Pickpockets work in crowded places, and urban buses and commuter trains are always at risk. You don’t have to be in Naples, nor on the Paris or London Underground (but these are risky!). Anywhere, anytime, these people are on the job.
They work overtime, and come into town in droves, when an interesting event is on: a country fair, rural cattle-show, boat-show, theme park or pop-concert…wherever there are crowds, there are people looking for chances and for attractive potential victims.
Remember, pickpockets are not thugs. They don’t mug you. They don’t beat you up or even threaten you. Nine times out of ten, once you discover that your wallet is missing, you’ll have no idea of exactly who did it or when.
Remember, too, that gypsies looking like gypsies are really giving you every chance to be careful, as if they don’t want to win easy! Gypsy children are really very light-fingered – if only they could train as surgeons or midwives, humanity would have so much to gain! I personally experienced one encounter with three small children; the youngest one could not have been more than five. They gathered round me and as soon as they passed. I put my hand to my coat pocket, expecting my wallet to be missing. With relief I felt it was still there. Only after they were long gone did I realize that the little guy had swiped all the banknotes without ever taking the wallet out of my pocket.
On buses and trains, pickpockets dress for the job. They appear decent, middle-aged. They are usually not foreign, or not evidently foreign and go fairly well-dressed but not expensively. The men often wear a shirt and tie and look as if they are going to or coming from work, possibly with a newspaper in their hand or an overcoat over their arm (which helps to hide their hand). The women usually look like respectable housewives out for some shopping. Often they work in couples, but pretend not to be together.
You cannot recognize them. They recognize you.
When Are You at Most Risk of Having Your Wallet or Phone Stolen?
An attractive victim is anyone obviously preoccupied with his or her own business.
- Don’t think for a moment that people cannot be so mean as to steal from a parent or grandparent struggling with one or two young children, and maybe a pushchair. These make ideal victims. The attention is for the children and not for handbags and wallets.
- You are at risk when you are tired, upset or feeling ill. You are visibly vulnerable.You’re not alert.
- Tourists are another favourite target. This includes people moving in any unfamiliar area. On a bus, you are worried about getting off at the correct stop – you might be trying to look at a map or read instructions.
Take extra care in all these situations. If you really are exhausted or struggling, in many towns it’s easy to find a taxi and be ferried safely to your destination for a small fare and no risk.
An attractive victim is anyone carrying valuables carelessly. To avoid attracting attention:
- Don’t get on a crowded bus or the underground at rush hour with anything more interesting than sweaty gym-gear in a backpack carried in your back. It’s just too easy for anyone to tamper with it. If you MUST have your phone, camera or wallet in your backpack, then wear it on your front, resting on your tummy, so that all the pockets are right under your nose, and if you have a free arm, hold it round the backpack.
- Don’t carry all your money in a wallet in the back pocket of your trousers. It’s visible to anyone standing or walking behind you and they have plenty of time to study their moment. You might keep a SMALL amount of cash to use during the day’s trip as well as the bus tickets in an old wallet in your back pocket, hiding the big money, the credit cards, your personal documents and so on in an internal zipped jacket pocket, or in a safe compartment of a handbag.
- Ladies, never even consider buying a handbag (purse, for the Americans) unless it zips shut, and has another zipped compartment inside. And keep it zipped shut. Make sure you can zip it shut with one hand, since urban transport at rush hour usually involves standing up and using one hand to hold on while other passengers jostle you. Italian ladies will often tell you “Signora, ha la borsa aperta…” (Madame, your handbag is open) if they see you with an open bag. So well do they know the risk.
- Hold the closed handbag tightly under your arm or in front of you, all the time. It’s so much easier to push a shoulder bag round behind you, so much more comfortable, for you and for the pickpocket.
Before Going Out, Take Preventive Action
No-one need think, “It’ll never happen to me”. If you go to crowded events and use urban public transport, it can happen, sooner or later. It’s always unpleasant, but not too traumatic if you have taken reasonable precautions. For example:
- Don’t carry everything in one wallet. If someone takes your money, your bank and credit cards, your passport and/or ID card, your driving license, all at once, you are practically left standing in your underwear. If they also got your car documents and keys, and mobile phone with all your numbers in it, including maybe your PIN codes for the cards, all unprotected by a PIN on the phone…give yourself a kick to start with.
- Keep a photocopy of all your important documents, including the SIM and IMEI numbers for your phone. Whatever happens, at least you’ll be able to make a proper police report.
- Protect everything possible with PIN numbers and unless you have real problems, memorize them. At least, don’t carry the PIN numbers round with you.
- Try to separate items – part of the money in your wallet, some in your jacket pocket, some in the zipped compartment of your handbag. Keep one bank or credit card where you can get it and use it easily, but still safe. If you have two or more, don’t keep them all in the same place, and check regularly that you have them all.
- If you are travelling, make use of the hotel safe. Inquire what kind of identification you are expected to carry around with you. Some nations expect you to have valid photo id all the time.
- Since keys are another theivable item, basic security suggests that you do NOT tag your car keys with the car number. In fact if you have a BMW try using a PEUGEOT keyring tag.
- Your house keys should NOT have the name and address tagged on.
And If the Worst Comes to the Worst?
- The first thing is to block all your cards. Phone and credit card companies will accept to block the cards before you make a police report, on the basis of a phone call. Of course you have no phone and no numbers, so you are in a panic. But you will find someone who will help you with this, and your credit card company or bank can probably arrange to get you some cash.
- Never omit making a police report, unless the theft was “only” money. You won’t be able to get duplicates of your documents, and no insurance company will pay anything without a police report. Bear in mind that your passport could later be found on a crime scene. You NEED the police report.
- If your keys have been stolen together with documents showing your address, and you are in your home town, this is serious. Phone your neighbours and ask them to keep watch until you arrive, then decide whether to go first to the police or first to a locksmith. If you live alone, make sure that a spare copy of your house keys is always in a safe place (neighbours, bank safe-box, locked desk at your place of work, best friend). But change the locks anyway, even though it’s an expense and a nuisance.
- One way to keep all your information available when you travel is to put it on e-mail to yourself and send it to a mailbox that you can access from any computer ( @hotmail, yahoo, gmail and the like).
After you have gone to all this trouble, hopefully you will never be victim of a pickpocket!