The Most Common Pickpocketing Techniques and How to Protect Yourself

The Spanish Steps

Rome, The Spanish Steps/Oyster

Whether or not you've been a victim of it, pickpocketing can be a serious concern in some places. It's something all travelers should be vigilant about, particularly when visiting big, bustling cities. To help you keep ahead of the thieves, we've put together a list of the most common methods used by pickpockets and the best ways to avoid them.

Bump and Grab

A classic pickpocketing maneuver is when a thief ‘accidentally’ bumps into you, then sneakily removes your sunglasses, wallet, or camera while you’re busy politely apologizing to each other. This scenario usually occurs while you are distracted — taking a photo, looking at a map, or admiring the local sights — so it’s best to keep your wits about you (and your hands on your valuables) when visiting major attractions. If you stop to take a picture or look at something, make sure you have your bag, wallet, or other valuables close at hand.

Moped Thieves

Drive-by and snatch thefts are particularly common in London, and usually involve youths on mopeds grabbing your cell phone or bag as they drive past. Be aware of what’s going on around you when using your phone, walk toward oncoming traffic, and always hold your phone or bag on the side of your body that’s furthest from the road. If someone does manage to grab your bag, make sure to let go as they drive off — no handbag is worth being dragged across a road and into traffic.

Signing Petitions

You may feel pleased with yourself when agreeing to stop and sign a petition for a worthy cause, but sometimes the person with the clipboard is just a ruse, keeping you chatting and filling out paperwork while their accomplice slips their hand into your pocket or bag. It’s best to avoid anyone approaching you in this way when abroad, but if you are convinced to sign something, be aware of anyone else nearby, and definitely don’t put your bag down while juggling a pen and clipboard.

The Human Sandwich

In very crowded spaces, such as on public transportion, escalators, or at major attractions, it is easy to become wedged between people in the crowd. Pickpockets often work in gangs, with two people deliberately squeezing you into a tight spot between them, causing you to come to a halt. Meanwhile, someone behind dips into your bag or pocket. It almost goes without saying that you should never carry valuables in pockets, but in crowded spaces, it is also wise to wear backpacks or bags on your front and keep your hands on them at all times.

Fake Police

This scam is prevalent in Barcelona (often referred to as the pickpocketing capital of Europe), so be wary when approached by ‘police’ late at night. Thieves masquerading as cops are known to stop drunk tourists walking back to their hotels at night. They might say they’re searching for fake banknotes. These ‘policemen’ ask to see ID and to check your cash for fakes, sneakily pocketing a few notes for themselves while at it. These gangs almost always target intoxicated tourists — likely because anyone sober won’t fall for the scam — so your best bet is to not get too drunk and always ask to see a police badge, if approached. You would also do well to remember that real police are highly unlikely to approach random tourists and look through their wallets.

Snap Happy

Don’t be too keen to help a random stranger by taking a photo for them, as this is a trick used by pickpockets. Working in groups, as is often the case, two thieves will pretend to be tourists and pose for a photo while another steals your belongings. We’ve all been there, asking someone in the street to take a picture for us, but it’s often best to just say no, especially if you don’t have anyone watching your back.

Subway Snatch

If you’ve been on your feet all day, it can be easy to zone out and get caught off guard when you finally sit down on a bus or subway train. When using public transport, avoid sitting on seats right next to the doors, as thieves watch for people putting their bags down at their feet, snatch them, and quickly exit the bus or train just as the doors are closing. It’s usually best to sit away from the door, and keep your belonging safe on your lap.

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