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The Pickpocket Threat in Europe


On top of the problems that make flying such a pain, there is the need to be careful about theft also. In Europe, the problem may be increasing based on these accounts. However, there are some steps that can be taken as extra protection.

Photography by authors

We were walking through Frankfurt Airport in mid-April 2013 when we saw a poster for Aeroflot, the Russian airline. We did a double take.

When Aeroflot was huge it had a dreadful safety record but in 1991, when it was broken up into its subsidiary airlines and joined Sky Team, things improved. But the poster suggested travel seemingly would still charm the Great Gatsby characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel — and we thought, sourly, it did not reveal the reality of modern travel.

We were thinking sour thoughts because we had just heard from one of our best friends, Stan, who had been a victim of theft that week in Paris. He and his wife, Anne, had gone to the Louvre but found it closed for the day in the typical French workers’ sudden one-day strike.

For once there was a reason for the strike and an interesting one at that. The Louvre attendants were striking to force Louvre management and the Paris authorities to protect them from the gangs of pickpockets who swarm around inside the Louvre threatening any attendants who challenge them. When Stan and Anne later went up in the Eiffel Tower they were given warnings that the crowded elevator created ideal conditions for pickpockets.

Later, they found this wasn’t exclusive to the Eiffel tower as they were on a crowded Metro train when a group of four or five 20-year-olds boarded and infiltrated their space. A woman separated Stan from his wife by aggressively pushing in between the two, and a man then squeezed in between Stan and the pole he was holding so he had to stretch overhead for a strap. As Stan and Anne exited the train, they had no choice other than push through the group, at which time Stan was tripped. When Stan and Anne got out of the train he found his wallet had been lifted from a zippered jacket pocket.

He had our sympathy because Nancy had lost her wallet to a pickpocket in Brussels railway station the very week before! On their return both Nancy and Stan went to the DMV in San Diego and called their banks.

Pickpocket theft in Europe is a soft, non-violent crime against tourists that, nevertheless, hurts. It can ruin a vacation. It’s a problem significantly on the rise. Friends of ours from New England, Jack and his wife, Barbara, returned from Rome with this story:

They called on an official at the Vatican who used to be their home town priest in Massachusetts. They were invited to go with him next day to a famous flea market. The priest said they were his guests so don’t bring any valuables, they would not need money.

He said, with his street smarts, that “he wouldn’t take a wallet to the flea market. He carried just what bank notes he needed as a flat item in his pocket — and he would unobtrusively graze his wrist against his pocket to feel the crackle of the paper and know he was OK.”

Thus satisfied he led his guests around, but when they stopped for lunch he found the bank notes he brought for the meal had been changed into lower denomination paper money.

The pickpockets were so skilled they could make change to avoid suspicion and delay detection! And they didn’t hesitate to steal from a “man of the cloth,” either.

But a few swallows surely don’t make a summer.

OK, understood. But Gary, a friend with a PhD in psychology and, perhaps, more conscious of the criminal mind, was in Rome a few years ago waiting for his wife to exchange money. As he stood waiting, he straddled his two suitcases to keep them in contact. To his astonishment a hand came between his legs and took hold of the handle of one of his cases. His instinct as an ex-Marine was to strike the guy, but he didn’t want a scene with witnesses saying he started the incident. He contented himself with snarling at the guy who quickly departed.

And Eric was in Amsterdam a few years ago with a group of eight or so travel writers on a press trip with the North American publicist for Rail Europe. As they stood in a circle on the platform of a crowded tram heading to the Rijksmuseum, Eric saw a hand come into the circle at 12 o’clock, fumbling to reach and open one of the women’s handbags. Eric struck the hand violently whereupon a face popped up to register the would-be thief’s irritation. The two made eye contact. The face disappeared. However, a few seconds later the hand came into the circle at 3 o’clock. Eric slapped it again and the culprit finally moved deeper into the tram.

A few days later the group was walking down an alley near the port of Genoa in Italy when they ran into several young men who were ostensibly playing a game of catch with a small ball. One of them in an “attempt to catch the ball” bumped into Eric. When Eric reached the hotel a few minutes later he found two small cameras were missing from a zipped pocket in his backpack, a pocket whose zip was so awkward it was almost impossible to open easily.

That evening at dinner the following past stories emerged — all from experienced travel writers, cautious travelers, who had, nevertheless, suffered pickpocket theft:

• One had her bag lifted in London from below a restaurant’s table that had a convenient hook to hang bags from.

• In Kenya another entered a craft store where a local customer invited her to look up at the special carvings on a top shelf. Almost immediately she noticed her purse was gone.

• Another on a train platform in Florence, Italy was greeted by an attractive, tall Italian who said in broken English, “Welcome to Florence, City of Music and Dance!” He embraced her, whirled her around, bowed and walked away.

Equally quickly a man came up (she presumed a train detective who didn’t want his identity revealed), and whispered in her ear saying, “That man just stole your wallet!” He faded away just as the American’s sister (who lived in Florence) got off the train. She told her sister, who screamed curses in fluent Italian and caught up with the thief. He gave an awkward smile and told the sister he had been joking to give the American a moment of fun. He returned the purse.

• Finally, sheepishly, our host confessed that on a previous press trip where he was carrying cash for paying some of the group’s expenses, he had been cleaned out of all his cash by a pickpocket on their very first day in Paris; it was the equivalent of several thousand U.S. dollars — a sum to last him the whole trip.


From time to time someone gives advice about this problem. Sensible advice includes going to a travel store or getting a Travelsmith or Magellan catalog and buying clothing such as that made by Ex-Officio with hidden and zippered pockets. Nylon pouches that hang round your neck under a blouse or shirt or that are suspended from a waist button inside your pants into which you hide passports and wallets make sense, too.

Avoid behavior that reveals you as a tourist; an open map or guide book betrays you as does walking in the bewildered manner that visitors often show. When you walk along a city sidewalk, don’t get too close to doorways but, also, don’t be so close to the street that a thief on a motor bike or scooter could snatch your bag.

Stay familiar with the way thieves behave in certain locations. In Naples, for example, crowds of children might flock around you as a distraction or a man classically eating a sandwich with mustard may “accidently” squirt a mess on your jacket as he walks past and then “kindly” try to clean the mess up for you.

Use the hotel safe. Limit the number of credit cards you carry. Don’t bring any jewelry on vacation that you would be devastated if it was stolen. Don’t take your Rolex on vacation; a Timex may not hurt so much if it is stolen — and it may even keep better time.

Carry extra padlocks. Consider using a wire to zigzag through the zippers on the back of your backpack or wear the backpack on your chest in areas that might worry you. Wear your handbag strap across your body, not loose on your shoulder; turn it so any pockets are on the inside.

Men might try an elastic band across their wallet; the friction may make slick removal less possible. Don’t carry a wallet in the back pocket. Guard your smart phone. Never leave it lying on your restaurant table. We’ve read that 20% of iPhones are lost or stolen every year. Imagine the worry when you lose all your data.

Have your numbers firmly in your consciousness: the number of luggage items you are carrying. Also a list for when you move around, such as cell phone, camera, camera bag and wallet.

This is a depressing story — that on top of the problems that make flying such a pain now, there is, additionally, the need to be careful about theft. Yet the problem exists, can touch us all and may be increasing.

The danger may come from young drug addicts desperate for a fix and taking risks to get it, from unemployed adults who see no way other than crime in order to survive during this bad economy and in some situations from unauthorized unassimilated immigrants for whom crime has become a way of life.

The secret is to be aware without becoming paranoid.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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