Pickpockets in Europe can be a problem but if you follow this guide, you won’t get caught out. If you’re planning a trip to Europe, you’ve undoubtedly been warned about the danger of pickpockets in Europe. It is important to be vigilant because thousands of tourists are victims of pickpockets each year—and no one wants to spend their hard-earned vacation trying to cancel their credit cards, replacing their passport, and finding alternative means to access money. Luckily there are many simple things you can do to deter yourself from becoming a pickpocketing victim.
Popular cities for pickpockets
While pickpockets can be found in nearly any city, but the largest concentrations are in cities that attract the most tourists (no surprise there). Below is a list of hotspots for pickpockets in Europe:
- Barcelona, Spain
- Rome, Italy
- Paris, France
- Madrid, Spain
- Athens, Greece
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Lisbon, Portugal
- Florence, Italy
- London, England
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
Who are the pickpockets?
Most people assume pickpockets are sketchy looking men, but a large number of pickpockets are actually young girls and boys—usually around ten to sixteen years old. Most tourists don’t suspect a young child would steal from them so they let their guard down. Additionally, police have a harder time arresting minors and most travel without any sort of identification, so even if they’re caught, the police usually have to let them go. Other times pickpockets are well dressed and you’d never expect them to be thieves.
Pickpockets almost always work in groups. One or two people will do something to distract the victim while another member tries to take their stuff. Once the theft has occurred, the thief who stole the item will often hand it off to someone else and they’ll all run in separate directions. This makes it very hard to track the culprit.
Pickpocket hot spots
Tourists attractions. Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Trevi Fountain in Rome, or the Charles Bridge in Prague, it isn’t a surprise that pickpockets hang out in busy tourist spots. Naturally, tourists are more concerned about viewing the sights and taking photos than being attentive to their surroundings.
Pickpockets love big crowds
Public transportation. Subways and city buses are prime spots for pickpockets—and after living in Paris, I’ve seen my fair share of pickpockets on the Paris Metro. Public transportation is a great place for a pickpocket because it is often very crowded and it is easy for thieves to create confusion. Pickpockets normally target large metro/subway stations where many transit lines converge because it gives them plenty of places to exit if they’re being chased by the police.
Museums. During the summer, Europe’s most popular museums swell to maximum capacity and there are bound to be a few pickpockets among the lot. While the admission price deters most pickpockets, it doesn’t stop all of them from preying on unsuspecting visitors who are simply enjoying the art. In fact, in 2013 the workers at the Louvre Museum in Paris went on strike because the pickpockets were getting so bad.
Train stations. Trains stations are large, crowded, and full of confused tourists with their hands full of cumbersome luggage—which is exactly the kind of environment pickpockets love.
Restaurants, cafes, and bars. Many people let their guard down when they’re enjoying a meal or a drink, so it is easy for a crook to sneakily snatch a purse from the back of a chair or a mobile phone from the top of a table.
The beach. Pay attention to your stuff when you’re at the beach. Don’t leave your bag unattended or out of sight because there is a good chance someone might snatch them. And no, hiding things in your shoes isn’t fooling anyone.
Retail stores. Clothing and departments stores in Europe can get extremely crowded—especially around the holidays. It is an easy place for a pickpocket to target tourists that are usually carrying a lot of money.
Tricks pickpockets in Europe use
Distraction is the one tactic that all pickpockets use. They want to distract your attention just long enough to take your stuff. The following methods are well-known ways that pickpockets in Europe and thieves steal from tourists.
“Charity” worker with clipboards. This scam is very popular in Paris. It nearly always involves a group of young girls with clipboards. They’ll approach you and point to a clipboard while motioning that they’re deaf and mute. They want you to sign a petition for charity. If you sign, they’ll ask for a donation to the charity. Of course the “charity” is fake—in fact, frequently the money often goes to these girls’ “boss” (i.e., human traffickers). While the tourist is signing/reading the petition, there is often an accomplice trying to pickpocket the victim.
Crowd the subway. Subway trains can get very crowded. A common tactic is for a group of four to six children to push onto a packed train shortly before the doors shut and crowd their target. They’ll swipe what they’re trying to steal and then they all hop off right before the doors begin to close. By the time the victim realizes what happened, it is too late and the train has already left the station.
