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Expérience and warning from a long-time expat in Paris

I usually don't post warnings, but we've had a few similar experiences pop up on the France expat forums this week. I don't want to alarm visitors, but I want people to be aware. Bon voyage.
From Randy, a regular in my expat group and a 14-year Paris resident:

“Yesterday my husband and I went through the Paris metro. It seemed fine, then a bunch of kids started surrounding us by the door as we entered, I pushed my way through, and my husband held onto his wallet. Unfortunately, he didn't secure his phone fast enough and they unzipped his front pocket to steal his phone which had all of Credit Card Info and passes. He knew as soona s the kids left, he got pickpocket.

Pickpockets have been on hiatus because of CV. Now they're back in full force. It doesn't matter how long you've lived in your "big" city, they will always exist and you cannot let you guard down.

I'm not a sponsor for Pacsafe, but I have a backpack and shoulder bags that are slashproof and can also latch or lock with a luggage luck.
DON'T LET YOUR GUARD DOWN. This is the first time this has happened to my husband in the 14-years we've lived in Paris.”

Posted by
8866 posts

Thank you for the reminder. It only takes a second of being distracted or letting your guard down to become a victim.

Posted by
7698 posts

Bets was reposting something that someone in one of her groups had posted. It didn't (thankfully) happen to her (although I am sorry too that it happened to this person's husband!).

Posted by
6950 posts

They also like to get in front of you on crowded escalators. At the bottom, one will fall down, and all those behind them on the escalator start falling into piles. Then their buddies go to work on all the fallen travelers.

What's so bad is that the Underground security sees them on the CCTV all day doing such things. But they don't do anything about it.

Whenever anyone goes out of their way to be nice to me, I go the opposite direction. I'm very defensive, and since I'm a large guy they most often will leave me alone.

Posted by
2753 posts

I think Rick said even he was finally picked. I put a dummy wallet in my pocket and still have it all these years later.

Posted by
1781 posts

I keep minimal cash in my wallet and wear a money belt. I was almost pickpocketed once on the elevator at the Eiffel Tower. Found my back pants pockets unbuttoned. Fortunately, nothing was in them. I’m probably a bit “over-cautious” but managed to safe so far.

Posted by
1582 posts

This exact scenario happened to me and my stepdaughter in the Paris metro. A nice French citizen alerted us as the kids started to surround us. They got nothing. The police office was just down the corridor. They didn’t care.

Posted by
4780 posts

Sorry this happened to your friends.

Years ago, while getting cash at an ATM in Florence, I was surrounded by a group of Roma children as soon as the cash came out of the machine. They appeared out of nowhere!
I clutched the money and ran to the hotel while the children followed me closely. Fortunately my hotel was less than a block away!

Posted by
3172 posts

Thanks for the heads up to be cautious if even the locals can be taken advantage of sometimes. We witnessed a French person (don’t know if he was visiting or from Paris) repel a pair of pickpocketing young women on the Metro a few years ago. He stood his ground with his hand clutching his man bag while waving and yelling at the women who jumped off at the next stop. I wish I could have understood the one sided verbal barrage—it was effective.

Posted by
943 posts

I have used pants and shorts from Clothing Arts just for this very reason. They are designed so you have 3 layers of protection to keep your valuables safe. I know people on this forum tend to think that such precautions are a “ over reaction” and that pickpocketing is not common.

I grew up in a wonderful family but we were what most people would call poor, I worked my way though college and have worked hard to save money for my one passion: Travel, so I’m willing to go the extra mile to make sure the trips I take are not ruined by having to get all new credits cards, passports or a new iPhone, etc.

I don’t have any affiliations with Clothing Arts but I love their travel clothes designs!

Posted by
103 posts

One simple rule: Everything valuable is carried on my front AND inside my pants (waist wallet) or secured inside a small PacSafe-type shoulder bag which is under my jacket. If weather is too warm for a jacket, shorten up the shoulder strap and carry the bag center of chest with one hand on it at all times. Taking these precautions won't inconvenience your trip, but losing your valuables definitely will!
Also, if you smoke, beware of the very aggressive cigarette bummers in front of train stations and airports. They may just want a cigarette, but I suspect that many are just another distraction scam to pick your pocket. Don't let them get within arm's length.

