My face to face clash with a pickpocket

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ October 5th, 2010. Updated on February 20th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » How to guides ....
Razor blade and Philippines pesos

A razor blade used to cut into your pocket by pickpockets - you won't feel a thing

How to avoid pickpockets when traveling?

Someone tried to pickpocket me last week. It’s always been a top concern of mine. Crime is everywhere in the world today. As are opportunists that will prey on the weak, gullible, and the blatant.

One of the weakest, and largest targets for travelers, tourists and indeed people in their own countries, is their wallet or purse. The reasons are obvious, it’s where they’ll find an immediate source of cash. And, as tourists often need to pay for more than a local, there’s a greater chance that there will be more cash to be found in them.

My encounter with a pickpocket thief in the Philippines: who won?

I got on-board a morning city jeepney, as I have done many times throughout the country. I usually wait for the less crowded ones as I personally don’t like to feel like a sardine. Also, it’s easier to have a hand slip into your pocket when there’s a mass of human bodies all pushing together.

Crowded Jeepney

Crowded Jeepneys are where many pickpockets frequent

There were four of us. I sat at the back as this is where the conductor was. Halfway through the journey two twenty-something guys in shorts and vests swung aboard.

Alarm bells of experience

The eyes tell a lot. The conductor greeted them with a look, and then to me. One of the guys sat next to me, the other further down on the same side.

I already knew something was up. But, it was daylight, and I was not in fear.

The attempt at pickpocketing me

The guy to my right slipped up closer to me, took out his phone and placed it very close to my right knee (this would make a person curious to look at it – aka distraction). Meanwhile the guy very close to me on the left nudged closer.

There was no need for all this closeness as the Jeepney had a lot of room.

“I knew what was going on, they were a working pair.”

The guy on the left moved his hand onto his knee, then over the period of one minute slipped it under his knee.

I was wearing combat shorts, and my side pockets were full. I felt a tug on my lower left pocket as the guy on the right coughed loudly.


Stopping the pickpocket thieves.

My right arm pushed down between the guy on right, and my real wallet, blocking him off. I then turned and pushed him back (not uncommon in a full jeepney).

I now faced the guy on my left and raised my knee blocking his arm.

“How’s your itch today, my friend?”

I said loudly. Blatantly staring at his face. He didn’t look at me. He froze, and I noticed the conductor panic a little. There were more than two at work here.

At this stage I stood and swiveled around to sit on the opposite side facing both of them, my forearms protecting the cash in my front pockets.

Bye bye pickpocket thieves

One of the thieves glanced again at the conductor as we rounded a corner, then they both jumped off. No payments to the conductor. Around another corner and I was close to my destination. I left before getting there.

Who was trying to steal from me?

There were three to four people here. The two guys. The conductor, and probably the driver who I noted was looking back often in his mirror.

It’s how most good pickpockets work. In two’s or threes.

I don’t recommend doing what I did here. I can kinda look and sound pretty scary, and have been in worse situations (aside from that, I was in bad mood already). I let this go further than I should have because I wanted to test the Pinoy thieves guile. I’d heard the stories.

Many Filipinos have told me of thieves on-board city jeepneys. Looking for cash, phones, wallets and purses. Many prey on older and younger women. Many use razor blades or short knives to threaten them into handing over everything.

Perhaps I was lucky they did try this. Then again, I was having a bad day so the outcome might have been different one way or the other.

Why does no one stop the pickpockets?

The conductors and often the drivers are also in on the game, and collect commissions. They will claim ignorance in not seeing anything should anyone make a fuss. They will also block people from stopping any thieves from leaving. As for the other passengers. Some are fearful for their own safety. But, also Pinoy’s are, unfortunately, not known for standing up to thieves or physical confrontation in general.

Worst places in the world to find pickpockets

In my travels the answers might surprise you. The worst place I found for pickpockets was Spain. Both Madrid and especially Barcelona. I was accosted on the Metro one night and fought the gang off. I’ve also known several travelers to get beaten up and mugged in these cities.

Next up, India. Nothing happened to me. But I’ve seen the kids in Delhi at work. Big cities in China often have people on the prowl too. Other cities in the world rumored to be havens for pickpockets are Mexico city, and Paris. An, eclectic mix.