Always be wary when a group of people crowd onto an already busy metro car. Also be suspicious of anyone who is standing very close to you on a train that isn’t crowded because they might be up to no good.
Smartphone grab. Thieves love smartphones because they’re valuable and easy to steal. That’s why it’s generally advisable to avoid using your smartphone while you’re on public transportation. However, if you do, ensure that you sit away from the doors. It is common for thieves to reach in and snatch the victim’s phone right before the doors close.
Help with your bag. Some subway stations have numerous stairs so “good Samaritans” will forcibly grab your suitcase to help you carry it up the stairs. This usually takes the victim off-guard and that is when their accomplice reaches into your purse or pocket. However, there are actually a lot of nice people who will offer to help carry your heavy suitcase if they see you struggling. The main difference between them and the bad guys is that they’ll ask you before grabbing your bag.
Bump and lift. When you’re surrounded by crowds, it isn’t uncommon to accidentally bump into other people. However, this is a classic move performed by pickpockets, so if someone bumps into you, it might be smart to take a quick inventory of your belongings.
Escalator backup. Escalators are another area that pickpockets target because it is easy to create chaos. With this scam, there will be one or two people in front of the target and a few behind the target. Someone near the top of the escalator will stop right when they get off and this will create a huge backup for people trying to get off. As the backup occurs, the people behind the target will reach into the target’s bag/pocket and hand off the goods to one of his buddies behind him. I’ve also seen where they’ve handed off the goods to someone on the opposite escalator so it’s almost impossible to chase them.
Newspaper/map distraction. A common pickpocket tactic involves using a large map or a newspaper to cover the target’s line of sight to take things out of his or her bag. They’ll shove the map in your face, point to a part of the map, and then their accomplice will reach under the paper so you can’t see what they’re taking. This is a very common way people steal mobile phones from tables.
ATM confusion. Always be careful when using the ATM—especially when you’re alone. While you’re in the process of withdrawing money, a group of beggars will approach you from behind to try and get your attention. They might pull on your arm or shove a piece of paper in front of the screen. If you turn toward one of the thieves, another one will slip in from the other side and press the button for the max amount of cash. Then they’ll swipe the money and run off. If this happens, put your hand where the money is being dispensed because that is where the thieves will be targeting. Also be sure to cover up your pin code when you enter it. Some thieves will try to see your code (some even use hidden cameras) and then they’ll follow you around for a chance to steal your card.
The helpful tourist. Don’t let pickpockets take advantage of your good nature. In this scam, one of the scammers will drop something in front of you and while you’re helping them pick up the mess, the other pickpocket will swoop in and lift something from you bag. That doesn’t mean you can’t help your fellow man but be mindful about your own stuff while helping.
Slashed bag. Some pickpockets don’t even bother trying to open your bag and they will simply slash it open with a knife. This is fairly uncommon in Europe but it isn’t unheard of.
Turnstile stall. Busy turnstiles are a common area for pickpockets to strike. As you’re approaching a turnstile, one person will cut in front of you and then proceed to stop (they might pretend that the machine isn’t working) and their partner will come up behind you—essentially trapping you between the two of them. The person in the back will lift something from your bag or pocket while his partner in the front is fumbling with the turnstile.
Scooter snatch and run. While not super common, some thieves will drive up on a scooter, snatch a bag from the victim’s shoulder, and then ride off into the sunset. I wouldn’t be too worried about this technique but it can happen.
Street performances. In popular tourists spots there are multiple street performers who’ll dance, play music, or put on some type of performance. They can draw quite a crowd, but beware because it’s a popular area for pickpockets to target.
Fake fight. A large group of men will pretend to start an altercation around a target, and in all the commotion one of the men will attempt to pickpocket the target. Enjoy the show but watch your wallet.
Who pickpockets target
Anyone can be a potential target of a pickpocket, but they do tend to target certain types of people. Pickpockets will always look for the easiest target because they don’t want a confrontation.
