How to Avoid Pickpockets

Previously, I wrote about the time I was pickpocketed.  Since then, I’ve kept a running checklist in my mind of things to pay attention to while out.  I think this has helped me not get pickpocketed, especially in a situation where I was juggling a lot of things.   So here’s how to prevent pickpocketing.

1. Looks Can Be Deceiving, Anyone Might Pickpocket You

When we think of thieves, we think of shady individuals or people who look like this.

pick pocket prevent pickpocketing

But anyone can be a pickpocket.  That sweet old woman.  The two teenage girls looking at sites.  Most of the pickpockets I came across in Paris were young women.   But assuming anyone could be a pickpocket is the first step towards protecting yourself.  Whenever anyone goes near my purse or pocket or luggage, I’m in defensive mode with my items. I’m not rude to them nor do I assume they are actually a pickpocket.  But I make sure my items are in the right place to prevent pickpocketing

2. They Will Try to Occupy Your Hands

A few sweet girls want you to sign a petition that sounds pretty compelling.  But they probably just want to occupy your hands so they can occupy your wallet.

I recommend against signing petitions when traveling.  Why do they care what a foreigner thinks?

But the one that gets me is when people ask me to take a picture of them.

I don’t want to be rude, and a lot of the time, these people are legitimate  But sometimes, someone could be handing you (what turns out to be) a broken camera/phone to fumble with for a second.  Then your wallet is gone.

What I do now is signal for the person to wait a moment.  I look like I’m shifting my stuff around so that my hands are free (putting my phone away, etc).  What I’m actually doing is making sure everything is secure before grabbing their camera to prevent pickpocketing (even though they probably aren’t a pickpocket!).

3. They Will Try to Get You Used to Them

When someone’s face pops up on tour after tour, or when you see someone often in your hotel lobby, they start to become familiar, and you will trust them more.  Studies have actually shown that people will trust other people in their immediate radius more than those further away–even though they don’t know them at all.

So we can let our guard down when someone is familiar and thieves know that.  Don’t let the fact that you’ve “seen someone around” cause you to let your guard down!

Pickpockets will join a tour in a museum, so by the end of the tour, everyone feels pretty comfortable with them.  Suddenly, they may bump into someone on the tour–but the tourist they bumped doesn’t worry because it’s someone they “know”.

You don’t “know” anyone on your tour.  One of them can be a pickpocket.

prevent pickpocketing

4. They Will Distract You (in possibly painful ways)

My story involved someone spilling my coffee on me.  Thieves will bump into you, spill your coffee on you, spill their coffee on you… basically, anything to get you to throw your hands up to protect yourself or clean yourself up.

When traveling, you need to resist your natural instinct to do that.  If someone walks into you, your hand needs to protect your wallet, purse, or any other expensive item that is exposed.

I’ve had one person walk into me with their coffee since.  I immediately checked everything I had rather than focus on my (now wet) clothing.  I don’t think he intended to do that and I don’t think he was a pickpocket, but see rule #1!

5. Make Sure You Have the Right Gear to Prevent Pickpocketing

Tote bags are cute and easy to use on the beach but are so easy to pickpocket.

You want something that zips up–but ideally, you want a bit more than that.  Pickpockets can unzip your bag on the side and grab items out.

When I have a regular zipped up bag, I keep the zipper side across my chest.  I’ll notice if someone goes for the zipper there.

But most of the time when I’m traveling, I carry a sling bag that is pretty pickpocket proof.  The zippers lock into place and the fabric is slash-proof.  The pockets also have RFID protection to prevent skimming in addition to preventing pickpocketing.

I’m a pretty big fan of the Travelon purses, and they make multiple styles.

prevent pickpocketing


6. Don’t Tell Them Where Your Wallet Is

I was going up the Eiffel Tower to get dinner with my mother when they announced, “Warning: Pickpockets on the loose. Many people report missing wallets.”

After the announcement, a woman pointed at me and said to her husband, I think that girl is a pickpocket. I heard they are young girls.  She was walking near you before.  Make sure you have your hand on your wallet.

I walked closer to them, and I heard the man say to his wife. “Don’t worry, my hand is currently on my wallet. She’s near.”

