This article is a travel topic.
Pickpockets are thieves who steal items — often wallets or passports, sometimes other valuables — from people's clothing and bags as they walk in a public place. Pickpocketing is a very old crime that is continually being reinvented. Pickpockets are a hazard in nearly any tourist destination. After all, tourists - by definition - have disposable income, and are likely to be carrying some money and/or valuables.
This article covers only pickpockets, not the various other crimes that may be committed against travellers. See Common scams for some of them.
There may be pickpockets anywhere, but some things are signs of higher risk:
- If you see other people who prey on tourists — beggars, touts or prostitutes — assume there are thieves as well.
- crowded areas, especially places like bus and train stations. There are lots of potential victims, noise and jostling provide cover, and the thief can disappear into the crowd easily.
- areas where you are obvious, perhaps because you look very different from locals or dress and behave quite differently
- areas where the local income is low. In some countries a traveller's pocket money may be more than local monthly income.
- Traditional open air markets, especially those selling handicrafts in developing countries, combine many of the above risk factors and are often cased by pickpockets.
Pickpockets use a variety of techniques, not all of them covered here.
Pickpockets like easy targets
A skilled pickpocket can hit almost any pocket, but all pickpockets prefer easy targets.
Ridiculously easy targets are away from the body where the victim will not feel a thief's touch:
- Open bags, especially shopping bags with an interesting store label
- Outside pockets of a backpack or shoulder bag—do not put cell phones or cameras there
- A bag or pack left away from you or in an adjoining booth while at a restaurant, internet cafe, etc.
Other easy targets are pockets that are easy to get at and out of the victim's field of vision:
- Rear or thigh pocket of trousers — do not put your wallet in a back pocket.
- Outside pockets on a man's jacket or other loose-fitting outer garment
- Anything hanging on your belt, such as a cell phone or fanny pack
Do not carry valuables in these places.
Most pickpockets employ some element of distraction:
- Someone passes by you and "accidentally" drops money
- Some people begin a loud argument or fight
- A sign stating "Beware of Pickpockets", so everyone in the area reaches for their wallets to make sure it is still there. This enables the pickpockets to find out where people's wallets are.
- A street child flashes a toy, newspaper or anything else in your face
- A drunk, unwashed person grabs your arm and tries to talk to you
- Insistent begging
Use common sense if you are confronted with a distraction. For example, children anywhere do not typically approach strangers—unless they've been coached to do so by an adult. Fights and arguments are best avoided anywhere. And a person who finds or drops money on the street isn't going to offer it to you!
Pickpockets are not always subtle. Often pickpockets use an element of physical force. For example, a pickpocket might walk straight at and barge past the person they are stealing from, using physical contact as a distraction to take a purse or similar valuable item.
Also, pickpockets love to use magic as a way to get close to you. If a street magician, or a random stranger, comes up to you and asks if you want to see a trick, just say no thank you and keep walking. His only trick will be making your valuables disappear.
Tools for pickpockets
Pickpockets everywhere routinely carry razors for slitting pockets. These may also be used to quickly cut the strap on a purse, shoulder bag, or camera. In some places they may even be for armed robbery. Check the country listings for your destinations.
Thieves commonly carry fairly long tongs for reaching into purses or pockets. These are not as large and noticeable as a hand reaching for the goods.
Some pickpockets utilize ketchup or mustard or any other unwanted substance. Typically, a child or teenager squirts ketchup on you as you pass by. Next a "helpful" stranger - often an older lady - appears with a damp cloth ready to help clean you up. The damp cloth provides cover for prying hands and the ketchup is a great excuse for her to pat down obvious places on your body for money. If you are sprayed with anything while walking down a street in Latin America, don't stop -- keep right on going and shoo away any offers of assistance.
Pickpockets work in teams
Pickpockets often work in teams. For example, getting on a crowded bus, one ahead of you may create a delay so the one behind can get your wallet. One may distract the victim's attention while the other reaches into a pocket on the other side. The loot may be immediately handed off to a third player, so even if you grab the actual thief, there is no evidence and the item is lost to you. Pickpocket teams typically include both genders and both young and older people. Anyone can be a pickpocket.
More brazen pickpocket teams will work with 4 people who swarm from different directions to momentarily block you. The person behind you then suddenly bumps or jostles you - while reaching into your pocket and handing off what he finds to another person. If you sense this happening soon enough, jumping and/or turning back in the opposite direction may get you out of the "block".
The basics of protecting yourself are common sense:
- Leave the valuables and money you don't need at your hotel room, preferably in a safe.
- A cheap drawstring shoe bag cannot be pickpocketed if it is on your back tightly. Further the thin drawstring can be tied around your wrist when at a table where it can be grabbed by grabbing hands. Some contain inner pockets, so even if the bag is slashed, your valuables will be protected.
- Know and avoid the most dangerous areas.
- Be alert, especially in crowded spaces or when people invade your personal space.
- Stash valuables in hard-to-reach places. (see following sections)
- Do not carry more cash than you are likely to need.
- Carry money and passport in separate places, so that losing one doesn't mean losing the other as well.
- Wear packs in front of you, not at the rear or side.
- Deep front trouser pockets offer more protection than back pockets, but be aware that experienced pickpockets can even get into zippered front pockets.
- Inside jacket pockets offer even better protection, especially if they are zippered.
