How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling

by wheretheroadforks

Pickpocketing is a common crime all over the world. These skilled thieves train for years to perfect their methods. They use sleight of hand, distraction, and misdirection to separate you from your money and belongings. Some work solo and some work in teams. In this guide, I explain how to avoid pickpockets while traveling and how to get your stuff back if you do fall victim.

In my travels, I’ve been pickpocketed twice. Once in a Tanzanian minibus and once after exiting a bar in Tijuana. In both cases, the pickpocket slipped my phone right out of my pocket without me even noticing. Miraculously, in both cases, I was able to get my phone back.

Table of Contents- How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling

This guide focuses mainly on non-violent theft. For info on avoiding violent theft, check out my guide: How to Avoid Getting Robbed While Traveling.

How to Avoid Pickpockets

You can greatly reduce your likelihood of falling victim to a pickpocket by taking a few simple precautions. The general goal here is to make your belonging harder for the pickpocket to get. These guys look for easy targets to rob. If you’re a hard target, chances are they’ll choose somebody else to steal from. Take the following precautions to keep your belongings safe. 

Don’t carry anything you don’t need to be carrying

While out and about sightseeing, carry as few valuables and as little cash as possible. The goal is to cut your losses if you do get pickpocketed.

Lock up anything of value in a locker or safe in your hotel or hostel. You’re much more likely to lose it on the street than at your accommodation. For example, if you’re just going down the street to grab lunch, you don’t need to bring $200 worth of the local currency and your expensive camera. Just bring enough cash for lunch and leave everything else securely locked up.

Don’t store anything important in your back pockets

These are the easiest pockets for pickpockets to access. This is also the most common place for people to store their wallet. Pickpockets know this. They have methods of removing your wallet without even reaching their hand in.. You won’t even feel it.

A man carrying his wallet in his back pocket where a pickpocket can easily access it

Don’t carry your wallet like this guy

Use your side pockets

These pockets are harder for pickpockets to access. They’re usually tighter, making them harder to reach into. Your arms are often in the way as well. You can also more easily see and feel if someone is reaching in. Of course, this isn’t foolproof. Skilled pickpockets can still access your side pockets.

Don’t use a wallet

A wallet wraps up all of your important documents and cash in a nice, easy to steal bundle. It’s convenient for you but it’s also convenient for the pickpocket. Instead, store your things loose in your pockets. This helps in two ways.

  1. You can divide up your belongings- Split your cash between 3 pockets. Chances are, the pickpocket won’t get all of it this way. You can also divide up your cards. If someone steals one, you can still access your money. 
  2. No wallet bulge- If the pickpocket can’t see a wallet in your pocket, they may look for another target.

I’ve stopped carrying a wallet while traveling. I feel more secure without it.

Use a money belt

This is the best alternative to a wallet. A money belt is a hidden pocket that you strap around your waist and store under your clothes. They are large enough to hold your passport, cash, cards, and even your phone. Pickpockets won’t expect you to be wearing one and they are incredibly difficult for them to access due to their location near your crotch.

In order to access your belongings, the thief would basically have to reach down into your pants, unzip the money belt, and reach inside. Alternatively, they could un-clip the strap or cut it. They’d still have to pull the belt out of your pants. It’s not 100% protection from a pickpocket, but it’s close.

I have the Eagle Creek Silk Undercover money belt and have been incredibly happy with it. I’ve used the same one for the past 8 years and it’s still holding up surprisingly well. Read my full review of the money belt here.

Stay Alert

One common tool pickpockets use to commit their crimes is distraction. This is particularly common among pickpockets working in teams. They can use any number of tricks to distract you including:

  • A street performer
  • Someone spilling something
  • Someone faking a fall and asking for your help
  • Two guys start a fake fight to distract a crowd
  • Someone approaches you to try to sell you something or just strike up a conversation

During all of these scenarios, an accomplice pickpockets you while you’re being distracted. They’ll take whatever they can get. All you can do to prevent this is to be aware of what’s going on around you. If you see some type of commotion going on, secure your belongings and steer clear.

I was pickpocketed in Tanzanian minibus when a guy threw his bag down on my feet and started fumbling around with it. While I was watching him, his partner took my phone. Luckily, I was able to get it back.

Wear clothes with secure pockets

Before your trip, consider buying some clothing designed for travel. These garments usually include inside hidden pockets or pockets with zippers which can close securely. While these aren’t foolproof, they do make it much more difficult for a pickpocket to access your belongings.