Don’t do that.  If I was a pickpocket, he just told me where his wallet was.  That’s not how you prevent pickpocketing.

But knowing these things, keep your eyes open.  I spotted those girls with the petitions and knew not to go near them.

7. How to Spot Them and Prevent Pickpocketing

And I found the real thieves in the Eiffel Tower.

Two girls kept walking back and forth between the same two spots and excitedly pointed out the same landmarks to each other.

I noticed this and watched as one started following my mom.  I called my mom towards me to “look at something” (she didn’t know why), and she came with the girl following her.  Even when we walked away again, the girl followed.

We were obviously tourists, but we are both seasoned city dwellers and left nothing to chance.  There was no easy way to grab any of our possessions and we were safe.  But I don’t think the pickpocket knew that yet.

I stopped my mom abruptly and suddenly the girl stopped to see something.  We crossed over–she made it after too.  Soon I was staring at her like a hawk until she wandered away.

Paranoid?  Maybe I sound paranoid.  But I saw her again soon after.  In a cop car, with her friend, outside.

 The Bottom Line

All in all, use common sense to prevent pickpocketing.  I read up on different personal stories about pickpocketing and they all have the same theme.  “I only put my iPhone in my coat pocket for a moment and it was gone!”

There should be no moment.  One person was pickpocketed twice, and both of them involved “just for a second!”

I use a zippered purse and I store my purse under my armpit.  If I need something from it, I move the purse in front of me, use both hands, and keep it secured through the strap.  It’s one extra step that can prevent pickpocketing.

I never have two things in my hand.  If I need my wallet, my cell phone is never out.  If I need to grab my cell phone, my camera is in.  I am only juggling one item at a time and I always have two hands on it.

And I have done very well for myself.  I’ve only been pickpocketed once.  And I was nineteen and it was very orchestrated.  I didn’t wait to put my change in my purse at a coffee shop.  I shoved them in my pants pocket for “just one second” and someone “accidentally” walked into me and spilled my hot coffee all over me.  A commotion later and my money was gone.

To be honest, I wish they just told me “we’ll spill hot coffee on you to get $16” because I would have just given them the $16 to not have those burns.


What have you observed about pickpockets?  What should people watch out for to prevent pickpocketing?


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About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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  1. I was in Rome last year on the subway, it was very crowded and I was wearing a down vest and had my cell phone in the vest pocket and not in my backpack (where it should have been, which I was wearing on my front). Anyway, I was standing and guy got in next to me and his stubbly face was rubbing against my arm – very distracting. The doors opened at the next stop and the guy got off, then another guy says (in English) “Hey mister that guy took your phone!” I jumped off the subway, and grabbed the guy and was yelling at him to give me back my phone and patted down his pockets, but nothing! So, either they were working in cahoots and the guy who stayed on the subway had my phone, or I just didn’t persist enough with the guy I grabbed, or I totally offended some innocent subway rider on his daily commute. Anyway, I had picked up my phone specifically for internet use on the trip. It was obnoxious losing it, but I called my wife back in the states and had her change all my passwords, and sent the code to disable the phone and wound up getting repaid for the cost of the phone thanks to AMEX purchase protection. Long story short – don’t let your guard down for a minute and keep your valuables protected.

  2. don’t pat your pocket where your money is after reading a sign telling to beware of pickpockets, gives the pockets where to strike

  3. AlohaDaveKennedy

    Good reason to use travel vests with lots of inside pockets.

  4. ~~Assume Everyone Might Pickpocket You~~

    wow. not a very good way to look at the world. sure, it happens. but so minimally in the grand scheme. i’d rather assume everyone was kind and honest.

    • Jeanne Marie Hoffman

      Perhaps I overstated–what I mean is, so many pickpocketers are trust-worthy looking. So many people got robbed by young women in Paris when I was there. I wouldn’t treat everyone as a criminal, but I also wouldn’t let them all near my wallet!

  5. Whenever there is any kind of commotion, I keep an especially close eye on my belongings. There was a guy who looked like he may get sick on the Paris subway, and I was sure this was a ploy to distract people while a friend pick pocketed someone.

