Pickpocketing has been around since people began carrying concealed valuables. It's found in every country and society.
How can you prevent theft of your valuables on a trip?
If you know how pickpockets operate, you can avoid the vulnerabilities that make you a mark for pickpockets.
How Pickpockets Work
Pickpockets usually work in twos and threes, sometimes more. A primary tool is distraction. One member of the team will distract you by triggering your compassion: by dropping something, seeming to trip on something, even calling for help while swimming at the beach. Or one—perhaps a child—will hold something up to show you. The nature and number of distractions is unlimited. You respond, and another team member steals your wallet or purse while you're distracted.
You think you'll see or feel the thief's hand. You won't!
After the pick, the thief will quickly pass your wallet to another gang member, so even if you can tell who fleeced you, you will find no evidence on him or her. A third member makes discovery of the evidence even more difficult.
In nearly a half-century of travel, I've had my pocket picked only twice (only once successfully). I'm very situationally aware, and forewarned, and still I didn't feel a thing.
You may think you can protect your valuables by being situationally aware, but consider this: the thieves have thought a lot more about this than you, and they know the territory. You don't.
In Marseilles, they knew the bus to the top of the hill would be full of tourists, would be crowded, and would swing back and forth on the curvy road, forcing riders to hold on with both hands. They got my wallet that time.
In Istanbul's upscale Nişantaşı neighborhood, a guy surreptitiously sprayed a mixture of what was probably mustard and ketchup on my trouser leg, then stopped me, pointed it out, and offered to clean it off for me. He led me to a doorway off the crowded sidewalk. That made me suspicious, so I kept my wallet against the wall at first, then bolted out of the doorway. He got nothing. I got a stain on my pants.
How to Protect Yourself from Theft
Follow these rules and the thieves will probably ignore you and look for a softer target:
1. Leave most of your valuables in a safe place, such as your hotel's safe or the safe in your hotel room. Take only what you'll need at the moment, perhaps a minimum of cash and perhaps one credit card. If you won't need other cards, your passport, jewelry, expensive watch (wear a cheap one on the street!), leave it all in the safe. Luckily, I had done this in Marseilles, so they didn't get much.
2. Identify unsafe situations: crowded buses, trams and Metros/subways are the worst. Pickpockets ride them all the time because they know the pickings will be good. Crowded markets, too. In fact, anywhere you're surrounded by a crowd. Sometimes the thieves bring their own crowds, such as gangs of kids trained in the art of distraction and wallet/purse extraction.
Avoid these unsafe situations if possible. If not, alarm bells should go off in your head whenever you're in a crowd of strangers. Beware! Pickpockets know where the crowds are, and become part of them.
If someone approaches you for any reason you don't expect, be suspicious. That woman in Paris holding up a valuable-looking ring, seeming to ask "Is this yours? did you drop it?" She's distracting you! Watch your wallet! If she's not a thief, you'll know soon enough, and you'll still have your wallet.
3. Learn to see pickpockets at work. The actual thief is usually small, thin and wiry, with capably thin wrists, hands and fingers, but other gang members may be well-dressed adults—normal-looking people—or crowds of active children.
Do you see such people near you? If you're waiting at a bus or tram stop, watch for people walking near you, "accidentally" bumping you (to feel what's in a certain pocket). I sometimes hold back and don't board a bus or train right away to see if suspects board before me. If they wait for me to board, then follow me, I know.
If, in a crowded place, someone shouts "Someone stole my wallet!" everyone will automatically put their hand where their valuables are, letting the thieves know exactly where to explore.
4. Carry whatever valuables you have with you underneath your clothes. This is the single most effective thing you can do besides leaving most of your valuables in a safe. A neck or waist pouch is best. A fanny pack is not under your clothes—it can be slashed with a razor blade. Sure, you'll look kinda dorky rummaging for your cash or credit card or smartphone under your clothes when you have to pay for something, but you will still have the money to do so.
If you insist on carrying valuables in a pocket, you must keep your hand on them at all times. What will you do if the bus or tram swerves or brakes hard and you have to take your hand from your valuables to grab a handle for support? Pickpockets know when the bus will swerve. That's the moment—only a few seconds!—when the thieves fleeced me.
—by Tom Brosnahan