Jeans and shorts

Tight squeeze, a hand underneath will cut a hole in pocket and the contents removed

Places pickpockets are frowned upon.

Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, Singapore. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but, the punishment is high if they are caught. Moreover, the moral frowning via society is huge.

In Iran I was told that if caught, the pickpocket will lose their hand. Or, if shown mercy, only be kicked out-of-town with their family and all possessions taken from them. They will be embarrassed to the last, and publicly humiliated. It seems to work.

Strangely, even being a close neighbor of Spain, I found Portugal to be very safe in this regard too.

Why is the tourist a target for pickpockets?

In developing countries there is the stigma that the foreigner is rich, will have an abundance of cash on them, and can afford to lose some.

The average tourist is also an easier target than a local due to extra bags, unfamiliarity with their location, communication problems etc.

That said, cities in the west seem to be a lot more crime ridden in a rich to poor to crime ratio. And, as a whole I found the poorer the people, the safer the country. There are, exceptions again. But I feel safer in  downtown Manila than Barcelona.

How to avoid getting pick pocketed

  • Avoid crowded places and crowded transport – it can be tough, and make you look like a scared tourist. But, I’d prefer to wait 30 minutes and get on a less crowded metro or bus than chance a pickpocket.
  • Don’t advertise your pockets. Sad to say but the amount of tourists I’ve seen on my travels with open purses, and wallets hanging out of their back pockets is scary. In this case, I have no sympathy.
  • Spread your cash around – Don’t keep all your money or credit cards in the same place! If you do get pick pocketed you don’t want to lose everything.
  • Have a fake wallet – carry an extra walled with a bundle of small bills in them. And do put it in an obvious place. If you do ever get into trouble, threatened or pickpocketed the thief usually runs away with the item without inspecting it.
  • Keep your valuables skin huggingly close. Money belts, not over stuffed. Either on your stomach, leg, or chest are one of the best ways to avoid getting things stolen. Just don’t take them out in public, and don’t overfill them.
  • Hidden pockets work, but you need to, again, not over fill.
  • Use a hostel, or hotel safe were you think it’s safe. Not all places are safe. But, if you are going out to a high risk area. Street party, carnival, crowded area. You might want to weigh up what’s the better option.
  • If you are a long-term traveler, or going RTW, back your photographs/blog/diary up rather than carry them everywhere. If they get stolen with your bag, you’ve lost more than just money. Read my online photo hosting & storage review. Cash can be replaced, eventually, your photos or data can’t.
  • Pickpockets also frequent hostels and dorms. I really can’t believe how many people I’ve seen in dorms and hostels who leave iPods, mp3 players, wallets, laptops and cameras strewn around the place! Sorry, but you are asking for trouble.

“Jeepeny’s are one of my favorite forms of transport anywhere in the world. Don’t let any of this discourage you from taking one. Just take precautions like you should anywhere in the world!”

Pickpocket vs Tourist

On a final note. Imagine if you were a person with no job, a family to feed, and were on the streets. In many countries the streets mean you are on your own, and death is not far away. It’s hand to mouth every day.

Now if you saw a gleaming white tourist bouncing down the road in the latest trendy clothes, a camera swinging from the side. A wallet hanging out the back pocket. A couture handbag over the shoulder … wouldn’t you think twice?

I am not ashamed to say, I wouldn’t.

Now go to a city anywhere in the world and understand that crime is big business. They have a business to run, and you are the consumable.

Take precautions, and you’ll be fine. Ignore the warnings, and be prepared for the consequences.

Coming soon:

My big mistake in The Philippines

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41 Great responses to My face to face clash with a pickpocket

  1. ciki says:

    the worst place for me was in ROME! the more crowded and touristy the area the worse it was. I like this post.. teaches us some simple vigilance technique that will spare us a “hole in the pocket” literally, later!

    nice one Dave. You’re like the local anti-hero :P hehe

  2. Great post!

    I haven’t been hit on by pickpockets but, I have seen it in action. I was sat in a bar in Prague. Sat next to me were two British female travellers, and oblivious to what was going on around them. One of the pickpockets stood in front of me to block my view (which isn’t difficult I’m a short-arse) and the other attempted to swipe the two bags (probably full with money and their passports) from under the table.

