“Cirque du Solei has nothing on these guys.”
That’s how a stranger once described the city’s pickpockets to me, as he kindly suggested I swing my purse around to the front.
I live in Barcelona, one of the notoriously worst cities in the world for pickpocketing. My friend’s dad was robbed here twice in two days. My other friend was left with a bloody elbow in exchange for her wallet. It’s said that at least 150 robberies happen each day on the metro alone. Fortunately, pickpocketing and bag-snatching isn’t usually violent, just a massive inconvenience. And while I’m not suggesting there are ways to outsmart these thieves—they wrote the Holy Bible of trickery—there are steps you can take to drastically reduce the chance of them getting rich off your valuables and hopefully avoid pickpockets all together.
1. Zippers, buckles, the more hardware, the merrier.
Carry your belongings in a purse, bag or backpack that securely closes—preferably in more ways than one.
I recently read about a really “convenient” bag with a magnetic pocket instead of buckles or zippers. I gasped. These must have been designed by an undercover pickpocket trying to make life easier for his comrades.
When you travel to big cities, convenience, in this case, should take a back seat. The more hassle it is for you to access your own belongings, the more hassle it is for the pickpockets as well.
You’ll have many people and guidebooks recommending that you wear a backpack in the front. And while it’s sound advice if a backpack is all you have, I personally always opt for a purse with an outside buckle and inside zipper that I can strap across my shoulder. Wearing a backpack in the front immediately labels you as a tourist and can put an even bigger target on your back.
2. Think about time of day.
We generally associate pickpocketing with crowded places, and that’s mostly true. But mugging tends to be the opposite idea. Mugging is far less frequent than pickpocketing, but it’s just one more way for thieves to get what they want. We all know that walking down a sketchy alleyway at 3 am isn’t the best idea. But what about four in the afternoon? Some countries, such as Spain, have siesta hours, where most shops close and many people are at home. When the streets are empty, even in daytime, it’s a good idea to take more precautions.
3. Don’t lose focus for a second.
If you leave your phone on a table, chances are it’ll be gone. If you drop your guard to check a map on a busy street, you’re probably not focused on your belongings. If you leave your bag on the sand to take a quick dip in the ocean, you may return to nothing but a towel. Try to keep your valuables inside your bag—not out on the table—and your eye on your bag at all times.
4. Know the schemes
Most tricks aren’t well-kept secrets. Read up a bit online about some typical pickpocket techniques before you go. For instance, most thefts on the metro occur right as the doors are closing. Pickpockets will stand just within the doors, grab a purse, and then run onto the platform as the doors close, making it impossible for you to chase them. Another common tactic is to stop the escalator, and in the split second that people are disoriented and don’t know what’s going on, pickpockets capitalize to swipe some phones from back pockets. Be wary of “salesmen” traveling in pairs; while one talks you up and tries to distract you, the other one will be working his sticky fingers.
It’s the sad truth that I’m now skeptical of everyone. When innocent tourists ask me for directions, I instinctively clutch harder to my purse while helping them. You never know who is in earnest and who wants your iPhone, so it’s best to keep your guard up, even if it means you’ve officially lost faith in humanity.
And do remember: pickpocketing, while a huge annoyance, is relatively harmless. A pesky fleet of pickpockets doesn’t make a city unsafe, or not worth visiting. I can vouch for Barcelona—it’s one of my favorite places in the world, despite having to clutch my purse a little tighter.
Have anymore tips on avoiding pickpockets? Share them with us in the comments below or tweet them to @TripIt!