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Pickpockets and other tourist scams

It's been a long time since I've seen any pickpocket warnings, so I thought I'd ask those of you who have in France and Italy post-covid era what your opinion is -- same as pre-covid? better? worse? When I was in Italy in 2019 we had no problems but were ultra cautious. One of the tour members was pickpocketed on the train between Pompeii and Sorrento but since he did all the right deterrents they only got a couple euro.

Also I don't think I've seen any mention of pick pockets or tourist scams in London. Has anyone seen that? It's been 30 years ago since I was there. I did a double take when I realized how long it's been. Time passes quickly, or does the earth just spin faster as we age?

Thanks in advance for warning us less experienced and newbie travelers.

EDIT: As I read your helpful responses, I’m going to add another question into the mix: is there more pickpocketing in large cities than smaller towns and small villages? If yes, is it because that’s where most tourists are (opportunity)? Or because small towns do not want to risk their reputation on a gang of thieves (loss of tourists’ money)? Example we felt very comfortable in the two very small villages we visited in Calabria, albeit not a tourist area, but not as much in Naples or Rome where we stayed very aware of our surroundings.

Posted by
801 posts

This was probably 10 years ago in London. And meant as humor more than anything else. A friend on a business trip was walking to dinner with a couple of business associates. All in business suits. Friend keeps his billfold in the breast pocket of his suit coat. Pickpocket probably guessed that and "bumped" into my friend. The problem for the pickpocket, though, was two fold. First, my friend was a 6'2" 200 lb power lifter who, second, anticipated the attempted pick. So when the bump occurred, he turned his shoulder and pushed the guy to the ground.

Posted by
7723 posts

Last time a thief tried to take my husband’s wallet was getting on a train in Barcelona. A good swat on her arm with a folded newspaper took care of that. Never had it happen anywhere else in Europe and we have traveled there frequently. South America, yes.

Posted by
129 posts

Spanish lesson for the day “Vayanse ladrones”
means “get lost thieves”. That worked on the metro in Madrid.

Posted by
3375 posts

Speaking of Madrid we observed a “mother & son” taking an evening “stroll.” The “son” had his coat folded neatly over his arm. We were on our way to a restaurant for dinner. I reminded my husband that the coat over the arm scheme is indicative of a pickpocket. (Our RS guide in Portugal alerted us to this ploy) Lo and behold 2 hours after leaving the restaurant we walked by a police car, lights flashing. Guess who was getting arrested? Yep, “mother & son!” Such a nice end to a lovely evening!

Posted by
5262 posts

Yes, horsewoofie, it does spin faster! ;-)

I expect we're seeing fewer pickpocket stories because fewer of us are getting to Europe these days, and maybe we're spending less time in crowded places like metros. And maybe also because winter means more layers of clothing between the pickpockets and their targets?

Also, maybe years of exposure to all the good advice in this forum has made us smarter about foiling them, leaving us with more money but fewer cautionary tales. That's what I'd like to believe anyway.

Posted by
5586 posts

Personally, if someone so much as gets within a meter of me in a store or other public space, I get antsy, give them the stinkeye, and move away. Unless I am far from others, I'm constantly looking over my shoulder, from side-to-side, head-on-a-swivel, looking behind me, continually checking out anyone nearby, evaluating how carefully (or not) they're wearing their mask, sizing them up as a potential deadly threat, and I'm not timid about putting more distance between myself and them. On the rare occasion when someone quietly sneaks up and gets close enough to brush by me, my reflex is to immediately jump back a step or two, wheel around, and put up my fists. This is at home, carrying nothing more valuable than my N95 and vaxx card. I do get some eyerolls from my spouse (but I know those won't infect me).

I think the pandemic has honed my anti-pickpocket skills pretty effectively. Bring 'em on, and woe to anyone who wants to try.

Posted by
2939 posts

Pickpockets in London........yes, they're there.
Especially in areas thick with tourists.
I noticed there was a large sign inside Westminster Abbey which read "Warning; Pickpockets Active In This Area".
One of the Vergers/Docents we talked with said, "Oh yes, they're in here."
We had been standing in line outside the Abbey earlier, waiting to get in, when a scruffy-looking man broke into the line right behind me, then pretended to just be casually leaning against the fence. The next thing I knew, his hand was in the pocket of my raincoat. I shouted, "Get your hand out of my pocket!" and he ran off.