- Dress inconspicuously so as not draw attention to yourself as a "rich foreigner."
- Attach your wallet to a chain. Better yet, ditch the wallet entirely and use a money clip, or just fold the bills into your pocket.
- Get a money belt and wear it underneath your clothes. Keep your passport and extra money in there. Even if someone knows you are wearing it, they will be hard-pressed to get at it without you noticing.
- Consider taking a page from the thieves' book and use distraction. Carry a cheap wallet with a few small bills in it in an obvious place like your hip pocket. This may decoy pickpockets' attention away from your real stash.
Above all, do not flash your valuables around unnecessarily. An expensive watch on your wrist or fancy camera around your neck is quite a temptation to someone whose annual income may be less than its price.
Every second counts. As soon as you sense something is "off", get away from the area immediately. For example, an old lady carrying a sack suddenly stops directly in your way. Or a youngster sprays ketchup on you. Both are likely setups for pickpocket teams. Doing something unexpected - jumping, backing up and going the opposite direction, or picking up your pace to get away - may be enough to get you away from the pickpocket's reach.
Learn "Thief!" in the language of your destination and be prepared to yell it if you notice a pickpocket at work. When confronted, most pickpockets will fling their booty to the ground and attempt to make their escape — it's probably best to let them go, as they may be armed and you don't want to get charged with assault or harassment yourself.
In most cases in a crowded environment, the people around will co-operate with you to at least attempt to catch the thief and report the loss to police and act as a witness. In some places the crowd may take justice into their own hands, often with brutal results.
In countries with notoriously corrupt police, avoiding confrontation with a thief is strongly advised. He knows the language, the system, and probably the cops, much better than you do. He may be part of a gang with connections you cannot fight. Just let it go.
Money belts and pouches
There are many ways to stash your money and passport where it will be quite a bit more difficult to grab it.
Separate your money. Carry a small-change purse, or keep a small amount of money in a pants pocket, for small transactions like buying a bus-ticket or an ice cream. Put larger bills somewhere else. Many travellers have 3 to 5 wallets with their money split so that if one or two get stolen it does not cause too much trouble.
Many urban outfitter or mountaneering type shops sell a money belt that you wear under your pants. These are typically nylon and have many pockets, so you can have cash, travellers cheques and passport separated. This is probably your most secure option since it is hard for a thief to reach and is in a sensitive area of the body; you are quite likely to notice someone touching you there. The only disadvantage is that some people find them inconvenient to access. The luxury versions of money belts have straps with sewed in wires (or the whole belt is made of this material) and all connections are made of steel and are not easy to open. So it's not possible to cut these straps or snatch away the belt. However, you may want to avoid models that contain metal parts, since they will cause problems at security checkpoints.
Another type of money belt is just a zipper sewn onto the inside surface of an ordinary belt. These are OK for money, but not passports. They can be bought in some travel-oriented shops, or are easily made.
Many travellers use a passport pouch which hangs under their shirt. Again, this is a sensitive area of the body; you will likely notice activity there. Make sure it has a secure strap and be careful not to wear it on the outside of your clothing, where it would be an easy snatch-and-run target. Some pouches have a second strap that goes around your chest; with these it's not possible for the thief to snatch-and-run. Some travelers find the presence of anything around their neck to be a danger in itself, however.
Others use a leg pouch, worn under the pants or sometimes on the upper arm under a shirt.
In Africa it is quite common for women to store money and even cell phones in their bras. Again, you will certainly notice someone touching you in this area, and it's directly in your line of sight as well.
If you sew, or can afford to hire a tailor (can you afford not to?), there are many ways to make clothing somewhat pickpocket-resistant.
Hong Kong tailors routinely put an extra pocket in a pair of pants, built into the waistband.
Simply adding fasteners - velcro, buttons or zippers - makes picking the pocket harder.
You can have additional pockets sewn into garments in odd places. Some possibilities are
- sewing a zipper on the inside of a belt to make a money belt
- sewing a long narrow pocket on the inside of a jacket, from high up near the lapel down diagonally to near the hip. Drop your wallet or passport in there and you have to reach in elbow-deep to get it
- sewing a pocket on the surface of a backpack that goes nearest your body; nothing lumpy can be carried there, but money or a passport are OK
Some travellers have one garment they use for travelling, a jacket for a businessman or a denim vest for a budget traveller, which has extra pockets and which they almost never remove.
Ladies, a cleverly hidden pocket sewn into a wrap-skirt has served me well. It is fairly easy to add a secure pocket to a pair of bike shorts or boxer-brief type underthings also.
It is best to leave a small reserve of money (for example, a $100 note) in the unlikeliest of places, in case the worst happens. This money could then be used to cover a hotel room, or transport, or phone calls to your embassy. Suggestions include inside your sock or your shoe, your bra, paperclipped to your belt, or somewhere equally obscure. Be cautious about money inside a shoe -- after a few months of trekking, paper money can disintegrate.
Leave a credit card at home. Scan both sides of it and leave the information with an emergency contact (emailing credit card information, especially to webmail accounts, is not safe). Then if you are stuck you can go to an internet cafe and western union yourself money.
This page was last edited at 21:33, on 28 March 2009 by Marc Heiden. Based on work by SONORAMA, Jani Patokallio and email@example.com, Wikitravel user(s) Pashley and Morph, Anonymous user(s) of Wikitravel and others.