When it comes to swiping tourist wallets, European pickpockets are in a whole league of their own.
How do I know this? *nervous laughter*
Let’s just say I’ve been caught in their traps… twice: once in Rome and once in Lisbon.
Save this guide on how to avoid pickpockets in Europe for later!
You’ll be very glad you did.
Unfortunately, no matter who you are, how much you’ve travelled or how (naively) invincible you you feel, getting pickpocketed could still happen to you.
This is especially true in Europe, where opportunistic thieves prey on tourists like I prey on burritos (which is a lot, in case you’re new here).
So, after a few years of experience dodging pickpockets in Europe and getting nailed twice, here are some important tips and tricks to ensure that you keep your wallet and don’t get pickpocketed during your big Europe trip.
Tips for Avoiding Pickpockets in Europe
Let’s start with some key tips to avoid getting robbed while gallivanting around Europe.
1. Know where the danger zones are
When avoiding pickpockets in Europe, you must first familiarize yourself with the daaaanger zones.
These are areas that are frequented by pickpockets because they’re packed with easy targets, and are therefore spots where you need to be extra vigilant.
If you’re going to be paranoid and extreme, make sure you do so at:
Train stations: The combination of huge crowds, disoriented tourists and general chaos make train stations an absolute dream for pickpockets. This is where I had my wallet stolen in Rome – 15 fresh minutes into the city. Yay me.
Popular public transit routes: In every major city, there is usually a main bus, tram or Metro line that is commonly frequented by tourists because of their accessibility to main attractions. The bus 64 in Rome for example is often referred to as the Pickpocket Express!
Popular tourist attractions: As a general rule of thumb, pickpockets love hanging out where tourists do. So, be especially careful in busy squares, and don’t rule out paid attractions like museums, especially when they’re super popular ones (like the Louvre).
Shopping malls, markets and retail shops: Be careful in crowded retail spaces because pickpockets will often be at work – after all, they know you have cash to spend (and lose!)
Beaches: Do not ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, under ANY circumstance just leave your valuables out on the beach while you go for a swim. It is baffling to me how many people do this. If you must, consider bringing a portable safe and locking it somewhere secure.
2. Familiarize yourself with common pickpocketing scams
Luckily for you, pickpockets often rely on the same scams over and over to fool their victims.
And while many of these scams can be incredibly tricky and clever, if you do manage to familiarize yourself with them early on, then you’re in a good position to avoid them.
… or you know, use them to give the pickpockets a taste of their own medicine. #thedream
You can scroll down below for a full list of common pickpocketing techniques in Europe.
Generally speaking though, common scams thrive on the following:
- Distraction: Sudden commotion (e.g. a fight breaking out, a crowd of teens coming onto the Metro, etc.) is often used to distract you while someone swipes your wallet.
- Quick escapes: Pickpockets love situations that enable a quick getaway (e.g. a metro car or a bus that’s about to close its doors). That is why you should be especially careful when using public transit.
- Crowded spaces: Huge crowds enable the two factors above – distraction AND a quick getaway. Keep a hand over your valuables at all times, particularly around big crowds.
3. Know that European pickpockets aren’t always easily recognizable
It’s time to chuck your assumptions out the window.
You might think you know what pickpockets look like, but trust me: crafty European pickpockets (especially the pro ones) are good at hiding in plain sight.
For instance, the woman who took my wallet in Rome was next to me at the train station, holding a suitcase of her own, using her tourist costume to lull me into a false sense of security.
I mean hey, I’m still mad, but it worked.
That’s why it’s important that you realize there’s no “one look” that pickpockets have.
They can be women working with child accomplices, teenagers collaborating in groups, smartly dressed men gliding past on public transit…
I mean, I’m not saying “trust no one”, but definitely be alert and don’t write anyone off just because of appearances.
On that note, a good general rule of thumb is to…
4. Never let your guard down
Pickpockets thrive on distraction.
Be wary of random commotions like an argument, fight, etc. which are there for the sole purpose of distracting you so that your guard is let down.
Always be vigilant, especially so when you’re in a crowd, or in a touristy area (like train stations, a total hotbed for petty crime!)
I am the reigning queen of paranoia, so I like to keep a hand over my purse at all times…… yenno, just in case.
5. Don’t bring your valuables out and about
A little common sensical, but still worth mentioning.
If you have something super expensive or important that you don’t need that day, then don’t bother lugging it with you.
Remember to check your day bag before heading out to see that you’ve only brought the essentials (e.g. not the expensive souvenir you bought the day before).
Doing this is pretty much the only reason I still had my passport after getting pickpocketed in Lisbon.
PS: some folks carry their passports with them at all times, but I avoid doing this because to me, my passport is more secure locked up in a safe than it is in my purse (which might get stolen by someone looking for quick cash).
This is a mildly controversial opinion though!
6. Don’t keep anything in your pockets
Ahh logic. If you’re really wondering how to avoid pickpockets, well… there are no pockets to pick if they’re empty! 😉 I prefer to keep all my valuables in a bag anyway – it adds another barrier to entry!
