When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, TAKE IT SERIOUSLY.
Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket it would be safe.
During our first week in Barcelona, the first city we visited on our journey throughout the world, Steve was pickpocketed.
How It Happened
It happened on a crowded Metro car on a Friday afternoon. First one woman bumped into him. While she was apologizing another woman bumped him on the other side. As the doors were closing they jumped off the car, taking his passport, forty Euros, and three bank cards with them.
We were shocked, angry, and unsure of what to do. A lady who saw what happened suggested we go back to the stop where it happened and check the garbage bags in case the thieves took the cash and threw everything else away. Fortunately, the bags were clear and not too full so they were easy to check. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any of Steve’s items.
We decided to go to the police station but had no idea where it was so we asked a young man on the street. He pointed us in the right direction but we arrived at the station only to find it was permanently closed. Struggling to maintain our composure, we asked for help at a nearby store. The owner helped Steve find the next closest police station while I stood on the street calling our banks.
We easily found that station and couldn’t believe it when we saw a sign that said, “Temporarily Closed for Renovations”. This was truly an “are you kidding me?” moment. Luckily there were several policemen just leaving a meeting and they directed us to a third station. It was a tense walk down the Ramblas as we wondered if it would be open.
And after a short wait, we were able to make a report with a policeman who spoke English. He said we must go to the U.S. Consulate first thing Monday morning to report the stolen passport. He prepared the police report and asked Steve to sign it. It was all in Spanish, but Steve had no choice but to sign it since he needed it to get a replacement passport.
Statistics on the number of pickpocket incidents are hard to come by. We knew the number in Barcelona was high, but we were shocked when the police officer told us that they process 400 reports a day. Of course, not everyone is going to report a pickpocketing incident, especially if the only thing stolen was cash. They know they will never see that again. Sometimes people don’t even realize they have been pickpocketed. They may think they lost their wallet or phone.
Over the weekend Steve looked up information on the consulate. The website said you must make an appointment online, and the next available appointment was more than two weeks away.
We opted to go there in person on Monday and plead ignorance about the online scheduling. After all, the police officer did tell us to go first thing Monday.
While at the consulate we met several groups of Americans who had either been pickpocketed or had their rental cars burglarized. We bonded over our misfortune. When it was Steve’s turn he was informed that his passport had been found and was waiting at the Metro station lost and found. Good news since a replacement costs $145.
As frustrating and time consuming as this experience was, it could have been worse. The thieves tried to charge $900 worth of shoes, but our credit card company declined it. Luckily I still had one debit card in my name that we could still use while we waited for our replacement cards. And we had enough cash in our apartment to cover us for several days. The fact that we were still going to be in Barcelona for three more weeks was also good. We would be there when our replacement cards arrived and the loss of Steve’s passport didn’t have immediate repercussions. Several of the people we met at the consulate had to change flight and cruise plans because their passports had been stolen.
After this Steve bought a camera bag that he refers to as his purse and his first money belt. We no longer carry all of our bank cards in the same place.
Cities With the Most Pickpockets
Petty crime can happen anywhere. However, there are several cities that continually make the list of the most pickpocketed cities in the world. This list is from an article published by Clever Travel Companions in 2018:
1. Barcelona, Spain
2. Rome, Italy
3. Prague, Czech Republic
4. Madrid, Spain
5. Paris, France
6. Florence, Italy
7. Buenos Aires, Argentina
8. Amsterdam, Netherlands
9. Athens, Greece
10. Hanoi, Vietnam
Common Pickpocketing Scams
Pickpocketing scams are limited only by the thieves’ creativity and acting ability. Here are just a few to be aware of:
1. Being offered something out of the blue. A woman offers another woman a pretty flower as if it were a gift. The second woman takes it and quickly finds out that payment is expected. I saw this happen to one woman. The thief was so bold that she tried to take money from the money holder around the tourist’s neck.
2. Being bumped by a person. Of course, you look their way, giving their partner a chance to pickpocket you. This was the one used on Steve.
3. Being asked to fill out a petition, usually by a young, harmless-looking woman. While your attention is on that, her partner in crime is relieving you of your valuables.
4. Being distracted by a shell game. I have not seen this one on any lists I’ve checked, but I believe it has to be a scam. We watched a man running a shell game near the Eiffel Tower. He would pick a spectator and ask him to watch while he moved three cups around. It ended with the spectator making some easy cash. I am sure that easy cash was a pittance compared to what was lifted from other unsuspecting spectators during the game. When we tried to get a photo of the group many of those gathered around covered their faces.
There are many more scams. This article by The Professional Hobo shares some travelers’ first-hand experiences.
How To Avoid Being Pickpocketed
Protecting your valuables from the grubby hands of pickpockets should start before you leave for your trip. Here are three things you can do ahead of time:
1. Make a copy of your passport. When you are sightseeing there is no reason to carry the original. Keep it locked safely away in your lodgings.
2. Record the information on your bank cards: card number, account number it ties to, and the phone numbers for customer service.
3. Activate text or email alerts for your bank cards and accounts.
Continue your vigilance while you are traveling:
1. Don’t carry all your cash and cards in one place. Consider leaving what you don’t need for the day safely in your lodgings.
2. Use money belts or other devices designed to keep your valuables safe. Pockets of pants are not a good choice whether in front or back. The harder it is for you to get to your money or cards, the harder it will be for thieves.
3. Trust no one! I know this goes against how most of us feel, but particularly when you are in a crowded place, make it obvious that you are protecting your bag or backpack. Honest people should not be offended by this. It is not uncommon to see people wearing their backpacks in front in places that are notorious for pickpocketing like Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.
4. Be skeptical. If someone tries to give you something you didn’t ask for or asks you to answer a survey, walk away. Remember that pickpockets can be any age and may look very respectable. They are also great actors.
5. Get aggressive if necessary. While Steve and I were sitting in a nearly empty metro station in Paris a woman approached me and said something in French. I did not understand and let her know. My actions should have made it obvious that I wanted no further interaction. She got closer and I held up my hand in a stop gesture. She continued to get even closer, so I loudly said “get back”. I got some looks, but she got the message.
What to Do If You Are Pickpocketed
If in spite of your best efforts you do become a victim of a pickpocket there are the things you need to do:
1. Take a deep breath and let that anger out.
2. Check nearby trash cans. Most pickpockets are looking for cash. They may toss everything else.
3. File a police report if your passport or insured items were stolen. This will probably be the hardest part since you may not speak the language or have any idea where the nearest police station is. Stay calm. It will all work out. Be aware that you will be required to sign the police report if you need it to get a new passport or file an insurance claim even if you can’t read what you are signing.
4. Call your bank card providers and have your stolen cards canceled. You still have other cards and cash tucked safely away because you have prepared for this, right?
5. Contact your embassy if your passport was stolen to make arrangements for a replacement. Be aware, these are not cheap. All the more reason not to carry your passport if you don’t need to.
6. Contact someone back home if items with your home address were taken. While most pickpockets just want your cash, some may have bigger plans in mind.
I think one of the reasons we find pickpocketing so frustrating is that the chances of a pickpocket being caught are very small. Don’t let these vile creatures ruin your next trip.
Safe and happy traveling,