Europe is awesome —
but be wary of pickpockets

Scams and pickpocket tricks are all over in Europe

Europe is breathtaking, but it has an unsavory underside: Many of its marquee cities are a pickpocket’s paradise. 

The grandmother holding the infant pushed her way into the tiny elevator in Rome’s main train station with us. Close behind were her two adult daughters, one of whom immediately burst into a torrent of Italian. She appeared to be asking us for directions.

When the elevator stopped one floor up, the family refused to move — the daughter was still gesturing and the rapid-fire stream of Italian continued unabated — and my husband and two sons and I had to push our way out. After we exited the elevator, we found that a zipper on one of our bags had been opened and the contents partially pulled out.

It was our first hour in Rome and we’d been targeted by pickpockets.

Europe is breathtaking, blessed with a lush, natural beauty and a storied history and glamourous culture that inspires even as it humbles. But it has an unsavory underside: Many of its marquee cities are a pickpocket’s paradise. You’ll also find a myriad of scam artists, all doing their ingenious best to trick you into parting with your vacation dollars.

The best way to ensure your once-in-a-lifetime vacation isn’t marred by thieves is to be alert. Yes, be dazzled by the magnificence of Michelangelo’s David in Florence and the marvellous rainbow-hued houses in Italy’s Cinque Terre. But as you’re succumbing to Europe’s charms, watch your purse and keep your hand on your wallet.

Scams and pickpocket tricks are all over in Europe

A friend of mine learned a lesson the hard way when she was approached at Barcelona’s main train station by a young man holding a map and speaking rapidly in Spanish. It was puzzling: Why would a man who spoke fluent Spanish ask a tourist at the train station for directions? My friend soon discovered to her horror that the man had used the map to block her sight lines and, while she was helping him, his partner had made off with the travel bag that contained her family’s cash and passports.

Crowded trains and train stations have always been a favourite hangout for pickpockets. There’s no easier target than an exhausted traveller whose defences are down.

In Rome there’s no busier — and potentially dangerous — station than the Roma Termini. In Paris, two trains in particular are a favourite with pickpockets because they’re loaded with tourists who are loaded: The RER train between Charles de Gaulle Airport and central Paris and the RER train that goes between Paris and Versailles. In London, stay alert on the jam-packed Tube.

At every sight my family visited, we saw signs warning of pickpockets posted prominently. Ironically, many of these signs were in churches. At some attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, recorded warnings played on a loop in elevators and in areas where people waited in line. In London, bobbies on horseback verbally warned the crowds watching the Changing of the Guard to watch their belongings.

There is no question pickpockets are a blight on Europe’s image and law-enforcement officials are taking the problem seriously. In May, Paris police arrested a gang of pickpockets who were each stealing up to 4,000 euros per day from tourists. Officials said the gang members, who had travelled from Romania, had stolen hundreds of thousands of euros from visitors at sights such as the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles over the previous two years.

Just a few days before the arrests, Eiffel Tower staffers had even gone on strike to press for greater protection from the aggressive thieves who intimidated employees and targeted visitors - in particular Asian tourists who frequently carry large amounts of cash.

My family tried to minimize our time standing in lines - and for that matter, dealing with crowds - by visiting popular attractions as early in the day as possible. Lineups and crowds are practically non-existent first thing in the morning, even at popular sights like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Scams and pickpocket tricks are all over in Europe

Before we left home we also prebooked passes where possible that gave us skip-the-line privileges, thus avoiding lineups at the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa among other attractions.

And in Rome, rather than stand in line for about three hours at the Colosseum to buy tickets that gave entry to both the Colosseum and the Forum, we simply walked a short distance over to the Forum where we bought our tickets in under 10 minutes.

But despite the preventive measures you take, where there are crowds and lineups, there will be pickpockets.

At the Louvre the crowd waiting to see the Mona Lisa is some 25-deep, stretching across the width of the room. You’ll probably be in line at least 45 minutes, jammed next to the stranger beside you, before you inch your way to the front. (You can avoid the crowds by going first thing in the morning, as we did on our second visit there.)

At the British Museum in London, where entry is free, there is a constant crush of people trying to get up close and personal with the spectacular Rosetta Stone. At the Palace of Versailles, a seemingly prohibitive €25 entry fee is not a deterrent in the slightest because pickpockets simply hop the fence to get in. Less of a concern - though no less upsetting if you’re the victim - are the scam artists who target tourists.

Scams and pickpocket tricks are all over in Europe

One of the most common scams involves an artisan demonstrating how to make a friendship bracelet, and then fastening it tightly on your wrist. When it proves too difficult to untie, you’re pressured to buy it. Make sure you’re not pickpocketed as you’re arguing with the artisan.

Another scam is known as The Ring: A bystander claims to find a ring just as you’re walking by. They show you “evidence” it’s pure gold, and offer to sell it to you for far less than it’s worth.

Thankfully, my family remained unscathed. Thanks to that initial experience in Rome we were on heightened alert for the rest of our three-week vacation. Our heads were turned by Europe’s grandeur and majesty and, happily, our hearts were the only thing stolen.

Don't be a target: 10 things to know

⇝ Most pickpockets work in groups and they are often adolescents. Be wary of beggars with babies.

⇝ Be aware of these common distraction techniques:
↷ A pickpocket takes a selfie, blocking a passageway and causing a lineup to form — thus creating a perfect “sitting duck” scenario for their partners.
↷ A clumsy person bumps into a tourist or spills ketchup or a drink on him. As the pickpocket is helping his mark to clean up, a partner is stealing his valuables.
↷ A woman asks you to sign a petition for deaf-mute rights (or something similar), then uses the clipboard to block the sight of her partner looting your bag or coat pocket.
↷ A lost “tourist” asks you for directions as you’re at the ATM. It might be legitimate, but it’s probably not; pickpockets are likely trying to steal your wallet or see your PIN.

 Women, carry purses with a zipper and then put your hand over the zipper opening or tie a scarf over it. Men, carry your wallets in your front pocket, and then put your hand in your pocket over the wallet. This is especially crucial on transit.

 Don’t carry any more in your wallet than you are willing to lose. The U.S. Embassy in France suggests carrying only one credit/ATM card, one piece of identification and no more than 40 to 50 euros.

 Wear a money belt under your clothing. Put your valuables there, don’t open it unless necessary and don’t give away its location by feeling it to make sure you still have it.

 Carry a travel backpack that’s designed to foil thieves. Our bag had zippers with concealed clips, panels with a wire mesh woven into them and a slash-proof shoulder strap. It was also small enough to be worn in front when crowds were extra heavy.

 On trains, prevent grab-and-dash attempts by standing well back of the doors.

 When you pass a sign that warns of pickpockets, don’t anxiously pat the pocket where you’ve placed your cash. Pickpockets often stand near these signs, watching to see where people have hidden their valuables.

 Upload your essential information to a password-protected account, especially your passport number, driver’s licence number and credit card numbers. Also mark down the phone numbers to call if any of these items are stolen.

 Upload photos in full resolution daily to an account such as Google Drive, just in case your phone is stolen.


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