my pants. While we aren’t sure, I think it was taken while we were on the train in from the airport.

When we arrived at the airport we went to get a group train ticket from the machine. We received assistance from a uniformed service person in the area. I took money from my wallet, purchased the ticket and placed the wallet back in my zippered pocket. I had purchased these pants expressly for this trip with the idea the zippered pocket would give the necessary protection from pickpockets. I don’t know if the thieves were watching us at that point and followed us onto the train. It would not surprise me.

When we went to get off the train, a woman in front of me stopped in the doorway while looking at a map. She mentioned something about “was this the correct stop for….” This caused people to be backed up and then we got off the train. That evening the four of us tried to figure out when it happened. Al and Sue remembered another woman behind me. If that in fact was when it happened, it appears I got tag teamed. Looking back, I do recall pressure against my body/leg. But as I told Jane “I certainly didn’t have the sensation that a woman unzipped my pants!”

The bad news is I lost the money and had to cancel the credit card that was in my wallet. But the majority of my money and other documentation I had were in my money belt. Lesson learned; don’t leave the credit card in your wallet. On the plus side, Jane and I travel with credit and debit cards with different account numbers. This was very important because while mine had to be cancelled, hers were still good. We no longer both carry a credit card from the same company/account.

On the very positive side, two days later I got an email from customer service at the train station. They had found my wallet still on the train with my credit card intact, the money gone. I had business cards in my wallet and they used my email address from them to contact me. Happy trails!

Posted by
3352 posts

Glad you were able to recover quickly from your experience. Enjoy your trip!

Posted by
12086 posts

I'm following the steps you took and would do likewise except get the bill out of the wallet. At that point you were probably being observed. I have bills (not more than 7x20 Euro or 10x10 Euro ) in a plastic cover in an inside zippered jacket pocket put in on the inside right breast pocket by the tailor. If I need to pay cash, say for a carnet of 10 tickets in Paris, I pull out a 20 Euro. No one sees how I whipped out this bill since they saw no wallet. Afterwards, I yank my right arm so that with left I zip up that pocket....secured. Causing people to back up was the spit second diversion they needed to create, that woman with the fake question was a decoy. The zipper on the outside is no defense, you put the zipper on the inside...that's your defense.

Posted by
30929 posts

Jim,

It's not surprising to hear that you were the victim of a pickpocket in Barcelona, as the city has long had a reputation for that. These three websites all list Barcelona as No. 1 spot for pickpockets.....

As you surmised, there were several people in the "team" and the "dip" likely passed your wallet to an accomplice within seconds, so even if you had confronted him/her, they would not have had the wallet. The fact that you didn't really notice anything at the time is testament to their skill.

Your experience is not unique. One of my former colleagues had a wallet "pinched" from his pants while on the Metro in Rome, and that was also in a front zippered pocket. It can happen anywhere. Fortunately your loss was easy to recover from.

You may enjoy watching this short video which shows some of the techniques that they use.....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoApZkG-Qsw

Posted by
12086 posts

I don't doubt the OP got the wallet back, I should hope there are Good Samaritans like that who found the wallet on the train. My first trip to Europe I helped an American girl get her "bag" back in Heidelberg Hbf among all these US college kids, like myself, at the hostel. She told me how her bag disappeared, or she left/forgot it etc...pretty despondent. So I suggested the Lost and Found at the train station, told me they wouldn't understand her linguistically, etc. Anyway, long story short, I went to the Hbf with her, asked a DB woman in German, who wanted an explanation re "lost and found" then went "in the back" to see if the description matched anything turned in. I recall one more question asked when she came out...what color was it. The woman brought out the bag, the girl lucked out, she identified it, someone had turned it in, nothing was missing. Obviously, she was relieved.

Posted by
2546 posts

My husband's wallet was stolen in a similar manner in Barcelona in 2014. All he knows is that he had the wallet at an ATM and then did not have it when he went to get it about 20 minutes later. Later that day we got a call at the hotel from the Barcelona police telling us that his wallet had been found. They tracked him down through his office and his business cards and we had to go and pick it up for a police man. The "funny" thing is that when we arrived, the wallet was nowhere to be found but his license and all his non-financial card were neatly bound in a rubber band and waiting for him. He was thrilled because replacing credit and debit cards is easy -- replacing a license is a pain and we were on our way to France where he was going to have to drive a rental car and he had a jump drive in his wallet that he really wanted to get back and that was in the pile.