Never leave your belongings out on the table at a restaurant or bar while eating

This makes things way too easy for pickpockets. They don’t even have to touch you to steal from you. For example, if you set your wallet, phone, or camera out on the table, someone can simply swipe it as they walk by.

Teams often commit this type of crime. One guy approaches you and distracts you by striking up a conversation or trying to sell you something while his friend steals your things and walks away. After the thief leaves the building, the accomplice leaves. At this point, your stuff is long gone.

Computer and phone left sitting on a table unattended

Never leave your valuables sitting around unattended.

To avoid this, always keep your belongings secure in your pockets or a backpack and never sitting out in the open.

Put your hands in your pockets while walking through a crowded area

If you’re physically holding onto your belongings in your pockets, a pickpocket can’t take them from you without using force. Most pickpockets don’t commit violent crimes. 

Secure backpacks and bags from pickpockets

A backpack by itself isn’t secure. While it’s on your back, it’s out of your view accessible to pickpockets. A skilled thief can unzip your backpack, reach in, and take the contents without your noticing. A few tips to lower your risk while carrying a backpack or bag include:

  • Put luggage locks on the zippers- This is particularly important if you plan to carry something valuable like a laptop or camera.
  • Wear the backpack on your front while traveling through crowded or high-risk areas- I know this looks goofy but it does reduce the risk. It’s harder for a pickpocket to get into the bag when you’re carrying it in front because you can see them.
  • Avoid carrying valuables in your backpack- It’s fine to carry your lunch, water, sunblock, and other inexpensive items in your backpack. If someone steals them, you can recover. Don’t carry your phone, wallet, passport, or cash in your backpack if you can avoid it. Instead, use a money belt.
  • Don’t use the far back pocket- This pocket is particularly easy for pickpockets to access without your noticing.
  • Keep your bag physically attached to your body while it’s off your back- I like to put my foot inside of the shoulder strap. I have also tied one of the straps onto my leg. This way, if someone tries to walk off with your bag, you’ll quickly know about it.
  • Consider buying a slash-proof anti-theft bag- These bags are designed to prevent slash theft. That’s when a criminal uses a knife or other sharp objects to cut your bag open so the contents fall out. Alternatively, they can cut the strap and take the whole bag. These bags have a metal mesh sewn in which prevents the criminal from cutting through the bag. I’ve never met anyone who’s had a bag slashed, but it does happen. If you’re interested in one of these bags, check out the Oscaurt Anti-theft Travel Backpack.

Be cautious of anyone who approaches you

While you’re out and about be incredibly suspicious of any stranger who approaches you. Most of the time they are either a scammer, pickpocket, salesman, or some kind of criminal. Generally, no one who approaches you on the street is up to any good, no matter how friendly they seem to be.

This includes women and children. Female pickpockets are common. A woman pickpocketed me in Tijuana. Criminals sometimes train street children to surround a tourist and grab whatever they can. People assume they are harmless and put their guard down. For this reason, it’s best to avoid interacting with groups of children.

When you’re approached by someone on the street, the best thing you can do is to tell them you’re not interested and keep walking. If they persist, just ignore them. They’ll get the message sooner or later and look for another target. 

Use your camera strap

Cameras are one of the most common items for pickpockets to steal. Photography equipment holds its value well and is for them to re-sell. It’s also not really traceable like a phone.

To decrease the likelihood of theft, make sure you attach your camera to your body at all times. Use the strap to hang the camera around your neck. Alternatively, you can wrap the strap around your wrist while taking a photo if you prefer. This way, a thief can’t grab it and run. 

Don’t carry your camera like this

Never set your camera down on a table or bench. When your camera isn’t in use, put it into your backpack and use the above-mentioned tips to keep the bag secure.

Don’t give away the location of your wallet and phone when you see a ‘beware of pickpockets’ sign

‘Beware of Pickpockets’ signs are common in busy, touristy areas. When you see this sign, your natural reaction is to touch your pocket to make sure your stuff is still there. Pickpockets know this. They loiter around the sign watching where people touch. If they see you touch your bulging back pocket, they suddenly have a new target. You told them exactly where your valuables are.

a beware of pickpockets sign

A beware of pickpockets sign in Tallinn, Estonia

When you see a ‘beware of pickpockets’ sign, avoid checking your belongings. Just continue on with whatever it was that you were doing.