Posted by
13716 posts

What's so bad is that the Underground security sees them on the CCTV
all day doing such things. But they don't do anything about it.

One day not too many years ago I was sitting on a park bench near the Eiffel Tower and watched, along with about a half dozen French police, as a couple of young ladies in long skirts began fighting right in the center under the tower.

As they fought a crowd gathered to watch ... as they watched, several other young ladies in long skirts worked the perimeter picking pockets.

One young lady walked past me taking the cash out of the wallet then tossed the wallet in the bushes next to me.

I wished her "good day". The police did nothing but watch.

I prefer not to assume that every pack of thieves is Roma ... really does a persecuted minority little help.

Posted by
9914 posts

Did they say which Metro station? I realize it can happen anywhere...as I got picked somewhere between Odeon and Motte-Picquet-Grenelle but I just like to know to be on higher alert.

And the falling on the escalator tactic has been used since the 80s at least because it happened to my parents. Luckily Dad figured out what was going on and told Mom to jump over the body at the top so they did.

Posted by
1925 posts

Lol, Pam. I can picture my parents trying to jump over a body on an escalator….. but good for your dad!

This has nothing to do with kids or escalators but 2 of my daughters were in Paris in December, walking down the street along the river when one of them (the less traveled) just caught a glimpse of motion as a nicely dressed young man started to reach into the coat pocket of my seasoned traveler child to take her phone. Too caught off guard to speak, she just reached for the arm of the potential victim and yanked her away. The young man then gave her a really nice smile, sauntered off, and as they kept staring at him - gave them a casual wave and smile before he strolled on.

Posted by
880 posts

Thank you, James E. I winced at the stereotyping. Even if the kids did happen to be Roma (how would one know for sure, I wonder), I'm of the mind that it is not appropriate to mention race or ethnicity unless it is pertinent to the story.

I am Cree, and I was once at a conference where the keynote speaker was a television journalist. She told two stories involving Indigenous people: one where the person was, apparently, unhoused (aka homeless), and another in which the person was inebriated. In both cases, she described the people as "Indians." (This was a number of years ago.)

However, in her third story, about a family with young children who got plowed into by a vehicle that failed to stop for the family of pedestrians in a crosswalk, she didn't mention the family's ethnicity at all. I happened to know that the family was First Nations, but somehow she didn't find it necessary to mention that when the people were the victims and weren't conforming to a negative stereotype. This kind of thing happens far too often.

I'm not saying that this is done with malice aforethought, or that the people doing this are bad people. It's just part of an internalized worldview so many of us have, often without even realizing it. However, it is harmful to marginalized people, many of whom don't fit the stereotypes, so it's important for us to become more aware that we are doing it.

Posted by
2753 posts

As far as police enforcement goes, think about it from their POV. It happens all the time, it happens primarily to tourists who don't pay their salaries (well not directly anyway), hauling these folks if you can catch them to the police station takes time and energy and takes the cops off the street for hours, no one is injured (just lighter in the wallet), and the folks will likely be sprung with light or no fines anyway. It's also possible the cops actually know or are related to these folks as well. This is the classic low risk/possible high payoff situation, since tourists generally have money and toys. And won't be around to testify if, by some stretch of the imagination, there is a trial.

Posted by
8505 posts

Whew, suppositions about law enforcement, perception of racism, and that tourists are the targets, not the locals when the original was a warning from a long-time Paris resident These all take your eye off the statement that crews are back at work. Be aware, and this time, it includes little kids swarming.