    I knew straight away what was going on, and without thinking reacted, and told them what was happening. One of the thieves ranted on in broken English into my face, and then both of them ran out of the bar.

    I am not sure it was the most sensible thing to do, but, at the time it felt the right thing to do.

  3. Big tip I can offer up to your readers is to keep little cash in your pockets, and in those (front pockets) that you do, shove a bandanna in there. I’ve had a bandanna in my front pocket for years, and not only is it practical to have handy, but is also a fantastic way to keep fingers out and the contents in (should they be loose enough to slide out while sitting, etc).

    • Good tip Craig. The only thing that worries me about stuffing a bandanna into my pocket is that the theives may think “the bigger the pocket, the more cash in there.” But, if the pockets are cover with your shirt etc, it can be good method alright!

  4. Jeff Mines says:

    Amazing how the big tourist cities are some of the worst places! I will add New York city to the list.

  5. Jc says:

    use another small bag inside your big fashionable handbag- for purse/wallet separate- best to bring a paper bag, less attraction too. I use local “bayong”.

    Carrying belt bags are not safe either, belts are easy to slice. I use it as a shoulder bag and hold it infront.

    by experience, I avoided wearing any form of jewelry- stripped down and look ordinary-if you take the public transportation.

    use extreme caution when taking taxis too. we’re lucky to have a regular “suki” in Quezon City whom we call whenever we need one during our vacation..a good tourist guide too! and we know where he lives- how about that!

    be wary of that person sitting next to you who holds a newspaper. he slips his hand underneath that newspaper without being noticed.

    i thought I’d share those too.

    • Paper bags are great for putting cash in. Likewise with not going out in expensive jewelry! Unless it’s an important event, traveling around with anything expensive like that is not a wise move.

      Nice tip about the newspaper too! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Daniel N. says:

    Great tips Dave!

    I’m lucky enough to never have encountered a pickpocket. Maybe my long hair/thick beard look doesn’t make me the best target hahaha! (I saw once a beggar annoying people and as soon as he saw me he stared and said Sorry and left).

    Also I never carry wallets, my money is rolled in a small stack deep in my front pocket and any cards I own are in my worn-out old bag I carry around my shoulder and always keep visible on my side with a hand on it!

    • Thanks Daniel. You comment made me laugh about scaring off that beggar! But, yes. Old bags rather than shiny new ones work well. When I bought my day pack, the first thing I did was drag it down a road face first :)

  7. Bessie says:

    Great post! Those pickpockets were obviously messing with the wrong person. It was pretty gutsy of them to sandwich you like that while it wasn’t even that crowded. Who knows whether they were desperate or greedy, but I’m glad that you had your senses about you, and that the situation ended as you did. Good for you for reacting & shaming their scheme like that – in a strange situation like that I often stumble for what to say, but it sounds like your reaction was spot on.

    Thanks for sharing your tale!

    • Unfortunately many tourists in The Philippines are … well … let’s say some have issues, and many have never traveled out of their countries before. So, they become prime targets. Many not even knowing they’ve been robbed until much later.

      If there is one thing I can’t stand is someone robbing someone else. These guys were just taking a chance that I was “just another” tourist. Sadly for them, I’ve a few countries a lot worse than The Philippines that I’ve learned how to deal with them! Thanks for the comment!

  8. Marnie Alvez says:

    I am impressed with the way you can sense danger coming your way just by looking at those desperate guys. I too, well I’m Filipino and have the idea how these stupid crooks work since I’m a frequent jeep rider as well, can also sense it and would usually get off immediately even if I have paid for my fare. You were brave to confront them. There were instances when some thieves slash would-be victims on the face after the confrontation then run.

    Great tips on securing your valuables! The few times I need to go to Manila, which is by the way just 30-45 mins away by car, MRT or jeep from Quezon City where I live but it feels like a totally different world all together, I always use a belt bag to secure my belongings.

    A great deal of common sense is necessary to get you by safely anywhere =) Oh by the way Dave, I can’t help to think of the song ‘New York, New York’ as I write my comment here… Why? Cuz with what’s happening to you recently, and you made it each time, it really feels like you can make it anywhere =)

    Great post as usual! Keep it up!