Don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket: Rookie mistake. Professional pickpockets in Europe will spot these right away.
Invest in a cross-body bag: This way, everything is still easily within reach, but you have an added layer of safety (and can easily keep your hand over your bag at all times). There are a lot of affordable anti-theft purse options available on Amazon – click here to see them.
Get an anti-theft backpack: Big brands like PacSafe now have a wide range of backpacks built to thwart thieves. Investing in one of these might be a good idea if you’re really concerned about securing your valuables on the road. Click here to check out sales, deals and prices.
7. Don’t be a tourist caricature. Say no to Hawaiian shirts and fanny packs
Remember, European pickpockets are consummate professionals. In some cases, they might have been doing this longer than you’ve been alive. Trust me, they can sniff out tourists quicker than I sniff out pizza, which I assure you, is frighteningly quick.
Plus, it doesn’t help that tourists are easy to spot anyway… I mean the fanny packs, paper maps and fearful looks of confusion aren’t exactly subtle. So, how can you blend in a little better and outsmart even the craftiest of pickpockets?
Dress like locals would: European fashion is very toned down – neutrals (not Hawaiian prints!!) are common. Of course, what to pack depends on where you’re travelling, but make sure to do some research about the local mode of dress before you take off. In a similar vein, I need to say…
Avoid cheesy tourist garb: Fanny packs, pants with too many zippers and bucket hats are big no no’s.
Never stop in the middle of a crowded place to whip your map out: Nothing says “I’m not from here” more than squinting over a giant paper map in the middle of an intersection. Trust me, I’ve seen it. Sometimes humanity scares me.
8. Don’t look like you’d be good to rob
It sounds like common sense, but if you walk around with that shiny new iPhone in hand, with a string of pearls around your neck and a throng of Louis Vuitton shopping bags, yes someone is probably gonna want to rob you (like, I probably would).
A lot of people forget this because they want to look good, treat themselves and strut around like they’re in some kind of rap music video.
Sadly, flaunting your wealth like Kanye will do nothing but make you a shiny, moving target for European pickpockets. Leave the golden grills at home.
Here are some tips to minimize your appearance as robber bait:
- Ditch the luxury shopping bags: If you do choose to splash out on new Christian Louboutins, then I say treat yo’self. BUT be wary of flaunting those big shopping bags as you walk about.
- Hide your phone: Phone snatching is becoming increasingly common, so I highly recommend you keep your phone concealed rather than walk with it just in your hand. Also, make sure you don’t just leave it on your dining table when eating outdoors.
9. Get a lock around your backpack/purse zippers
The free spirit in your might not want to hear this, but the BEST way to secure your valuables is to lock them up.
Sure, this may not be super convenient for day to day travel (after all, you’ll be making many gelato stops) BUT having some tiny locks on hand is awesome for things like train rides or commutes to/from the airport and train station, where pickpockets often lurk. This is why I highly recommend you…
Buy small locks: Little combination locks are one of the handiest travel accessories you can own. You can easily get 3 for less than ten bucks on Amazon (like here) and then bring them with you on all your trips.
Keep a small lock in every bag: Because they’re so lightweight, you can easily get away with keeping a small lock in each bag (I do this now). It’s a simple way to ensure that you can lock things up when needed (like when braving through a very crowded and busy area).
10. Find a ninja way to conceal valuables
Valuables can only be stolen if they’re seen, right?
So, logically, one of the best ways to protect yourself from pickpockets is to keep your goodies out of sight.
And while I wish it was possible to buy an invisibility cloak for all your favourite things, this tech is still unavailable in our muggle world. What we do have though are some special travel accessories that are designed for the explicit purpose of hiding valuables. For instance, you can…
Buy a hidden passport scarf: Yes, my mind was totally blown when I found out these existed! They actually make hidden passport scarves these days that are meant to conceal your passport, cash and valuables. These scarves are not only quite fashionable, but provide a secure spot to hide anything worth taking. You can look at some of the options here.
Get a money belt: Not the most glamorous option, but a great way to make sure your valuables are safe. Here are a few good options.
Use a diversion safe: Diversion safes are a new anti-theft “it” items. Basically, they’re safes that you can keep valuables in but are designed to look like inconspicuous objects nobody would ever steal, like a can of Dr Pepper or a hairbrush.
RANDOM TIP: Make sure your cash and valuables are also divided and kept in different places.
11. Make your wallet/other valuables really hard to reach
If you have a backpack, put your wallet at the bottom, with different items stacked on top. Better yet if you have Inception compartments (zippered area within a zippered area).
Remember, pickpockets work by acting fast, so if there’s obstacles in their way and they have to dig for your goods, they likely won’t act fast enough.
I like to keep a scarf at the top of my daybag, and yes, it did once help me thwart a pickpocket in Bratislava, so I swear by this!
The Most Common European Pickpocket Techniques
Alright, with all those key tips in mind, now let’s go through some of the most common pickpocketing techniques and scams found in major cities all across Europe. Memorize these to make sure you don’t fall victim to them… trust me, they’re more common than you think.
