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The best ways to foil a pickpocket

Experts say that when you’re traveling, you should skip the purse if possible.
Experts say that when you’re traveling, you should skip the purse if possible. (Jacob Lund/stock.adobe.com)

Love to travel? Sure you do. Many of us happily forgo designer duds and fancy furniture so we can indulge our wanderlust. Alas, even our favorite thing has its downside: Getting ripped off by a thief. Cities with high rates of pickpocketing include Barcelona, Naples, Paris, Rome, Lima, St. Petersburg, London, Istanbul, Prague, and Rio, says Bambi Vincent, co-author with Bob Arno of the blog “Thiefhunters in Paradise” and the book “Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams While Traveling.” Nobody is suggesting you avoid these destinations, just be aware — advice that holds true for anyplace you roam, from Dubuque to Dubai. Crowded tourist hotspots = happy hunting grounds for pickpockets. “We mean to empower, not frighten,” Vincent says. “Awareness is your best weapon.” How do you avoid a trip to the dark side on your next vacation? Here are some tips.

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Beware the scooter snatcher.

Scooter snatch theft is skyrocketing. (It happened 23,000 times in London alone in 2017, a 3,000 percent increase over 2012, according to Vincent.) In this scam, bandits on a scooter or motorbike, covered in jackets and helmets, zoom past a victim and the backseat rider snatches the purse or cellphone right out of his or her hand. “If something is snatched from you, let it go so you won’t be dragged along,” Vincent says.

Be cellphone savvy.

“Smartphones are five times more likely to be stolen than wallets or cameras,” according to Vincent. We love our phones for things like taking pictures and getting directions, but (need we say it?) don’t walk around with your face in your phone; it’s like a target on your back. “Try to stop walking when you use your phone. Back up against a building,” she advises. “Don’t leave your phone on a table or in an easy[-to-reach] backpack pocket, and be aware that they are often swiped right out of users’ hands.” For that reason, limit the personal information that’s in your phone and use a passcode.

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Don’t look like an easy mark.

“A perfect mark or an inexperienced tourist gives off signals the perps pick up on,” says Arno. To avoid being a thief’s next meal ticket, dress down, Arno advises. “Do not wear an expensive watch or jewelry, especially not a gold chain or necklace. Know that thieves stealing watches do not use tricky moves to open buckles — this isn’t a Las Vegas stage show. They grab it and rip it off, breaking the strap.” They’re even savvy enough to twist off a sturdy double-latched Rolex, he notes. What if your jewelry is Costco, not Chanel, and your shoes are Gucci-esque, not the real deal? Skip ’em. “Even if your diamonds are fake, they still broadcast wealth,” Vincent says.

Skip the purse (or murse) if possible.

Stow your valuables in a pouch under your clothes or in pickpocket-proof underwear. (Yes, it’s a thing. Vincent and Arno like a brand called Stashitware, underpants that come with a pocket.) If you must carry a purse, keep it closed and in front of your body; don’t hang it on your back. Use a zippered, cross-body-type purse, wear it close to your body, and zip it up. Keep valuables in internal zippered compartments. Never hang a purse on the back of your chair, or on the floor, the experts say. Keep it on your lap. Pockets are not safe for valuables. They are called “pickpockets” for a reason.

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Keep your backpack close, and your wallet closer.

Wear your backpack backward and lock the zippers with a luggage lock. When you put it down (in a restaurant, for example), secure it to an immovable object. “Carry your wallet in your tightest pocket, or better yet, put your cash and credit cards in a thin pouch that hangs from your belt inside your pants,” Vincent says. That trick of wrapping a rubber band around it doesn’t work, by the way — it just compresses your wallet and makes it easier for the thief to grab it.

Walk with a purpose and keep moving. If you need to look at a map, do it in a restroom or otherwise out of the public eye. Be aware of your valuables at all times, and don’t get fooled by diversions, such as a staged fight. Don’t stop to talk or field questions from strangers, the experts advise. Learn to say “No thank you” in the local language, and just keep walking.

Limit what you carry. Don’t keep any important items in the outside pockets of your suitcase, jacket, or purse. Leave your valuables in a safe in your hotel room. “They are likely safer there, since hotels don’t look kindly upon sticky-fingered employees,” Vincent says. Obviously, don’t flash cash. Use a credit card for most purchases. Travel with three cards, and keep one in your hotel safe, she suggests.

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Don’t fall for the fake-cop con.

With this scam, “pseudo-cops” flash fake badges and demand to examine your cash. “They claim to be looking for victims of counterfeiters, and will take your cash ‘for examination’ or take a portion without you noticing,” Vincent says. Real cops do not check the cash of random vacationers.

Be vigilant on public transportation.

Don’t stand near the doors of buses, subways, Metro cars, and so on. Thieves love this zone: “They can ‘assist’ a passenger, push a passenger, make physical contact, and pick a pocket or a purse and then jump off the vehicle as it rides off,” Vincent explains. Ditto stairs and escalators in crowded stations, she notes. “They can sandwich their victims, perhaps dropping something in front of the victim and causing a pileup.” In the ensuing chaos, bags and wallets go missing.

Keep an eagle eye on your bags.

When your bags are being loaded into a taxi or Uber, count them, and make sure everything is included. “Sometimes they are not,” Vincent warns. Also, assess the risk of the hotel lobby luggage storage if you are using the service. Is it a locked room? Or are bags just kept in a heap in the lobby? Choose a lockable carryon bag, in case you have to check it for any reason.

Just in case . . .

At this point, the only thing you’re missing is Jason Momoa on bodyguard duty. But just in case: Write down your credit card numbers and the company phone numbers in case your cards are stolen. Leave this info in your luggage, not your purse or wallet. Double-check that you have removed every trace of your Social Security number from your wallet, to avoid identity theft. To be ultra-cautious, send an e-mail to yourself with all travel docs, including the first two pages of your passport. If you are pickpocketed in a crowd, “try demanding the return of your item,” Vincent says. “It might mysteriously hit the floor.” Here’s hoping!

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In addition to their blog, Vincent and Arno are featured in a National Geographic documentary titled “Pickpocket King.” For more advice, go to bobarno.com/thiefhunters/pickpockets-con-artists-scammers-travel/.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.