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.
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.
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.
My big mistake in The Philippines