And for reassurance, that no specific group has been singled out, France has always had its own homegrown, pickpockets, usually a solo guy in the metro with his newspaper wide open and a coat over his arm. But the scene changed drastically with the fall of the Wall in 1989 and whole new crews arrived because, as they said, the pickings are better in the west. They really gave the locals competition. And those of us who spend a lot of time in western Europe can tell the difference between the different groups, the ones who have lived in various Western European countries for decades, if not centuries, and survived the Nazis, and the newcomers who still call Eastern Europe home. I don’t mention group either, nor did the original OP, However, the contributor who did is one of the kindest persons around, not the type to perpetuate stereotypes. She knows what she saw. It’s pretty easy to distinguish some people, sometimes. And sometimes it’s the language you hear when they surround you. That’s what gave it away for me as 4 well-dressed women surrounded me in the only empty room of the Louvre. Language and I knew they didn’t really care about the tiny painting I was studying.

Next, my husband and I have had numerous attempts both in the north and south of France, while my French SIL was picked in her own neighborhood. We’re not tourists, but probably just a little sloppy at that moment. It doesn’t happen to locals-- sometimes, it’s All The Time. Be aware it’s equal opportunity.

Posted by
1250 posts

Bets, thanks for posting this.

And phred, I like your idea of a dummy wallet. It certainly pays to be vigilant, although I can say that as a solo traveler, I have never been targeted in 30 years of travel. I think that thieves tend to look for people in groups or with companions who are perhaps more easily distracted. But one should always be careful no matter what the situation.

Posted by
334 posts

We were at breakfast in a Paris hotel in May visiting with another couple. I mentioned that we weren't going to use the metro while we were there. The husband made me feel that we were being silly to avoid it, and then the wife said that he had almost been a pickpocket victim on the metro on their way to the hotel. (A woman had her hand in his pocket, but didn't get any of his belongings.) While I would have used the metro if I really needed to, a two-day Big Bus pass, a couple taxis, and our legs worked fine for us.

Posted by
4 posts

Adding to the importance of extra vigilance on the metro. My husband’s phone was snatched from his front pocket just two days ago. Fortunately they only got the phone and not his wallet, which was just below it. It was the typical scenario … overly crowded metro (so crowded that we should have waited or walked; we were literally pushed on and our son didn’t make it on in the rush and had to wait 2 more trains). We were squished near the door. When the car lurched forward at the next stop, someone grabbed his phone and fled out the door. It happened in an instant. Fortunately no one was hurt, but it definitely put a damper on our last day of what was otherwise a wonderful vacation. Paris was very crowded, much busier than we remember, although this is our first visit in the summer holiday season. Still beautiful, but I think in the future we’ll plan to avoid the super busy season, and it goes without saying that we will be taking extra precautions everywhere to avoid being pickpocketed again.

Posted by
2753 posts

Someone mentioned Clothing Arts, I get popup ads from them once in a while and if you have the time, check out the testimonials section. Pretty entertaining and educational in a sad kind of way. Many of them for some reason have to do with Paris.

Posted by
13716 posts

I guess you guys are correct and I have just been naive and ignorant of the presence of pickpockets, theives grabbing phones off dinner tables (and bars), and swarms of little hooligans. This was never part of my life experience in the US it us hard for me to comprehend walking through life with a dummy wallet and keeping one eye at the ready for the next attack. So far, being oblivious to all this good advice I guess I have been quite fortunate as in what has to be over 20 years of travel adding up to maybe 2 years on the ground there I have yet to have lost anything to the thieves that I now understand populate the region in numbers substantially greater than anything I could imagine back home. Thank you for the well needed advice

Posted by
8505 posts

As I wrote in the OP, I don't usually post warnings. I hate seeing people unnecessarily frightened. But in réponse to James, I'll go through my little list here.