1. The Petition
Right off the bat, I need to alert you to “the petition”. In a lot of places, this is like the king of pickpocket techniques.
Volunteers (usually women) will approach you with a clipboard and a pen, asking you to sign a petition for some kind of cause.
These women typically work in groups, and one often comes to pickpocket you when you’re distracted by this petition.
Another variation of this scam is that the petition will outright ask you for a donation amount, and they’ll hound you until you donate.
HOW TO AVOID THIS PICKPOCKETING SCAM: A firm ‘no thank you’, coupled with walking away and breaking eye contact is usually enough to thwart this.
2. The “Take My Photo”!
Again, working in groups, you’ll be approached by a woman who asks you to take a photo for her.
When you agree and grab her camera or phone, often there’s another distraction that comes into play (e.g. a child running into the scene) and while you’re distracted, a partner of hers will come take your wallet.
This almost happened to me in Bratislava, but I noticed and swatted the woman’s hand away as she was fist-deep in my bag.
Yes, it was awkward.
HOW TO AVOID THIS PICKPOCKETING SCAM: Simply refuse to take the photo, or if you want to be nice (and aren’t sure if it’s a scam or not), make sure you have your bag in front of you/in plain sight before you snap the shot. Pickpockets in Europe often work in groups, so be wary of that.
3. The Fake Police
I’ve heard about this happening a lot with pickpockets in Barcelona.
Essentially, you’ll be approached by “police officers” who demand to see your IDs, passports and wallets.
Once you’ve passed everything along, they’ll stealthily swipe away your cash. Often this scam targets partyers who are going home after a night out, so be wary of this on your next boozey escapade.
HOW TO AVOID THIS PICKPOCKETING SCAM: Be wary of “police officers” randomly asking you to see ID. This is a very rare occurrence and unless there’s a reason for police to approach you (you’re doing something wrong or in somewhere you shouldn’t be), then odds are, legitimate police won’t come up to you asking for ID.
If they do, resist handing over your stuff right away. Ask more questions about why they need it, ask to see a badge, etc. Odds are, if you make it tough for them, they won’t continue to pursue you.
4. The Shove
Shoving and pushing is frequently used as a form of distraction, especially in crowded spaces like a bus, train or in a touristy spot.
HOW TO AVOID THIS PICKPOCKETING SCAM: When you find yourself in a crowded space, make sure you have your backpack/purse in front of you, in plain sight.
Also ensure that you have your hands over any pockets that might contain valuables.
5. The Group Ambush
This happened to a friend of mine in Nice, while going up some stairs to the city’s most well-known viewpoint.
This one is extremely frustrating because you’ll know pretty much right away what they’re up to, but it’s tough to avoid since you’re outnumbered.
Essentially, with the Group Ambush, you’ll be confronted with a big group of (usually) teenagers who surround you and sort of block your way while you walk.
At this point, grubby hands will move around to snatch whatever valuables you have on you.
HOW TO AVOID THIS PICKPOCKETING SCAM: Have a hand over your belongings at all times, or make sure they’re locked up. Any time you’re surrounded by a large number of people, this is a smart practice anyway.
6. The Fake Cleanup
Imagine this, you’re strolling through the scenic streets of Rome, Madrid or some other gorgeous city, when all of a sudden you feel it: the drizzle of bird poop on your shoulder, followed by some good Samaritans who have swooped in to let you know it happened and are on-hand with napkins and other goodies to help you clean up.
Before you know it, your new friends have told you where the nearest washroom is and sent you off on your merry way….. except maybe a lot lighter in cash 😉
This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and while I haven’t encountered it myself, I’ve read so many reports of it in big cities.
Basically the pickpockets will walk around with a little paint that they squirt on unsuspecting tourists, and then they help you clean it up (while stealthily taking your wallet and valuables off your hands).
HOW TO AVOID THIS PICKPOCKETING SCAM: Instead of being distracted, have a hand on your valuables right away and refuse their help. Try to maintain as much space as possible between you and the “helpers”.
7. The Bathroom Snatch
This one happens frequently in tourist-heavy areas like attractions, museums, etc. While not so much “pickpocketing” as it is straight-up theft, I wanted to remind you that this technique exists.
Basically, in this scam, you’ll be in a public washroom of some kind where there are stalls with gaps at the bottom (as is common in this part of the world).
As you place your bag down to do your business, a hand reaches over and steals your bag, running and getting out of there before you even get a chance to chase them down.
HOW TO AVOID THIS PICKPOCKETING SCAM: Don’t put your bag down on the ground near the gaps below stalls. Instead, hang it up on an available hook, or put it at your feet where grubby hands can’t get to them.
So, I hope you enjoyed that guide on how to avoid pickpockets in Europe! Do you have any other stories or tips to add? Fire away in the comments 🙂
I hope you found these tips for avoiding pickpockets in Europe helpful!
Hopefully with these tips in tow, no pickpocket will ever get to your goods. Let me know in the comments if you have any more questions!