5 Easy Ways to Avoid Pickpockets

There is a tale of a school, known as the School of the Seven Bells, perched among the mists in the Andes Mountains outside Bogota, Colombia. This legendary school is believed to teach the skill and stealth of the art of pickpocketing. The final exam at said school requires the initiate to pick clean seven pockets on a mark, without ringing any of the small bells attached to the pockets. The school may be just a myth, but it may also explain why many consider South American pickpockets to be the best in the world.

Pickpocketing is a practised combination of skill, timing, and distraction. Pickpockets use many different methods, sometimes taking the wallet from below on the outside of the pocket, sometimes using tools or slicing the pocket with a razor. Experienced pickpockets can even get into zippered front pockets.

An attractive woman flirting or showing off in her bikini, a friendly local offering directions, an old woman dropping her bags or even a passenger vomiting on a busy train — these are just a few of the creative diversions used while a pickpocket deftly lifts the distracted traveller’s wallet and/or passport.

You may think you would feel it if a pickpocket was stealing your stuff, but the stealthy expertise of the pickpocket along with a clever distraction means you are unlikely to detect the theft. Even if you did notice, the pickpocket will bolt and you don’t know who else might be waiting if you chased him or her.

Watch your Pockets

Some common sense goes a long way in protecting your valuables and preventing yourself from even becoming a mark for pickpockets:

  • Keep your money and passport out of sight and in hard-to-reach places. The best place is a pouch, such as a money belt, in front of you and under your clothes. Do not keep your wallet in your back pocket!
  • Avoid wearing expensive clothing and jewellery, or a fancy camera around your neck, as these signs of affluence will signal you as an easy and profitable mark.
  • Be extra cautious in crowded spaces, on public transportation, and other areas where pickpocketing is more likely to occur.
  • Do not carry more cash than you need and remove unnecessary items and cards from your wallet. If you wish, you can keep a small amount of money in your pocket for small purchases, or to give up if you are mugged.
  • Carry your backpack in front of you, and put your leg through the strap when sitting. Ladies, if you must wear a purse, wear it with the strap across your body. Hold it snug against your body in front of you or tucked under your arm. Keep it closed properly and keep it on your lap when sitting. Never hang your purse on the back of a chair.

Accurate pickpocket statistics are elusive, but it does occur often. It is estimated that every busy summer day in Rome, one hundred tourists will be pickpocketed near the Coliseum, another hundred in and around the Vatican, and another hundred near the Spanish Steps. And these are just the individuals who report the thefts to the local police. Stay alert, wear a money belt, and try not to be distracted!