    • Traveling and living in some of the places I’ve been has taught me what to look out for. In my position you nearly have to read people’s minds. Day after day of bartering, meeting new people who see you as just another tourist etc. You kinda get a 6 sense.

      The MRT is a prime area for trouble makers and thieves. But, I have heard there is undercover security there too?

      New York, New York?! Yep, lot’s has been happening. Maybe I need the theme song Eye of the Tiger these days eh! :)

  9. Ivy says:

    Hy there! now you have to tell me why you took money in your package or pockets while travelling in a Jeepeny? That’s something i’ll never ever would do.When i travel, i always take just enough cash that i keep in a hidden place close to my body (t-shirt, pants … never in my pockets or packages). In Spain, Italy, Tunisia it’s very easy to recognize people who are up to steal in stations, on the street ect….
    But, you did very well indeed ;) Is it because of your combat shorts? :)

    • Hey Ivy! Money so I can go to a store? Sadly the huge ATM fees in The Philippines means having to take out a large sum of cash to avoid $5 Philippine bank charges plus $5 local bank charges per transaction. So taking a large amount out saves giving banks all your cash. It really does not help with security anywhere that people are being charged like this.

      And yes, the combat shorts help :)

  10. ayngelina says:

    When I read the title of this post on Twitter I realized 2 things
    1) I had never been pickpocketed despite being one of the few gringos in Cebu
    2) I was young and naive it didn’t even occur to me that someone would try to rob me.

    How odd ten years later I spend most of my day ensuring I don’t fall prey to these people.

  11. jessiev says:

    fantastic tips – i’ve never experienced this, luckily. whew!

  12. I’ve never been pick pocketed, hope this doesn’t happen to me. Great tips everyone! Now you leave me wondering what is SO scary about you?

  13. PeteMax says:

    Easiest place to conceal anything is the small ass-emblem on a pair of jeans. If you dont have any, try to find shorts, jorts or jeans with a good size leather tag. Simply cut the side strings and it becomes a hidden pocket. Protected by your belt – no one will ever know or attempt to search. I used to keep a few bills, important contact list, credit card (you can shave off a section to make it fit –
    **Glad you were unharmed during this – often I’ve heard the trolly suddenly stops and most tourists get pounded by all involved – kudos

    • Thanks. That’s actually one of the better ideas and tips I’ve read in a while. Shaving a credit card though … Still, great tip. Thanks for sharing it. Not seen the jumping on tourist thing. I’ve see jumping on each other though. Not good!

  14. Mark H says:

    I’d add Vietnam to your list of places that dislike pickpockets. I caught a pickpocket in Hanoi, Vietnam before he grabbed my map (thought it was a wallet I guess) out of my pocket and grabbed his hand. I made a loud noise and a dozen of so folks dived on this guy and beat him to within an inch of his life. In the end I found myself trying to stop the unmercilious beating but there certainly was a swift move to instant “justice”. Always stay alert.

    • Yep, we’ll add Vietnam. Good to see they take it seriously there too.

      • Raj says:

        Actually, I don’t agree that Vietnam qualifies to be on the list of places that dislike pickpockets. I just got pickpocketed for the first time in my life in the Old Quarters of Hanoi on Lo Su Street by a street vendor who was selling pictures of Hanoi. I was carrying a camera in my jacket pocket pocket and took my hand out to waive him off because I wasn’t interested in the pictures. A few seconds later I realized that my camera was gone and by the time I turned to look for the guy he was gone. This happened in broad daylight in full view of shopkeepers on the street and it wasn’t even very crowded. I asked the shopkeepers and they feigned ignorance or claimed not to understand English. Couple of minutes later one moto guy pointed out which direction the pickpocket had gone but by then he had already disappeared. I think the shopkeepers and hanger-ons on the street were fully aware and complicit in this kind of scam and actually might have provided refuge to the thief because hardly any time passed between him leaving and my turning back to look for him.

        I later went to the police station to lodge a complaint and realized how ill-equipped/disinterested they were. The entire station had a worn look and actually looked like a motorbike parking place. There was one low level constable in the station who finally gave me form to write complaint and then had to get someone from outside to get its translation in Vietnamese. The whole process took more than 1 hour. Suffice to say, I realized any expectation from them was futile.