Posted by
342 posts

"... I noticed my wallet was missing from the FRONT ZIPPERED POCKET in my pants."

At that instance of discovery, was the pocket zippered, or unzippered?

"I had purchased these pants expressly for this trip with the idea the zippered pocket would give the necessary protection from pickpockets."

Was the zipper exposed on the pants, or hidden inside a pocket?

Posted by
20597 posts

Thanks, you just made my list of examples for front pocket safety. We occasionally teach travel courses locally so I love collect anecdotal evidence of how unsafe front pockets can be. Granted - better than a back pocket but only marginally so. Have you posted prior to you trip about your planned zipper front pocket you would have assured so that nobody could unzip my pocket and I would not know it. That has been stated many times followed by, " I can't believe they did that."

But at least you were smart enough not to have everything in the wallet. Many do. I don't carry a billfold at all. I use a money clip for my daily money in one zipper pocket and the credit and/or debit if planning to use it that day in another secured pocket. Most of my shirts that I travel in have zipper pockets on the shirt. They may get the cash or the credit card but they cannot get both.

Pickpockets rarely work at random and by themselves. I am sure you were set up they saw where the billfold was stored when buying the ticket. The "Block the Doorway" is a standard ploy. You run into the person, your focus on her, you are being pushed from behind by other passengers so you don't notice the pat on the leg. You have a couple of small defense. To make this work they have to sandwich you. So be slow in getting off and let the flow of the crowd pass you by. Nothing wrong with being the last person out of the car. Second, most people out of habit will exit at the closest door so the team's expectation is that you will go the same. The train slows down, people stand up, face the door, door open and mad push to get off. You an do the same but then turn around and go for the far door. You need to be just a little bit unpredictable.

I am guessing you paid a small price for a good lesson. Others have paid far more for the same lesson.

Posted by
4498 posts

Thanks for sharing as a lesson for others.

There are so many threads here about securing money and cards and the threat from pickpokets. In most of those threads, a few people post that they use a front zippered pocket and feel it is secure (who could possibly not feel someone unzip and remove a wallet from there?). While people are free to choose their level of risk and tolerance, it is frankly very bad advice.

The thieves probably worked in tandem and may have noticed you putting the wallet there or may have just noticed a bulge in your pants. Either way, it isn't too hard to notice and steal for a veteran team.

Posted by
8906 posts

...and further proof that just "being aware of your surroundings" will do nothing to prevent you from being nabbed by a pickpocket. One's best defense is to assume you will be nailed sometime during your trip, keep excess cards/cash in a money belt or hotel room safe, cut your losses and shrug it off.

Posted by
1759 posts

I leave my wallet at home. I am used to carrying a wallet but don't need the extra storage while traveling. For public transit and tourist attractions I use the money belt with some cash in a front pocket. In transit my messenger bag hangs in front of that pocket.

Posted by
3238 posts

What Richard said. I continue to be puzzled when I hear these stories involving wallets. How much and what stuff do you really need to carry while in Europe? Take only the essentials for your trip. Then decide what needs to be readily accessible and put that in more than one place. Leave the rest in your money belt or in your room or in the safe in your room. My guess is that most people, male or female, can function perfectly well with about 10% of what they normally carry around at home.

Posted by
6542 posts

I was once pickpocketed when an individual in front of us took a dive at the bottom of an escalator in the Paris underground. Bodies were falling all over the guy, and numerous artisian pickpockets went into action. One pointed at a wallet and said in perfect English, "Is that yours?"
What gets me is that the authorities see the same guys day after day and they know their profession. They do nothing about them, as a pickpocket is an accepted job there.
I no longer carry a billfold when traveling to high risk places. My wife walks closely behind me, and I no longer am a courteous Americano when any individual gets into my personal space. And at 6'3" and 230 lbs., I am on defense at all times and people really just don't mess with me.