Tourist. Tourist = money in the mind of a pickpocket. If you look like a tourist, you’re automatically going to be singled out. This is one of the benefits of dressing like a local.
People with a lot of luggage. If you are pulling along two suitcases and have a backpack, you’re going to be a prime target for a pickpocket in Europe. You won’t be able to watch over all your things too closely since you have so much stuff.
Asians. Asians (specifically the Chinese) are a top choice for pickpockets because many of the Chinese who travel to Europe are very wealthy. Additionally, a large number of Chinese citizens don’t have easy access to credit and debit cards, so they often travel with large amounts of cash—and thieves know this. So even if you’re not Chinese but have Asian heritage, you might want to be more cautions.
People who flash valuables. Walking alone at night while using your iPhone? Don’t be surprised if someone takes it away from you.
Trusting people. From all my travels, I’ve rarely met a friendlier bunch than the Australians. I’ve also rarely met another group of people who’ve been victims of pickpockets more than the Australians. I think the people who think everyone else around them is nice and helpful are the ones who get taken advantage of most often.
How to protect yourself from pickpockets in Europe
If you’ve made it this far, you might be thinking that there are thousands of pickpockets in Europe trying to rob every tourist. But that isn’t the case and you’ll rarely have any problems if you take a few extra precautions. It is also important to remember that actual violent crime is really quite low in Europe, so as long as you’re vigilant, you’ll be safe. In this section, we’ll talk about what steps to take to avoid becoming a victim.
Limit what you carry. Pickpockets can’t steal what you don’t have—simple. That is why I prefer to carry very little while I’m sightseeing. I especially recommend not carrying a lot of cash.
Wear a money belt. Personally, I hate money belts, but it is one of the most secure ways to carry valuables like extra money and your passport. However, many tourists make the mistake of thinking that they should use their money belt like a wallet—it isn’t intended for that. Ideally, you should keep the money and debit/credit cards that you’re going to need for the day in your wallet and then keep all extra cash and maybe a backup credit card in the money belt. The money belt should be worn under your clothes and should be fairly inconvenient to access (to deter thieves).
Keep wallet in front pocket. A lot of guys keep their wallets in their back pockets, but this is an extremely easy target for a pickpocket in Europe. This is why it is advisable to keep your wallet in your front pocket. I highly recommend getting a super thin wallet because a bulky wallet feels very strange in your front pocket—and it looks kind of dumb.
Keep phones off the table. Smartphones are a super popular item for thieves to target. Many people will simply leave it on the table while they’re eating and someone can easily come up and snatch it.
Split up your valuables. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Split up your valuables so if you are pickpocketed you’ll limit the amount you’ve lost.
Lock it up. Hostels are safe and I’ve never had any problems with theft, but it is still smart to lock any valuables in a locker.
Secure your bag/backpack. Your bag or backpack is probably the most vulnerable area that pickpockets love to target. Backpacks are especially vulnerable because you can’t see if someone is trying to get into it. Here are some tips for securing your bag:
- Wear it backwards. When you’re on crowded public transportation, a lot of people will wear their bags backwards because it’s easier to keep an eye on it.
- Lock the zippers. At a minimum, you’ll want to lock your zippers. You don’t need anything fancy—a simple luggage lock will work well.
- Sling backpack. Sling backpacks are nice because they stay close to your body and they can be slung over your chest easily if needed. They do tend to be small, so you’ll have trouble if you plan on carrying a lot of stuff with you.
- Secure bag to an immovable object. When you’re at a restaurant, loop your bag’s strap around your leg or the leg of your chair so someone can’t come by and swipe the bag. Similarly, it is smart to secure your bag to a chair or luggage rack while you’re on a train—especially on overnight trains. A retractable cable lock will provide enough protection to deter most thieves.
- Pickpocket proof bags. If you want to be extra safe, you can get yourself a specially designed “pickpocket proof” backpack, bag, or purse. A company called Pacsafe makes the most popular antitheft bags. Their bags have tamperproof zippers, cut-proof straps, anchored straps, and a slash-proof metal mesh sewn into the bag. However, their bags are fairly expensive and all that extra protection could be a little overkill—but the added peace of mind is worth the extra price for some people.