Try not to dress too flashy

Pickpockets are more likely to target people who look like they have money. To lower your chances of falling victim to a pickpocket, try to blend in. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or expensive clothing while out sightseeing. Avoid walking around with your big camera hanging around your neck.

Instead, dress down while walking around town. Wear neutral-colored clothing. You want to look like you don’t have anything worth stealing.

Try your best not to look like a tourist

Pickpockets target tourists. Even though you can’t blend in everywhere in the world, you can make yourself appear less like a tourist. You can do this by dressing neutrally and trying not to act lost or confused. Reasons pickpockets target tourists include:

  • Tourists are rich- People who can afford to travel generally have nice things like cameras, phone, computers, etc. They also tend to carry more cash than the average local. Pickpockets know this.
  • Tourists have fewer rights- While this may not be true by law, it’s true in practice. Oftentimes police are less likely to help a tourist than a citizen for a variety of reasons. Criminals know that the police are less likely to get involved if they steal from a tourist.
  • Tourists aren’t there for long- The criminal knows that most tourists only stay for a few days to a week. If they haven’t been caught by then, they never will. They know that you only have a few days to try to get your stuff back before you have to leave.

Don’t travel with anything that you can’t loose

Even if you take every possible precaution, a particularly skilled pickpocket can still separate you from your valuables. Some of these guys are shockingly good at their profession after years of practice. They are like magicians with their sleight of hand abilities.

For this reason, it’s best to leave anything irreplaceable or highly valuable at home. This includes things like jewelry, family heirlooms, items with sentimental value, etc. When I pack for my trips, I just assume that I’ll lose everything that I put in my backpack. If I can’t lose it, I’ll leave it at home. 

Encrypt or strongly secure your phone and laptop

Most criminals aren’t sophisticated enough to unlock a device if it has been properly secured. At least you can get some relief knowing that nobody else can get any use out of the stuff that they stole. Additionally, they can’t use the data to steal your identity or cause you any more problems. 

Have Travel Insurance

With good travel insurance, you can get the money back for your lost belongings if you fell victim to a pickpocket. I use World Nomads for most of my international trips and have had good experiences with them. For more info and a quick free quote, check out my travel insurance page.

For me, travel insurance brings peace of mind as well. If I wasn’t covered, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable taking my expensive laptop and camera traveling with me. Knowing that I can get some money back if I get pickpocketed makes me feel much better.

Where Do Pickpockets Operate?

Even though you can be pickpocketed almost anywhere while traveling, the chances are higher in the following locations:

Tourist Attractions

These places are ideal for pickpockets because they are filled with one of the easiest targets, tourists. Pickpockets frequent tourist attractions for the following reasons:

  • Tourists are often distracted- Maybe they’re looking at the sight they came to see or maybe they’re just overwhelmed by the crowds. Whatever the case, tourist’s minds are often elsewhere. Pickpockets take advantage of this opportunity.
  • Tourists tend to carry more cash and valuables than the average person- For example, most tourists have an expensive camera, a phone, and cash. Maybe they’re even wearing a nice watch. If the pickpocket is successful, they can make a bigger haul when robbing a tourist than a local.
  • Tourist attractions are crowded- When lots of people are packed into a small area, you might not think anything about feeling someone rub up against you or touch you. The pickpocket can grab your wallet and lose themselves in the crowd before you notice anything is missing.

Tourists sightseeing in Venice, one of the worst cities for pickpockets

To understand just how bad pickpocketing can get at certain tourist attractions, check out this article from The Guardian. It explains how the Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, had to close because of an employee strike due to the extreme pickpocketing problem in the museum. At one point, the Eiffel Tower closed for a similar reason.

Public Transportation

Another common place for pickpockets to work is on public buses and trains. These places are often so packed that you’re touching the people standing around you. In these cases, you won’t suspect anything when you feel someone bump into you. A pickpocket can easily snatch your wallet during this time.

The jolt of a train or bus coming to a complete stop offers another perfect opportunity for a pickpocket to snatch something off of you. They can get off at the stop and your belongings are gone forever. Chances are, you won’t notice until it’s too late.

Be extra cautious of pickpockets while riding public transport during peak commuter hours in the morning and evening. The more crowded it is, the more careful you should be.

Public transportation station and triain

Look out for pickpockets while riding public transportation as well as while waiting around the station.