        I have travelled extensively in SE Asia from Thailand to Malaysia and even Cambodia but never have I come across such blatant petty crime. Thais and Cambodians are actually quite friendly, helpful and trustworthy. Alas, I can’t say the same of Vietnamese after this experience. The only other place where I have seen or heard of rampant tourist scams is China where even cities like Beijing and Shanghai are infested with scamsters operating openly even next door to five star hotels.

  15. Lois says:

    Glad to know you’re okay Dave. That must have been quite an experience! Sad to say, most tourists are prime targets here, especially in major cities like Manila. Is this the first time this has happened to you? Is it as bad as in other countries you’ve traveled? And can you please tell us more about those tell tale signs that they were about to rob you? Thanks much!

    • Yes, I’ve never had another experienced like this in The Philippines. I’ve already list the other countries above. Spain is the worst I have been for pickpockets. Two people walking together and then splitting up when getting on public transport is a good indication that something is not right!

      • Lois says:

        I’ll keep that in mind and all the tips mentioned in the article. I’ve lived in New York for a year and Manila most of my adult life and thankfully I’ve never had bad experiences with pickpockets. It must be because I’m smallish and off their radar ;-)

        Thanks again for speaking up and sharing your experience!

  16. Thanks for all of the advice. I particularly like the fake wallet idea. I’m always worried about pick pockets when I’m in a crowded space. As you said, it makes it alot easier for someone to slip their hand into your pocket without you noticing.
    I’m not as worried at home, but when I travel abroad and am in a new place I tend to get nervous.
    Thanks again for the post

  17. Earl says:

    I’ve had my wallet pickpocketed once in Delhi and after that I just stopped using a wallet. Now I use a money clip and normally keep some folder paper or something else in my other pocket so that it looks more like a wallet.

    And once, when I was visiting a handful of countries where I felt it very necessary to conceal both my wallet and passport, I sliced open the sole of my sandals and shoes and stuffed my money/cards/passport inside. That’s a bit extreme but effective nonetheless!

  18. Tim says:

    Sometimes I wonder if I have special protection from somewhere. I’ve never been hit but stay alert anyway. Funny thing, my Filipina wife is always warning me about this but she was the one that got hit. The thief reached into an open shopping bag she was carrying which also contained her coin-purse. He succeeded in stealing only toothpaste and shaving cream.

    • This was the first time I’ve come across it. But many a time I’ve heard locals talk about it as if it’s a daily event. Which I don’t think it is. That said, considering how much of their lives Filipina’s put into their huge handbags. It’s no wonder they are targeted.

    • AJ says:

      …wonder why someone wouldn’t simply walk around with a shopping bag full of mousetraps or venomous snakes…

  19. Most good tips have already been shared.

    One more is that I wear real tight jeans — to be sexy of course — and I found that they definitely prohibit hands from entering.

    If someone did manage to get their hand into one of the front pockets on these babies, I would not chalk it up to theft, but to me getting lucky haha.

  20. TV Pura Vida says:

    Great post, people need to be aware of how these people operate

  21. Johnny says:

    Nice little article and great advice. A little bit of common sense goes a long way towards staying safe.

    I managed to safely spend a week in St Petersburg where people are very poor and pickpocketing is rife. I was visiting my sister who was studying for her Russian degree out there.

    A long, thick grey jacket from a local market, a Russian bearskin hat and a thick full beard helped me to blend in and look less like a tourist! I disguised my guide book with a hard-back cover I borrowed from one of my sister’s textbooks.

    I carried only enough cash for each day strapped to my chest (under many layers, necessitated by the -15c temperatures!) and I Blu-tacked my credit card to a page near the back of my guide book which I carried quite freely in the open (but only read when I was sure nobody was peering over my shoulder!).

    Despite being sardined on the metro on many an occasion and despite the attentions of a couple of Vodka-laden youths on the train to Peterhoff (who were convinced I was American), I lost nothing on that trip.

    The bottom line is don’t flash your cash and try not to look (too much) like a tourist – if you can avoid it!