People wouldn't be familiar with transportation pickpocketing in the US unless they lived in a city with heavily used transport. My younger son was picked several times when he first moved to NY. He learned. Swarms: I was swarmed in San Francisco decades ago; nothing new.
Dummy wallets: one day at 4pm at Concord station in the Paris metro, I saw a high schooler wrestling with other teens. They ran away. He told me it was the third time he had been jumped by other teens in the metro, but they got a dummy wallet. A bit surprising. My older son, when 14, had to fight off another kid in the metro who was trying to steal his Walkman. My kid won. Another kid tried to knock him off his bike to steal it--but that was in California, so equal hits.
My French sister-in-law was picked in her own neighborhood, next to Monaco, giving directions to a guy with an open map.
My husband and I have had numerous attempts (metro, store escalator, even the Louvre), all failed so far. But we've had many more years on the ground.

For a blessed life in Budapest, a few factors could be in play. After 1989, as you know borders opened giving access to wealthier and more touristed areas of Europe for all kinds of work. We already had plenty of our own skilled independent thieves and organized gangs, but this increased the pool, while lowering the pools in the countries of origin. This isn't only the petty, inconvenient thievery against us little people, but also the big spectacular jewelry heists, other big-ticket heists, the headline-grabbing theft of a bus-load of cash-carrying Asians causing a diplomatic kerfuffle, and more--all by organized gangs, some of whom came over after the Wall came down, some homegrown. Second, the government in Hungary could be more severe toward this line of work and know the players better, but that's speculation on my part.

Anyway, I hope this post and the thread don't frighten people but just makes them aware to get money at inside ATMs, not to put wallets in back pockets, phones on tables, and purses over backs of chairs as they commonly do in suburban USA. As Greg says: I'm done .

Posted by
3172 posts

I too have seen pickpocketing or it’s aftermath first hand or had close encounters with pickpockets in Rome, Paris, Jerusalem and Amsterdam over 40 years of travel. Me=hitting at postcard waving man to get him away and found my bag open but nothing taken. 6 students over the years having backpacks, wallets in front pockets and/or passports stolen. I’ve accompanied them to photo booths, police stations and consulates in the above mentioned cities. Parisian man yelling and swatting at 2 young women on Paris Metro. Be observant and careful. Most tourists crowd popular sites. When we travel to Europe for a month at a time and stay in a neighborhood, we can see with more local eyes the way residents interact with their environment. Rarely in a city are bags, purses, backpacks and cell phones left unattended.

Posted by
13716 posts

Bets, I was sort of serious. I was always careful in Paris because of what I saw and one instance when a young lady in a long skirt tried to open my backpack (while it was on my back), but I always just assumed Paris was "special".

The thoughts on Budapest were interesting, but you realize I go there plus one or two other stops 3 or 4 times a year so it's not just my feelings about Budapest: still interesting thoughts.

And your comments did cause me to do a bit of research; the people with the women in the long skirts make up about 0.25% of France and 5% to 15% oh Hungary depending on how you categorize them. On that alone some of the assumptions need to be examined.

Posted by
8505 posts

Your stops are eastern Europe, societies that have fewer well-heeled people. With tourism booming in western Europe, that's where people will go to work seasonally.
To clarify, the gangs doing the heists are all nationalities just like in big USA cities, post 1989. These are totally different groups from those doing the petty theft. My writing wasn't clear.
And France has always had its own homegrown criminals. Remember the Pink Panther.

Posted by
205 posts

I did a solo trip to Europe in 2018. When I was in Paris, at one point I wanted to rest and charge my phone, and sat on a bench not too far from the Arc de Triomphe. I was on a side street and it wasn't very busy.

At one point two good-looking guys in their 20s came toward me. At one point they stopped to chat with each other and I could see one gesturing to the other to go behind me and that the other one would go in front of me.

I had no idea what their plan was, but after all the stuff I had read from Rick, I got a bad feeling. I quickly gathered up my things and walked away. Said I had to go meet a friend for lunch. They kept shouting "Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!", but I kept going. Had no idea what they were up to, but I wasn't going to stick around to find out!

I use a money belt when traveling, and keep my phone under my coat or jacket in a zipped pocket at all times, unless I'm using it. I treat my phone like my wallet!

Posted by
12980 posts

Good to know, thanks for this updated information. Basically, another reason why I never carry a backpack nor any sort of day bag when out and about