Spotlight on Pickpocketing

It is a sad truth that being pick-pocketed is a very real risk for travellers.

It is a statistical fact that the incidence of pick-pocketing increases when people converge in one place.

During the 2012 Olympics, reported incidents of pick-pocketing rose to 1,700 per day in London.  Evaluating the actual number of pickpocket incidents is difficult because many go unreported to authorities.  It is estimated though that there are roughly 600,000 pickpocket incidents each year in the UK and the NYPD has estimated that 3,000 incidents occur each month in New York.  Watch out of you are planning to visit Barcelona – 1 in 4 tourists will be a pickpocket victim.

There are many reasons why professional pickpockets target tourists.

For starters, tourists are outside their normal environment, navigating a different city and often struggling with foreign languages and cultural issues.  Tourists usually have valuable items on their person and are distracted by the sights on offer.  All of these factors play into the hands of pickpockets, smug in the knowledge that by the time a theft is detected, the victim wont know how or when the item/s were lost and will probably have already left the country.

More than 33% of travel insurance claims involve loss or theft of personal property.  Cameras, phones and cash can be replaced but the loss of personal data and potential ID theft are very real concerns for a pickpocket victim.

So, how do you protect yourself from pickpockets?

The answer to this lies in understanding how a pickpocket works, paying attention to your environment and minimising the opportunities for a pickpocket to strike.  Making yourself less appealing and your property harder to access means a pickpocket will usually look for an easier target.

There are many misconceptions about pickpockets.

An experienced pickpocket does not draw attention to themselves and does not look out of place.  They try and fit in with the crowd by looking and behaving exactly like the type of person you would expect to see.  They often spend a lot of time studying their targets and locations to increase the chance of a successful hit and minimise the potential for detection.  They practise their craft and their skills are well honed.  In handling travel insurance claims resulting from pickpocket incidents, it is very rare that a claimant can identify the exact moment or location when they were robbed – this in itself is proof that pickpockets take their business seriously.

Pickpockets do not work to a regular schedule – they mix it up.  Sometimes they strike during the day, other times at night.  They work in crowds where there is usually a degree of jostling and an “accidental” bump is often a component part of the thieving act.  The only safe assumption to make about pickpockets is that they usually strike when people are known to be carrying more valuable items – eg on holiday, at markets, fairs, casinos, tourist attractions or near bank entrances and ATMs.

Often pickpockets employ a “pack” tactic – that is, they work in pairs or groups.  Each member of the party will have a particular task with one being the distractor, another being the actual thief and sometimes a third will act as the “get-away”.  In such scenarios, one of the group will engage the victim in conversation to provide the distraction, the second will execute the theft and then pass the item/s to another person who removes them from the vicinity to avoid the potential of detection.  Once executed, the first person will move away and the victim is none the wiser that they have been fleeced.

So, how do you eliminate the chance of being a victim?

To some extent this depends on your gender.

With a male victim, pickpockets tend to concentrate on back trouser pockets.  The next preference is for jacket pockets (inside and out).  It is rare for a pickpocket to try and access front trouser pockets or pockets which are zippered or buttoned.  Some people have found that wrapping a rubber band around their wallet helpful as the rubber creates friction and a rubbing sensation when moved past the fabric of pocket interiors.

Large sums of money, credit cards and important personal items should never be carried in back trouser pockets or coat pockets – it is just too inviting for a pickpocket.  Also, never ever pat your clothing to check that you have your wallet on your person – doing this just tells a pickpocket where your valuables are!

With a female victim, pickpockets will look for unfastened handbags which are an open invitation to help themselves to your purse.  Ideally, carry your purse in a concealed and buttoned / zippered pocket.  Use a purse which is difficult to open.  A flip-over purse is easy for a pickpocket to open and then remove your cash.  A purse which has a snap clasp or zip is more difficult for a pickpocket to open.  If you are carrying a handbag, shorten the straps and place them diagonally across your body rather than on one shoulder.  This helps to keep your bag in front of you instead of beside or behind you and where you are less likely to detect unauthorised interference.

Regardless of your gender, consider using a money belt and please don’t frequent risky areas alone or at night.  Also, try and avoid crowds or public transport which provides standing room only.  Always only have on your person what you actually need – take advantage of hotel / hostel safes and withdraw smaller amounts of cash from ATMs.  Never under any circumstances record your PIN anywhere near your bank cards and always have a PIN which is hard to guess.  Pickpockets love people who never change the PIN from that issued by the provider (eg 0000) or people who use their birthday date or 1234 as a PIN.  Never count money in public places or show the inside of your purse / wallet.  Ladies should consider leaving expensive jewellery at home.

Be extra vigilant in any public place where there is a commotion – it will often be a smokescreen for a theft incident.  Be extra careful at train and bus stations where you may also be contending with luggage – this is often a situation where you will be distracted and an easy target for a pickpocket.

Whilst no one ever likes to be the victim of theft there are a few things you can do to minimise the pain if you are targeted by a pickpocket.

Before you go:
  1. Back up.  Back up.  Back up.  With so many of us carrying smartphones, we have so much data to lose.  Take copies of your email, photos, music and contacts.  Investigate programs which will let you crash your email and text data if you and your phone part company.
  2. Take a photocopy of all important documents – eg passport, credit cards, airline tickets etc.  Ideally you should make two copies.  Take one copy with you and keep it somewhere secure and apart from the actual documents.  Leave the second copy at home with a trusted friend or relative.  Having copies of your documents will help you to secure replacement documents from banks, governments and also help your travel insurance company to process your claim quickly.
  3. Record serial numbers of your electronic devices and personalise them in any way you can.  Engraving your phone or iPod makes it less attractive to pickpockets    because it is more easily identifiable as stolen property.
  4. Retain copies of purchase receipts and photographs of your property in a safe place.  If you need to make a claim, this will help you prove to your insurance company that you owned the items.
While you are away:
  1. Immediately contact your card providers to let them know when your cards are no longer in your possession.  Some card providers hold you liable for any charges made to your card between the loss and the time you contact them to notify them of the loss.
  2. Get a police report.  This is needed to help support your travel insurance claim
  3. Contact your airlines and local embassy as soon as possible – it can take some time for them to cancel your travel documents and issue replacements.  Embassies can sometimes help with emergency funding if you are in dire straits.
  4. Contact your insurance company to find out what you need to make a claim.  Your insurance company may also be able to help with emergency funding if needed.
  5. Cancel your phone account if your phone is stolen.  There is nothing worse than being stung with an exorbitant bill when you get home for all the calls made and data downloaded with your phone post-theft.

If you exercise caution, remain aware of your belongings and avoid putting yourself in risky situations, you stand a good chance of not becoming a pickpocket statistic.  The overall majority of crimes involving tourists are non violent and avoidable.  Be mindful of the dangers but relax and enjoy your trip.  Limit your exposure to theft rather than your travels.

For more great tips or to discuss your travel insurance needs, please call us on 1300 819 988.

Click here for your Beating a Pickpocket eGuide

Pickpocket banner 1