Posted by
11480 posts

Thing is, I think the authorities have much bigger concerns to worry about than pickpockets these days. They're an annoyance but the eyes are on suspicious bags and suspicious activity and lots of suspicious things that can do far worse damage. It's sort of us to us to keep our valuables intact. I'm good with that.

Posted by
5817 posts

David I struggle to see how your behaviour, acting in a threatening manner to all around you based on your attitude and size, can be seen as acceptable or appropriate. It's obnoxious and unnecessary.

Whether French law enforcement chooses to do nothing about the pick pocketing problem, I'm going to pay them the courtesy of not making huge sweeping assumptions generalisations based on something I know nothing about. Maybe you could try doing the same?

Having worked in UK law enforcement for 15 years I can say that in London we do a lot against the problem of pickpockets. Often our activity is obvious to the general public, often it isn't. Sometimes it's successful, sometimes it's not, that's the nature of law enforcement I'm afraid. I can't imagine the approach is that different in Paris.

As has been said above, law enforcement officers have enough on their plates in Europe at the moment without having to deal with visitors who think that acting as a thug as a form of defence is the best way to behave. Please feel free to visit but leave the attitude at home.

Posted by
7639 posts

I have seen pile-ups on escalators a number of times. They have all been accidents, certainly not planned. People often got hurt. If someone saw a wallet, they were being kind and pointing it out so the person wouldn't get to their destination, discover it was gone, but are now sure they were pick-pocketed. Sometimes people are kind, but if you go around with the attitude that you are big and bad you will never see the kindnesses and mistake them for something completely different.

I've met your type before David, at train stations, ticket machines, on trains, or simply lost in the city. You are so afraid that this 60 year old woman speaking with an Ohio accent, is going to steal you blind that you feel you can be rude. That's ok though. I watched you waste your money on the wrong ticket and get off at the wrong stop, and watched you struggle with your luggage when you could have had help from me.

I will continue to be helpful.

Posted by
30929 posts

In most cases the threatening or confrontational attitude is not needed, as you may be displaying this to someone who is no threat and just wants to help.

Posted by
4498 posts

I go by a simple rule: You cannot be victimized (by pickpockets) if they cannot get to your valuables.

Situational awareness is helpful at times, but unnecessary if you have a secure system.

Aggressive responses to real or perceived pickpockets is unnecessary if you have a secure system.

Rude behavior just makes you look bad and is unnecessary if you have a secure system.

Posted by
516 posts

"I go by a simple rule: You cannot be victimized (by pickpockets) if they cannot get to your valuables."

I don't hear much talk around here regarding ankle wallets. I think ankle wallets would be a great answer to the above comment, especially if you're going from point to point such that you don't have a hotel safe to put things in. I've heard that with a money belt you can still lose some things because it does get exposed, for example, when you need to use the restroom. A long shot, yes, but well, in all that fidgeting around in the toilet stall, things could fall off/out. But consider the ankle wallet:

It would be near impossible for someone to:

  1. lift up my pant leg
  2. pull my sock down
  3. pull up the velcro flap on my ankle wallet and then unzip it, while holding up my pant leg and holding down my sock.

I don't care how good of a thief the person is, that just simply isn't going to be a successful pick-pocketing. Plus, they'd have to know that I have an ankle wallet on to begin with, which, unlike a money belt or neck wallet, it really is literally impossible to tell (i.e., no bulging under my pants/shirt/jacket/etc.). I would imagine that the ankle wallet might also be more comfortable than something you wear around your waist.

Posted by
12086 posts

Yes, it's all a matter of a defense system. I know I look more awkward or it appears traveling in France even I can read the signs no problem now and resort to slow speech if need be en francais than I do in Germany and Austria. It's also the system too.

Posted by
503 posts

Emma, where did David say he acts in a "threatening" way? He stated that he doesn't act "courteous". Very different. You assumed his attitude was threatening.

Posted by
1445 posts

Jim, thanks for the timely reminder as the summer tourist seasons ramps up. I saw it happen I get in front of me last summer to a member of our group in Lisbon. There were 4-5 young adults at the top of the funicular that blended in with our group. One in front unzipped the gentleman's front pant pocket, found only a passport, dropped it, and the young lady walking behind handed it back to the gentleman. Then the group went off, threading through the crowd. It happened in a split second and I didn't even realize what I watching until it was over.