Transport Stations

Bus and train stations are also common places for pickpockets to work for the same reasons. They’re busy and people are on the move. The criminals know that nobody is hanging around there for long. If they make off with somebody’s watch, the victim will be halfway across town before they realize it’s missing.

Subway turnstiles are also a spot to be aware of. A thief can wait around for you to pass through a turnstile and pickpocket you as you pass through. Once you’re through, you can’t go back the other way. They run off and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be extra careful while buying transit tickets as well. While you’re distracted trying to figure out how to work a ticketing kiosk, a pickpocket can lift your phone.

Plazas, Town Squares, and Walking Streets

These areas are popular among tourists and locals alike. Pickpockets choose to work these areas because of the large crowds. This is the kind of place that you may encounter pickpockets working with an accomplice or two. Maybe one guy bumps into you or strikes up a conversation in order to distract you while his friend grabs your wallet.

A walking street in Mexico City

A walking street in Mexico City

Bars and Clubs

The pickpocket’s job becomes much easier when you’re intoxicated. I learned this first hand when I a woman pickpocketed me after I exited a bar in Tijuana. 

Some pickpockets work inside of crowded bars. While you’re dancing or just walking through a bar, you don’t think anything of someone brushing up against you. Because you’re tipsy, you’re even less aware of your surroundings.

Some pickpockets work people leaving the bar or club. They may wait outside for a target who looks particularly intoxicated. Once they choose a victim, they can use any number of tricks to steal your things. They may even follow you for a few blocks until the perfect opportunity arises.

ATMs

The pickpocket may wait around an ATM and watch each person who uses the machine. This way, they can see exactly where you stored your cash. Once they find an easy target, they strike.

Certain Cities and Regions

Even though pickpocketing exists everywhere, it’s not always common. You have to be more careful in some cities than others. Generally, pickpocketing is more common in big cities than in small towns. Europe tends to have a bigger problem with pickpocketing than any other continent. Rome, Paris, and Barcelona are particularly bad for pickpocketing. Personally, I’ve encountered pickpockets in Mexico, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

Before heading out on your trip, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research on your particular destination. Check whether pickpocketing is common and where they work.

Also, check out this list of the worst places in the world for pickpockets from airambulancecard.com to see if your destination is there. 

Paris

Paris, one of the worst cities for pickpockets

Common Methods Pickpockets Use to Steal

While pickpocketing is a simple crime, the methods used can be surprisingly complex. Pickpockets aren’t stupid criminals acting on impulse. They are skilled tradesmen. This is a crime with several centuries of history. Pickpocketing knowledge and skills have been passed on since the middle ages.

A good pickpocket is like a magician. They can use sleight of hand, distraction, and various other tools to make your belongings dispensary. Pickpockets become even more effective when they have a skilled accomplice working with them. This is why many pickpockets work in teams. One guy distracts you while the other makes off with your belongings. Before you know what happened, your stuff is long gone. Here is a list of methods they use to achieve this:

  • Someone ‘accidentally’ bumps into you- This is the most basic pickpocketing tactic. In this case, the thief is acting alone. They simply bump into you and take something during the bump. This works through distraction. To avoid this, the best thing you can do is to make sure all of your belongings are secured.
  • A salesman tries to sell you something- This one usually involves an accomplice. A salesman approaches and begins his sales pitch. While he’s distracting you with his wares, his friend comes up and pickpockets you. This can also happen at a market or shop. The best way to avoid this is to not interact with salespeople who approach you. Just tell them you’re not interested in whatever they’re selling.
  • A friendly fellow approaches- Someone approaches you pretending like they want to make friends. They’ll ask you about your trip, offer to help you find something, or just chat. These guys run a variety of scams. They may hang out with you until you put your guard down then strike. At this point, either they or an accomplice may pickpocket you. I recommend not talking to people you meet on the street. That alone reduces your likelihood of falling victim to a number of crimes including pickpocketing. For more info on scams, check out my guide: 19 Common Travel Scams and How to Avoid Them. 
  • A mob of people suddenly surrounds you- In this case, there may be a group of 4+ people working together. They surround you and overwhelm you while pickpocketing anything they can get their hands on. Because there are so many people, you can’t really tell the difference between someone reaching into your pocket on your left and people bumping into you in all other directions. It’s just too much all at once. They all leave in different directions. You’ll never know who has your stuff. This one is tough to avoid. This is like a mugging but less violent.
  • Child beggars surround you- Sometimes criminals train children as pickpockets. They make great criminals because they are cute, people often feel sorry for them, and people put their guards down while around them. Children can use the mob tactic above to surround a tourist and pickpocket them with their small hands. Sometimes they’ll just approach being loud and full of energy as a distraction. Try to avoid interacting with children while traveling. If the crowd around, just yell at them to back off and they usually will.
  • An attractive woman approaches- This one targets men. A prostitute approaches flirting and offering her services. While she’s trying to sell herself to you, either she or an accomplice pickpockets you. This works through distraction.
  • Street performer distracts you- Often times street performers work together with pickpockets. They do their act to gather a distracted crowd of people while their accomplices pickpocket the distracted individuals in the crowd. In this case, they’ll pick the easiest target out of the group. After the show, the pickpockets share their score with the performer.
  • Someone causes a delay- This usually involves someone blocking an entrance or exit. Maybe someone’s ticket doesn’t work when entering a bus. Maybe someone is fumbling with getting their large luggage through a door. This person is the distractor. While you watching them, their accomplice pickpockets you. This happened to me while I was trying to exit a minibus in Tanzania. A man was fumbling with his bag and blocking the exit while his friend took my phone from my pocket. Luckily, I was able to get it back.
  • Turnstile theft- A pickpocket waits near a turnstile and steals something from you right after you pass through. This gives them time to escape because you’re stuck on the other side where you can’t pass back through. The criminal can be more bold with this crime because they have more time to get away. They can simply grab your bag, camera, or whatever you have and run.
  • Closing metro door theft- Similar to the above. The pickpocket stands on the platform near the door of the metro as it’s closing. Right before the door closes, they grab something of yours. This way, you’re stuck on the train riding to the next stop while they’re making their escape. This also works with city buses.
  • A stranger asks for help- Someone who appears in need approaches you. Maybe they’re asking for directions. Maybe they ask you to help them carry something. They could even fake a fall right in front of you. Most people are naturally eager to lend a hand when they can. Criminals know this. While you’re helping, either they or their accomplice pickpockets you.
  • Fake charity workers or petitioners- This is another distraction tactic. Someone approaches with a clipboard asking you to sign their petition, make a donation, etc. They hand you the clipboard to read over their literature while their accomplice snatches your wallet, bag, camera, or whatever they can get.
  • Bag slashing- This one is very bold. The criminal simply takes a knife or other sharp object and slashes open your bag so the contents fall to the ground. They grab what they can and run away. Skilled criminals can slash pockets as well. Special slash-proof bags exist with metal mesh sewn inside to prevent this crime. This is a pretty rare crime. I’ve never met a traveler who has experienced this. Having said that, it does happen.

As you can see, there are a lot of methods that pickpockets use to separate you from your belongings. Most involve some sort of distraction or an accomplice. These criminals are skilled. It can be very difficult to distinguish which of the above situations are legitimate and which are cons.

The best thing you can do to reduce the likelihood of falling victim to a pickpocket is to take some basic precautions. Don’t carry anything of value if you can avoid it and secure your belongings the best you can. Avoid talking to strangers on the street.

How to Identify Pickpockets

There isn’t really any stereotypical pickpocket that you can look out for. These criminals come from all demographic groups. Children, adults, men, women, and all races can work as pickpockets.

A skilled pickpocket dresses and behaves in a way that they can’t easily be picked out of a crowd. They blend in. That’s part of the con. Having said this, there are a few things to look out for:

  • Pickpockets dress middle class- They don’t wear street clothes because people would avoid them. They don’t dress flashy because they need to stay low profile to commit their crimes. Most pickpockets wear clean, middle-class style clothing. This way, they can blend into a crowd and appear non-threatening.
  • Pickpockets work in groups- This makes detecting them all the more difficult. They could disguise themselves as a family or group of friends when together. If a group appears to be doing something to get your attention, they may be attempting a distraction.
  • Pickpockets often loiter- Sometimes pickpockets wait around a particular area for an easy target to pass by. If you see someone standing around near an ATM, ticketing kiosk, turnstile, entrance, exit, etc. chances are they’re not a pickpocket but it’s best to steer clear just in case.
  • Pickpockets are often women- Even though most pickpockets are men, female pickpockets are also common. They’ll often use their looks to distract men. Most will dress in a revealing manner. Female pickpockets commonly work in bars, restaurants, clubs, or hotels rather than on the street. If a woman approaches you who is obviously out of your league, she’s either attempting some sort of scam or theft or she’s just a prostitute.
  • Pickpockets can be children- Children are often trained as thieves. They are incredibly effective due to their innocence, looks, and ability to pass through crowds without drawing any attention. After all, nobody automatically assumes that a child is a criminal. Just know that if a child approaches you, they’re not just being friendly. Chances are, they’re working.

