It was something I didn’t think would happen to me.
After almost a decade of being a travel blogger and visiting almost 50 countries, a part of me thought that I would not fall victim to pickpockets even in Europe. I know, many of Europe’s big cities are notorious for pickpockets. I had been warned by friends and documentaries. And I am always extra careful when I travel, especially when on public transportation. But sometimes, sh*t happens.
Here’s what happened:
When we arrived in Athens, we excitedly went straight to the metro station. It wasn’t our first time in Athens. We were confident. The journey to the city center was uneventful for the most part. That changed when we transferred to another line to get to our hotel.
When we switched trains, a group of men boarded with us. Two of them positioned themselves on either side of the door. Both on the phone, playing the same game. When we reached our stop, the door suddenly malfunctioned. It got stuck and won’t open. One of the guys tried to open it and asked me for help. Panicking that I might miss my stop, I helped hold it. Just when the train was leaving, the door magically opened and I got out. It wasn’t until the train had gone when I realized that my phone was missing. Someone stole it.
After the incident, when we searched the web for what to do next, we found out that this was actually a pretty common scam on the Athens metro. The pickpockets work as a group. Someone does something to the door to get it stuck, and while the victim is trying to open it, another guy fishes the phone or wallet out of your bag or pocket. They use the panicky situation as a distraction.
Pickpockets are common in many touristy parts of the world, but this problem is especially severe in Europe’s big cities — Berlin, Paris, Rome, Milan, Prague, Athens to name a few. Barcelona, in particular, has been tagged pickpocket capital of the world by TripAdvisor and the National Geographic show Scam City. Asians are said to be a favorite target because credit cards are not big in many Asian countries, which means we bring a lot of cash with them when they travel. These criminals know this.
And so I decided to write this post. Many of these tips are things I already knew even before the incident, but it would be nice to have something to remind myself and refer to again in the future! If you’re traveling to Europe soon, here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind!
1. DON’T bring too many bags.
Pickpockets usually operate in places where they will find new tourists — on the metro, at train stations, and bus terminals. You know why? Because tourists who have just arrived are the easiest targets. Most of them are clueless, scared, overwhelmed, confused or exhausted after a long flight. They’re also very easy to distract.
This is why you should minimize the number of bags that you carry. You just can’t keep an eye on all of them at the same time. The more bags you have, the more items you need to watch, the easier it is to lose something. Pickpockets know this and they will take advantage of it.
One of the best ways to protect your belongings is to keep a hand on your bag, usually on top of the zipper or opening. You only have two hands!
2. DON’T let your valuables out of sight.
First of all: Don’t put your wallet in your back pocket. It’s the easiest to steal!
Keep your bag in front of you and keep an eye on it.
- If you have a shoulder bag, put it in front of you and place a hand on the opening.
- If you have a backpack, wear it backwards so it is in front of you when on the metro or seated on the bus.
- When eating at a restaurant, don’t put your bag on the empty chair next to you.
- When walking or shopping, always make sure that your bag doesn’t move to your side or back.
Always, always, always keep your bag in front, where you can see it.
Moreover, don’t be flashy. Leave your jewelry and fancy watch at home. You’ll only make yourself a target.
3. DO invest in a money belt.
A money belt is a small bag that you can wear around your waist or torso. It’s sort of a fanny pack but it’s smaller and you can hide it under your shirt. This is one of the best ways to protect your cash or cards. It’s great because it’s very close to your body and you can keep your valuables in front of you and away from outside view.
Pickpockets will always choose the easier targets when they can. If they have a choice, they will go after someone who has their wallet in the back pocket or backpack than someone with no visible valuables.
4. DON’T be distracted.
Pickpockets in Europe are remarkable for one thing — creativity. They usually operate in groups. One is the actual pickpocket, another serves as a lookout or hides the item, while the rest block your view, rattle you, or keep your attention away from your valuables. The distractions can be any of the following:
- Someone passes out in front of you and while your attention is on them or you get caught in the commotion, someone else is stealing your valuables.
- Someone squirts ketchup, mustard or bird poop on your shirt or jacket, and while you’re cleaning it up, someone is busy cleaning out your purse or pocket.
- Two people fight loudly and while you watch them bicker, someone else is trying to rob you.
- Someone, usually pretending to be deaf-mute, asks you to sign a petition. While you’re busy writing your name, an accomplice gets your wallet/phone.
- Someone pretends to be another tourist and asks for direction.
- A sexy lady starts being cozy with you. While you’re busy getting too close, she and another person are busy emptying your wallet without you knowing it.