Posted by
5817 posts

Lisa, I think the statement that no one gets in his personal space, emphasis on his size and that no one "messes" with him can be described as pretty threatening.
Why would no one "mess" with him if there wasn't a perception of threat? Maybe you are right but even if the behaviour is just unpleasant it's still necessary.

Posted by
8561 posts

I used an ankle wallet for awhile but found one big problem.....as the day wore on, the ankle wallet would slide down my leg and rest on the top of my shoe. If I made it tighter, it cut off circulation and became uncomfortable.

While there is no 100% way to prevent pickpockets, there are things you can do that will help:

--situational awareness. Know your surroundings. Don't just be absorbed in yourself, a map, a guidebook. This is not just for pickpocketing but everything. Last week I was on a train when a guy left a shopping bag on a seat and disappeared into another car. I waited a few minutes to see if he was going to return and if not would report it to the conductor. (The loo was literally ten feet in the other direction so he wasn't going there.) He did return about five minutes later with the rest of his stuff. He had just used the bag to hold his seat as it was open seating. (No other passengers noticed anything as I scanned around to see any reaction.) But with all the warnings about left baggage I wouldn't have felt bad reporting it.

--for those items not in a moneybelt (for men), and in your pocket, I keep my arm against the pocket when still (say in a subway or bus), or hang my thumb from that pocket as if resting my arm.

--i connected a handle loop to my wallet (the RS one) and instead of putting it on my wrist, I put my belt through the loop. My phone case had the same thing but it tore so I can't do this anymore.

Posted by
516 posts

"..Nobody wears shorts in Europe."

Normally I would call this a generalization as I'm sure that of the millions of people in Europe, we can't possibly no for sure if there is truly not a single individual in shorts. But I get the point, which is, you obviously aren't going to wear an ankle wallet if you're not wearing long pants. That's like wearing a money belt on the outside of your pants/clothes...duh.

I'd like to also draw our attention back to what this thread and many other similar threads are about: pickpocketing. While it is true that there is no 100% way to prevent a "pickpocketing" (and the definition of which is "getting your pockets picked", not necessarily getting something stolen), you can only get your "pockets picked" if you have pockets to begin with. So, if you are wearing pants/shirt/jacket all of which have NO POCKETS, there's nothing to pick, right? Of course, this would be an odd ensemble of clothing, which is why we hide things in money belts, neck wallets, ankle wallets, pockets sewn inside of pants, etc. I still believe that any variety of these measures is pretty much fail safe. I mean honestly, if you've got such hidden pockets/wallets under several layers of clothing, the thief would literally need to undress you to get to it. It's kind of like saying that if you put money in your shoe (and I mean not just in your shoe, but under the insole) that a "highly skilled" pick pocket would STILL be able to get to it.... impossible!

Posted by
20597 posts

My favorite posting on this subject from Marilyn, 11/18/2011

Both of us were pickpocketed in the Metro in Rome. Husband lost wallet
- they got my VISA from my bra!!! I never felt a thing!!

Posted by
516 posts

In reading the post from the second link above (https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/general-europe/to-wear-shorts-or-not-to-wear-shorts-that-is-the-question), I spotted this comment:

"I can count on one hand the number of times I actually thought a person looked presentable in them. I see young, middle aged and quite old men (what are they thinking, where are they going?) in them -- it's a clownish look fellas. These are not spiffy sorts, but baggy cargo shorts, or shiny athletic ones, or too short or too dorky and they are usually paired with run-down flip flops or running shoes, scruffy T-shirts and baseball caps."

Shorts (or any other article of clothing) can either work or not work for you and even then, it's subjective. When I see Americans in shorts (either here at home or abroad), they're usually of the ridiculously large and ill fitting cargo shorts variety or shiny basketball shorts. Shorts with leg holes so big that you could fit two legs through each one. "Clownish" is almost the best word to describe the look. And then, as mentioned above, it's topped off with beat up flip-flop sandals, that are equally ill fitting (you know the type, where the front or the end of them extend well beyond the limits of the actual foot.....why didn't you just buy ones that actually fit?). Now, if this is what makes you comfortable and makes your trip all the better, have at it. But if you're self conscious about how you look while abroad.....this probably isn't the best look, unless of course, you're going to a place where this is considered cutting edge fashion.