As you can see, identifying a pickpocket is not easy. By avoiding people you meet on the street and securing your belongings, you can greatly reduce your chances of encountering a pickpocket.

What to do if You Get Pickpocketed

Even if you take every possible precaution, a skilled pickpocket can still get the better of you. If you happen fall victim, there are a few things you can do to reduce your loss and the stress associated with it.

Have Your Documents Backed Up

Before you even leave for your trip, you should be prepared to be pickpocketed. Make sure you have backup copies of all of your important documents including:

  • Passport- Color copies.
  • Visas- If you had to arrange any visas in advance, make copies so you can prove you’re in the country legally if your passport gets stolen.
  • Drivers license- Color copies. This is a good secondary form of ID.
  • Yellow fever vaccine certificate- If required for your destination.
  • Credit and debit cards- Make sure you bock out the numbers. You only need the phone numbers on the back so you can call to cancel the card if someone stole it. Alternatively, you can save the numbers in your contacts list on your phone. Check out my card recommendations here. 

I recommend you make two copies of each of these documents. Store one set in your money belt and one set in a folder in your luggage. That way, if someone steals one set, you still have a backup set.

Additionally, I recommend you scan each of the above-listed documents, put them in a file on your computer and back it up in as many places as possible. Back it up on your phone, laptop, the cloud, your email, and a flash drive. This way, you can always access your documents, even if you lose everything. All you need is internet access.

Call Your Credit Card Company and Bank if Your Cards Were Pickpocketed

Have the bank or card issuing company cancel the credit cards and debit cards that were stolen. You want to do this immediately after you notice that they are missing.

It’s particularly important to cancel your debit cards because they don’t offer the same protections that credit cards have. If a criminal is somehow able to use your debit card, you’re probably not getting that money back. Credit cards offer much better security. You still need to call and cancel them though.

File a Police Report

Unfortunately, the police probably won’t be able to help you get your stuff back. There’s just too much petty theft going on in the world for the police to investigate every pickpocketing crime. There aren’t enough officers to bother searching for every stolen wallet or phone. Having said this, it’s still important that you get a police report for a few reasons:

  1. You’ll need a police report to file a claim with your travel insurance company- They need some sort of proof that your things were stolen.
  2. Making a police report helps future travelers- If the police see that a particular area is becoming a hotbed for pickpockets, they may crack down on that area by having more officers patrolling. They’ll only know this if you file a report. This can potentially help to prevent future travelers from pickpockets as well.
  3. Your stuff may turn up- Maybe you’ll get lucky and the pickpocket gets caught with your belongings. It’s unlikely but possible.

File a Claim with Your Travel Insurance Company

This is the time that you’ll be glad you shelled out for travel insurance. Contact your travel insurance provider and file a claim for your stolen items.

Before you do this, gather as many supporting documents as you can including the police report, receipts for anything that was stolen, and photos. Insurance companies try their hardest to get out of paying out. The more proof you have, the better.

It’s best to file your claim as soon after the crime as possible. You want to get the ball rolling. It may take a couple of months before you actually see any money.

Also, know that the travel insurance company probably won’t payout for any cash that was stolen. That’s something that they don’t cover. The reason is that it’s just impossible to prove that it was stolen.

Wipe the data from electronic devices

If your phone, tablet, or computer was stolen, you may be able to remotely remove all of the data. This way, even if the criminals manage to unlock your device, they can’t steal your identity and take more from you.

Go to Your Country’s Embassy or Consulate if Your Passport was Pickpocketed

You’ll need to get a temporary or replacement passport in order to leave the country and return home. This process varies by country. Some countries issue you a new passport and allow you to continue on with your trip. Some countries just give you a temporary document and require that you go home to get a new passport.

Look for Your Stuff

Pickpockets eventually need to sell the items that they stole. If you keep an eye out, you may be able to find your stuff. Places to look include:

  • Online markets- Check Craigslist, Gumtree, or whatever the local equivalent is.
  • Pawnshops- These guys are supposed to make sure the items they buy aren’t stolen but sometimes things slip by.
  • eBay- Do a search by location in the area you’re traveling.
  • Facebook marketplace- Another place pickpockets may sell stolen goods.
  • Local markets- This is more of a developing country thing. Look for markets near the scene of the crime.

