A week or so back, I was in Amsterdam and my phone was stolen from my pocket on the street. I'm usually very cautious, wary, etc. when I'm in an area known for pickpockets, but I let me guard down for a few minutes and paid the price.
With that in mind, here are some good general tips to protect yourself from pickpockets.
- Be an informed visitor. You can usually find out if the city you're going to is known for pickpockets with a quick search of the internet. Searching for "pickpockets <city name>" will usually let you know pretty quickly. I already knew Amsterdam was known for pickpockets, since I used to live in The Netherlands. Other cities that are infamous for this are Rome, Barcelona, Prague, Madrid, Paris, and Florence.
- When you go out, only take what you need. Leave your passport, spare credit cards, and other belongings in the hotel safe. I usually only take some cash, and an "emergency" credit card with me and lock the rest away (along with my iPad, computer, camera, etc.)
- Put the things you do take with you in a front pocket or a hidden pocket. It is much harder to get things out of your front pocket without you noticing. Also, if you just have the cards and some cash in your front pocket, it is much less conspicuous.
- Avoid walking into or through crowds. This one can be a challenge sometimes, but avoid crowds where you can - inside a crowd, people can rub up against you easily, and you can't tell what they are doing.
- Try to blend in. Pickpockets are on the lookout for people who look like they are lost, unfamiliar with the area, etc. so avoid looking at maps, wandering around in a confused or disoriented way, or other things that would indicate you are a tourist. This includes trying to dress in a way that is consistent with the locals, if at all possible.
- Don't talk to strangers. If someone approaches you to engage with you, be very wary - they may be trying to distract you so that an accomplice can grab your goodies while you aren't paying attention.
- Consider carrying a "decoy wallet." I have a friend who carries an old wallet in his back pocket with some old hotel room keys (they look kind of like credit cards) and a few $1 bills in it. He keeps this in his back pocket as bait for a pickpocket, and follows the guidelines above. I don't know if it works or not, but it seems like a plausible idea.
- Know what you have, and have a backup if you can. Make sure you have an accurate inventory of what you've taken with you, even if you plan to lock it in your room safe. I have scans of the front and back of my credit cards, my passport, and my drivers license in an encrypted file on cloud storage (I use 1Password for this) so I can get to it from anywhere. This tells me what I've lost, what number to call, and provides me with a "punch list" of the things to cancel or have replaced in the event they get stolen.
Along these lines, also make sure you have information on whatever electronics you're carrying - serial number, make & model, IMEI number if it's a phone, etc. It is also a good idea to permanently mark your gadgets with your name if you're comfortable with doing that.
OK, OK...I knew all of this. So what did I do wrong? In hindsight, I violated rules 3, 5 and 6.
- I violated rule 3 by letting my guard down and putting my phone in my outside jacket pocket for easier access.
- I violated rule 5 by looking at my phone periodically to make sure I was on the right street using Google maps. This probably made me stand out as a tourist.
- I violated rule 6 by talking with someone who was asking me a bunch of questions, and I foolishly engaged with him (he turned out to have a couple of nearby accomplices that I didn't notice at first and who were smooth enough that I didn't think of them til later).
Rule 3 is probably what did me in, though. Had I kept my phone in my right front pocket (as I usually do), I don't think they'd have gotten it without me noticing. As it was, they got my phone, which I noticed about 5 minutes later but they were long gone by then.
By the way, as soon as I got to my hotel I called AT&T and reported the phone stolen and they blacklisted it on their network and disabled my account. I'm sure glad my phone was locked with a password and had a short auto-lock timeout!
I'm also glad it wasn't my passport or anything else essential. That reminds me - if you carry your phone with you, make sure you have copies of all your vital information from the phone, so you can re-provision it when you're done. For iPhones, this means backing up regularly to iCloud or your computer; for Android phones, this means ensuring you're syncing with Google regularly, or using one of the many backup apps available in the Google Play store.
What about you? Any tips to add or pickpocket stories to share?