  6. I was almost a victim on a bus from the Madrid airport to the Atocha Station. I had only put my bag down on the chair beside me and the 2 of them jumped into action with the guy trying to distract me and the lady trying to get inside my bag which was a tote bag. They almost got my passport but he didn’t distract me long enough and i already felt something in the whole situation was off. So yeah it only take a moment to let your guard down. Such a violation and it totally alters the way you look at things. And I’m usually a solo traveler so it affected me tremendously because I always have to watch my own back.

  7. Carry a fake wallet and make it obvious where it is. Be sure to leave a little love note in it where the cash goes, saying something like “vete a la mierda”.

  8. Yes from Moscow to Rome, they have tried. I always have my wallet in deep pockets
    preferably with a zipper. But of all places Thailand, I was getting a foot massage
    and noticed the girl slowly massaging up my leg and thigh (not the usual ) She was actually working my wallet out of my pocket In the end I went to pay, no wallet.

  9. Great article and good advice. I got pickpocket not once, but TWICE. Ouch and double ouch.
    The saddest part is that I thought I was always on guard for pickpockets after many years ago my mother got her wallet stolen from her purse on the NYC subway. One think in common with both incidents, the guy was carrying a black opaque garbage bag. Here are the details:
    I wear blue jeans and when I believe its no a safe situation, move my wallet from my back pocket to my left side pocket. I got off the Staten Island ferry. Its about a 6 block walk to the NYC subway 4 line. When the ferry unloads many people walk from the ferry to the subway, so the streets are crowded even late at night. I was wearing a ski jacket with zip pockets on both sides and a cord, making it easy to open the pocket by pulling the cord.
    The thief must have seen the jacket and that I didn’t reveal a budge in my back jeans pockets. AHA his wallet must be in his ski jacket so he thought. During the walk to the subway, I noticed a poke in my back jean pocket. I looked to my side and saw a guy walking along side of me. Thought it strange walked maybe another 25 feet, looked again to my side, and their he was juggling a black garbage bag. He said to me, “whats your problem, do you think I am trying to steal your wallet”. I should have realized that is what he was trying to do. I said know, but didn’t tell him (thank goodness) the wallet was in my left side pocket.
    Upon reaching the subway station, I reached into my ski jacket pocket, and observed my senior subway car, with $29 on it, was gone. He didn’t take my hotel key card. A look to my left and he was gone already on the subway platform, boarding a train. Ouch.
    The second time was really weird. In California you bring your own bags for groceries or they charge you 10 cents a bag. I was shopping at the supermarket with three empty bags in my cart. Left the cart to go down the aisle to pick up a bottle of juice, only to return and notice the bags were gone. Weird, I went to my car, nothing. Walked around the supermarket, nothing. Proceeded to shot for a few more items and approached check out. The guy in front of me was carrying a large black garbage bad. Told the cashier I lost my bags. She mentioned the guy in front of me had them and put them in his big black bag. Wow, got robbed for 3 empty grocery bags. Ouch.

  10. Thanks for this post – it’s a good reminder of the need to stay vigilant and never let your guard down. My friends went to Barcelona for their honeymoon – I warned them TWICE about pickpockets on Las Ramblas…..and well, you guessed it….they still got pickpocketed. Seems to be more rampant in certain cities, Barcelona and Rome among them.

    • Jeanne Marie Hoffman

      Yes! My parents thought I was crazy in Barcelona because I wouldn’t even let them leave their wallet on the table where we were eating (in the outdoor cafes), which we would do in our hometown of NYC. I had visions of someone tripping, spilling our sangria, and a second person snatching the wallet. Nope, nope, nope. Not on my watch.

  11. One for your “greatest hits” reel. Good info, all.

  12. Thanks for this great advice.

  13. #3 is a very good tip. Added to my list. Thanks.

  14. I love these tips, but as my son has now been pick pocketed for the third time this year, (this time they cut the bottom of his pocket), mostly, it will be over confidence that gets your valuables stolen. I just wish that they would steal the money and leave the rest where you can see it. Money is just a value, but the documents that are gone are so much of a hassle to get cancelled and/or replaced.
    PS first time he was just pick pocketed, second time they cut the strap from his shoulder bag.
    It just sounds so unbelievable how they can go this far without the person noticing and how much they make it a career. They must do so much surveillance before making a target.

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