But back to the original topic and how this might be related, on the bright side, cargo shorts have many pockets and therefore, many options for storing your money and credit cards.

Posted by
16727 posts

I met a couple of other tourists in Madrid last week who told me about an experience they had in Crete, earlier in their trip. I believe they were at a cruise port. A gentleman with whom they were touring reached for his wallet late in the afternoon and came up empty. It had been lifted from the pocket in his cargo shorts/pants wuthout anyone noticing. All they could come up with was a very persistent flower seller they had encountered earlier in the day. Apparently she was really talented or had a very nimble (invisible?) cohort.

Posted by
8293 posts

Or maybe ......

A). He just plain lost it

B). He left it behind on the ship

Posted by
16727 posts

The folks I met seemed confident the wallet had been lifted. I believe the victim had used his wallet in their presence earlier in the day (maybe at lunch), so there was no doubt he had started out with it. I imagine it would be hard--but not impossible--to leave a wallet behind on a restaurant table, unnoticed by three other people.

Posted by
1 posts

Thank you for sharing that. I have always worn my wallet in my front pockets and have generally felt safe with it. I am now wondering if I too could be picked. It's certainly something to think about.
An amusing anecdote...
While I kept my wallet in my front pocket I wanted to see just how good these folks were at the art of picking pockets. I took an old wallet and filled it with old business cards to make it look full and wore it in my back pocket around Paris for the day. I had a bet with my friend it couldn't be taken without my knowledge. By 10 AM it was gone and I have no idea when/where it happened. It really opened my eyes to how good these folks are at this craft and why keeping alert is so important when traveling.

Posted by
12086 posts

Now that slick thief can contact businesses that may not exist anymore. I wonder if he won without finding cash álong with the old business cards,

Posted by
102 posts

Barcelona pick pockets are no joke. It was the last city on our Spain trip and locals in other cities were warning us about how intense the pickpockets there are. They're so brazen too, we took a break during the Barri Gotic walk just to watch them in action. In preparation, I tethered my wallet and iPhone to my shoulder bag with a lanyard.

My husband has a really nice camera, and to deter theft he taped it up with a mix of different duct and painters tape to make it look really beat up. He also had a decoy wallet in his back pocket (surprisingly did not get stolen). I think making eye contact with the pick pocket'ers was probably kind of dangerous, but we wanted to let them know we knew what's up (draping a jacket over the arm on a hot day? really??).

Posted by
7639 posts

Since when is draping a jacket over the arm a sign of being a pick-pocket? It is often cool in the morning and I wear a jacket when I leave the house. Guess where it is an hour later? Sometimes I have a meeting later in the day where I want to look more professional, so guess where that jacket is while I walk around the city?

Posted by
102 posts

@Ms. Jo: Plenty of people carry jackets, myself included, but I'll likely have other things like my shoulder bag, purse, etc. The jacket technique is commonly used by pickpocketers to hide their hands.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/money-saving-tips/jessicainvestigates/10202634/The-top-tricks-used-by-pickpockets-and-bag-snatchers.html
http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/how-to-spot-a-thief/

It's not just the jacket, it's more like a person carrying a jacket and nothing else, standing in one spot alone, probably scanning the crowd. In Barcelona, I would see several of them in the same area, but standing apart, all draping their jackets across their forearms in the same way.

Posted by
22 posts

We spent a month in Barcelona this year, and only had one problem with pick pocketing. Going up an elevator from the metro a young girl slipped in between myself and my girl friend. Right away I was suspicious, sure enough I saw her hand go into my girl friend's half open purse. I slapped her and called her names - she pleaded ignorance and left... The only thing in my girl's purse was a water bottle, an old camera, and an eye-glass case. I carry an old empty wallet with just a small amount of money in it that I need for the day. In simple words: SIMPLY BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS.

Posted by
12086 posts

Put Kleenex in a old wallet as bait. That would be a surprise