- The door of the train malfunctions and the passenger closest to it helps you open the door so you could exit. What you don’t know is, while you’re trying to hold the door, an accomplice is fishing your phone/wallet from your bag or pocket.
And if something happens, keep your cool. Don’t panic. Secure your belongings and walk away.
5. DON’T be predictable.
The easiest targets are those whose moves can be easily predicted. If you suddenly decide to do something they didn’t foresee, you won’t fall into their trap and their plan is ruined. They’ll probably just move on to another target.
For example, as mentioned, many pickpockets on the metro or bus operate as a gang. They pick their targets and then they move to their respective positions. One or two stay on either side of the door, waiting for their victim. They expect you to exit through the same door you entered. But if you get off through another door, they won’t have time to adjust. If they try, it’s gonna be very suspicious.
Since the incident, when riding the metro and we see people standing by the door, Yosh and I don’t enter and exit through the same door, unless the train is extremely packed.
6. DON’T keep all your valuables in the same place.
I lost my phone but I kept thinking about how much more inconvenient it would have been if they took my wallet instead. My wallet had my cash, ATM cards, credit cards, and other IDs. It would have been a nightmare!
As the saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Keep your valuables in separate places, so in case you lose one, you don’t lose everything. This is true especially if you also carry cash.
Yosh and I always use our cards — ATM card to withdraw money and credit cards for some transactions — but we also carry a contingency fund with us, in the form of cash, just in case our cards won’t work or get stolen. If you’re like this too, make sure you separate the cash from your cards. Otherwise, there is no point.
7. DO look out for each other.
If you’re part of a bigger group, watch each other. Do a buddy system. It was something that we always do all the time, but for some reason we failed to do that day.
Before the thugs stole my phone, when the door of the train was malfunctioning, Yosh said he called me over to just use another exit. But I didn’t hear him. We got separated. If we didn’t, my phone probably wouldn’t have been stolen. Or at the very least, it would have been harder for the thieves to pull it off.
Since the incident, we agreed to look out for each other more carefully. When he’s walking ahead, I watch him while I have a hand on my bag. He does the same for me. When he starts dozing off on the metro, I wake him up. If he really needs to catch some sleep, I make sure he’s in a more secure place and I stand guard. He does the same for me.
Since then, we have never lost anything.
8. DON’T be complacent.
When you have been traveling for a long time, there is that air of confidence. It’s like, “I know what I’m doing. I got this.” That’s good, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to let your guard down even though you have been in that destination before. I got robbed in Athens, a place that I have visited before. I was a little bit more relaxed.
In addition, don’t trust too much. Search the web and you’ll find countless accounts from tourists who got approached by over-friendly strangers. Sometimes, they’re locals eager to help you or other tourists asking a favor. In many cases, they’re pickpockets about to steal something from you or leading you to a trap, where you’ll be forced to buy something at an astronomical price, make a big donation, or steal your credit card details.
In a Facebook post, a Pinoy tourist shared his experience in Moscow. While he was sightseeing, a group of female tourists asked him to take a group photo of them. Because they were also tourists, he obliged. The girls introduced themselves, where they were from, and they had a friendly conversation. Before leaving, they asked if they could take a selfie with him. What he didn’t realize while he was posing for the camera, one of the girls was trying to take out valuables from his bag. He even caught it in pictures!
In Paris, a friend of mine was approached by a friendly local who offered to help them find their destination. He didn’t steal from her but he suddenly charged her for “helping” and would not accept small payment.
It’s okay to be friendly, but don’t let your guard down.
9. DO get insured.
In the end, I was able to get a new phone because I was insured.
Travel insurance is something you won’t need to use but you’ll be thankful you have in case something happens. Yosh and I are insured. For years, we have been paying for travel insurance, health insurance, life insurance, and gadget insurance. But this was the only time we ever had to make use of it during travel.
10. DON’T beat yourself up too much for it.
It can happen to the best of us.
Just recently, the legendary Rick Steves fell victim to pickpockets in Paris. That’s Rick Steves! He’s an expert when it comes to Europe travel. If experienced travelers get duped by these thieves, don’t kick yourself in the butt too much if it happens to you.
What you should do is keep a presence of mind and act quickly.
- If your phone is stolen, call your service provider to cancel the SIM and deactivate your phone remotely if you can. Then, change your passwords!
- If your cards are stolen, call the issuing bank to cancel your cards immediately.
- If your passport is stolen, get in touch with your embassy.
Then proceed to the nearest police station to file a report. It’s very unlikely that you will be able to retrieve your stuff, but it’s always best to make and keep an official record of what happened because you might be able to use it in the future.