In the Tower of London, we were in the Jewel Room. It's very dark in order to show off the Crown Jewels in the lighted cases.
There were two young girls giggling and pushing up against us. The next thing I knew, there were tiny hands in both of my jeans front pockets. I had a five pound note in the right front pocket, so they did get that. Then my husband yelled at them, and they ran away.

The trick at the tube station nearest Westminster Abbey was this: A woman entered the tube car door just ahead of me, immediately stopped as though looking at her phone.
As she stopped abruptly, I bumped into her. I was simultaneously bumped from behind by her male partner. I turned to see his hand in my purse, his hand leaving my purse with cash in it. This had been a small amount of cash I had stowed in a side pocket of my purse, just for small things, such as a cup of coffee.
Then the woman and the man both turned back, quickly exited the tube doorway, and were back on the platform as the doors closed and the train pulled away. They were examining the cash taken from me as my train pulled away.
Not a thing I could do about it, and they knew that.
It's planned that way.

This is a known pickpocketing routine, and has been told about before here on the Rick Steves forum, I believe by Frank II, who is in London a lot.
Pickpockets often work in teams. One bumps from the back, one stops in front of you, to make sure you bump THEM and stop. This creates the exact moment they are planning for. I'm sure the team that targeted me was hoping to lift a wallet out of my (zipped closed) purse. However, there was no wallet in there, only a hairbrush and make-up.

These three examples did not occur on the same visit to London.
It was three separate visits.
This is one reason I like to spend a small amount of time in London on my trips, but more time away from London in smaller towns and villages.

Posted by
2939 posts

And to those who say "I would hurt them." or "I will see them coming and smack them."
No you won't.
9 times out of 10, it will all be over and done with before you know it's happening.
They are professionals and have made a living this way for most of their lives.

Posted by
9718 posts

There were fewer “petition girls” in Paris last Fall. The place they were thick was in front of Shakespeare and Company.

Around the glass perimeter fencing at the Eiffel Tower I saw more 3-card monte games than I’ve ever seen. I gave them a wide berth as I suspect their plants in the crowd are opportunistic.

The time I was picked in Paris pre-Covid I felt no one around or close to me at all on and through the Metro. All they got was my pouch of toiletries such as nail clippers, chap stick and my good hand cream. They were very good.

I’d still take precautions. I put money and cards in an inside zipper pocket of my purse and have that shut with a carabiner. I also have a carabiner on the zipper to that section of my purse. I usually use a money belt but did not this last time. I did take the metro quite a bit and it was shoulder to shoulder crowded.

Probably not as many stories as fewer people traveling.

Posted by
7608 posts

I have to say that I haven't seen the obvious pickpockets on the Line 1 metro, where they are usually thick as, well, thieves, lately.

That’s not to say that the better disguised ones aren't still there (the guy I saw one time with his hand on my mom's purse was wearing a suit).

I know my response is purely anecdotal and not worth much ! But that’s my observation.

Posted by
234 posts

As a person who lives in central London and is routinely in crowded, popular areas, concern over pickpockets is generally not part of my daily thought process at all. I carry my wallet and phone in my handbag and live life normally without worry. It probably helps that I am in familiar surroundings and able to move swiftly and with purpose, and of course it’s not as serious an inconvenience to lose some of my belongings as it would be for those travelling here from abroad, so I am not discouraging awareness and precautions at all for visitors. I totally get it, just saying there’s no need to worry too much.

All that said, my only two experiences with theft have both been in the last year. The first occurred a year ago during one of the lockdowns. I was on an evening walk on Regent Street near the intersection with Oxford Street, and I pulled my phone out to switch the song it was playing, and a man on a bicycle speeding past me attempted to swipe it out of my hands. He wasn’t successful and instead just knocked it flying, and I retrieved it. Since then I’ve been more circumspect about pulling my phone out in that or other super central and crowded areas. If I need to do it, I move to the interior of the pavement and keep a firm grip on the phone. I read somewhere that there was a ramp up in these types of thefts last year.

I also had a friend lose a phone while we were dining outdoors at a restaurant in Borough Market. Two men approached our table with a sign asking for money in Spanish. They set the sign on the table. We asked them to leave and eventually they did, but we subsequently realised the sign had been covering the fact that they were swiping my friend’s phone which was sitting on the table.

My takeaway from these experiences is that iPhones are easy and tempting targets. Keep the phone in your bag or on your person when in a crowded area - work out your directions beforehand so you don’t need to be staring at Google Maps - and don’t leave your phone just sitting out on a table when dining on a terrace.

Posted by
1607 posts

Thank you everyone for sharing your experiences. This is a great reminder to keep purses zipped and snapped. And to keep phones hidden from view or securely in hand.

I edited my original question above to expand the original pickpocket/scam discussion.

Posted by
840 posts

We've always been cautious and never had an issue, and the same was true on our November trip to Amsterdam and Italy. There was a fellow on our Pompeii tour, though, who had "lost" his wallet at the Church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome. We think he was likely pickpocketed.

The closest we ever came was on our first trip to Europe. This was before we learned to travel light, and we were an obvious group of tourists--our family of five all with big suitcases, on the metro in the evening. Two people hopped into our car at one stop. One fellow was at the front of the car, and he had one of those little accordions with which he started playing music. The other got on at the door nearest us. He stood very, very close to my husband, even though the car wasn't very crowded. I kept my eyes on him the entire time, and made it very obvious that I was doing so. The pair hopped out a couple of stops later. I remain convinced that they were working together, with one creating a distraction so the other could pickpocket an unsuspecting tourist, but they had no luck with us that day, thankfully.

Other than that incident, if we've ever come close to being pickpocketed, we weren't aware of it. We take all the precautions regardless, but I can't say if there was any difference this past trip vs previous trips.

Posted by
2939 posts

Aimee, a good question. Please note that I said this near the end of my post:
"This creates the exact moment they are planning for. I'm sure the team that targeted me was hoping to lift a wallet out of my (zipped closed) purse. However, there was no wallet in there, only a hairbrush and make-up."

This was the only time that I've traveled in London with a purse at all. Most of the time, my valuables are in my moneybelt, or back at the hotel in the room safe.
I keep a small amount of money (5 pound note or a few one pound coins) in a jeans pocket for small things, such as a coffee or for a museum donation box.

The fact that you carry a small crossbody bag that has a very sturdy zipper (Pacsafe) is a very good idea.

You asked,
"I'm just wondering how a hand could get in a purse that fast if it's zipped up. Wondering how good these tricksters are!"
They're very, very good. And YES, they can and will get into a bag that's zipped, even one that you are keeping an eye on.

"I too do a scan all around me, I am not afraid to make eye contact and stare down someone."
I do the same.
However, some of them come up behind you, when you are entering a train or a doorway to an attraction, etc. In this case, you won't see them.
Yes, that can work. Once they know you've spotted them, they may move on to a different target.

"ETA I see that you mentioned zipped. How can they be in there that fast with a zipper? "
Because they've practiced this to perfection.
It's how many of them have made a living, paid the rent, etc., for most of their lives.
They're very good at what they do.

The more crowded the area is that you're in, the easier it is for them to snuggle up behind you or right next to you. During the Queen's upcoming Jubilee, for example, huge crowds of people jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder to watch a parade or other event will be a good opportunity for them.

That said, it may be that you will NEVER have your pockets or purse picked in London.
It's just the luck of the draw.
I was just answering the question, basically, "Are there pickpockets in London?". Answer: yes.

Posted by
3375 posts

All of these experiences remind me of the first time we went to Rome. I had taken a class at Rick Steves Travel Center. Pickpocketing was discussed. When we arrived in Rome we took a taxi to our hotel in the Termini area. While checking in 2 women arrived who reported they had taken bus “64.” They discovered their wallets & passports were missing. I recall they had their purses sitting on the seat. The following story highlights the days of bus 64. That said, it can happen anywhere. https://www.countrylife.co.uk/comment-opinion/jason-goodwin-romes-bus-64-baby-toss-scam-crooked-dealings-look-forward-holiday-202424

Posted by
40 posts

In Paris near the Eiffel Tower, it used to be a group or swarm of gypsy kids waving a newspaper in your face as they tried for your wallet. Didn't see this last time in Paris 2017.
I was pick-pocketed in Mumbai at a 'tourist attraction' where the authorities had erected railings along the kerbs to stop jay-walking by tourists leaving a couple of small openings at crosswalks. 2 small kids grabbed at my shins and while I tried to make them stop, a guy behind bumped into me and took my wallet. When I checked for my wallet, the 2 kids took off across the road and down into the slum. Lost about $100 and my credit card. Frustrating but no big deal. We always try to travel with 2 credit cards and the 2nd was in the safe in the hotel room. No physical harm. So many methods.
No problems with pick-pockets in Naples (or trains to Heraculeum) or Paris in the years just before COVID. I'll see in October.