Take Care of Yourself

This can be a stressful time. Particularly your passport and all of your cards were stolen. Dealing with police, insurance companies, banks, and the embassy is challenging due to the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that they have. Make sure you keep eating and sleeping well. Take care of yourself during this stressful time. After a few days, you’ll get beyond this and be ready to continue with your trip.

What to do if you Catch the Pickpocket

Chances are, if you catch a pickpocket, they’re not a very good pickpocket. The best action to take depends on where you’re traveling, the circumstances of the crime, what was stolen, whether you can identify who has your things, etc. Each case is different.

If you catch the thief red-handed with their hand in your pocket trying to steal your belongings, yell ‘pickpocket!’ This is a pretty universal word that most people understand, even if they don’t speak English. You want to identify the criminal to everyone around.

At this point, chances are they run off into the crowd. If you get lucky, they may get caught. At least other people in the surrounding area won’t fall victim.

If the pickpocket already has your stuff, your reaction depends on the circumstances. You need to tread lightly and act rationally if you want to get your things back.

The safest course of action is to not confront the thief and go directly to the police. Just know that if you do this, you probably won’t get your stuff back. They’ll disappear into the crowd and the police can’t do much about it at that point.

If you’re not afraid of a little confrontation and you’re in a crowded area, you can start causing a bit of a scene. Publicly accuse the pickpocket of taking your things and demand that the thief return them. At this point, they’ll either run away or deny everything.

If you’re lucky and they stick around, a passersby may stop and help you out. Maybe someone witnessed the crime. Maybe someone will go get the police and bring them to the area to assist you. You at least have a chance to get your stuff back.

If they run away, they’re basically admitting guilt. I recommend you don’t chase after them. You never know where they’re going. You could easily end up seriously injured or killed if you chase the criminal into the wrong area.

If there’s no one else around and you catch your pickpocket, you need to be careful. You don’t know if they have a weapon. You don’t know if they’re sane. Whatever you do, don’t start a fight. It’s just too dangerous and you’ll always lose. Even if you win the fight, you lose because you’ll probably end up in jail.

One option you have at this point is to negotiate with the thief. Basically, offer to buy back your belongings. I recognize that it’s painful to reward someone for stealing from you. If you want your stuff back, this may be your only option, unfortunately. Of course, you can’t buy back cash. In that case, you’re out of luck.

My Experience With Pickpockets

In my travels, I’ve been pickpocketed twice. On both occasions, the pickpocket took my phone from my pocket. Miraculously, I got the phone back both times. Even more strange is the fact that the same phone was pickpocketed both times as these events happened only about 4 months apart on different sides of the world. I still use the same phone to this day.

Pickpocketed in Tanzania

The first time I was pickpocketed was on a minibus while returning to Arusha, Tanzania after going on a safari in the Serengeti. As I was trying to exit the bus, a man threw a bag down by my feet and started digging through it. As he was doing this, the bag was touching my legs. This was the distraction.

While I tried to move around him, his accomplice evidently reached into my pocket and removed my phone. I didn’t feel a thing. Soon after, he moved out of the way and I got off of the bus.

Looking back, I suspect that the driver had called his pickpocket buddies to notify them that there were some foreigners on his bus. They probably boarded the bus with the intent to rob my friend and I. This particular route would be pretty popular with tourists. I imagine they could make some pretty good money stealing expensive gear from travelers.

To find out how I got my phone back after being pickpocketed in Tanzania, read the whole story here.

Pickpocketed in Tijuana

My second pickpocketing experience happened while I was living in Tijuana. I was on my way home from a bar after a night of drinking. While walking alone about a block from the bar, an old prostitute approached me on the street. She put her hand on my chest to stop me and began attempting to sell me her services. She looked pretty drugged out so all I wanted to do was to get away from her and go home.

I told her no thanks and began walking. Moments later, I realized that my phone wasn’t in my pocket. She had pickpocketed me. Evidently, when she put her hand on my chest, she reached into my pocket without my noticing. Admittedly, this probably wasn’t very difficult because I had been drinking. She probably watched me leave the bar and followed me up the street.

I later found out that women like her run a scam in cooperation with the police. Basically, she pickpockets something then turns the item into the police. When the person who was robbed reports the crime, the police ask for a bribe to help get the item back. The pickpocket then gets a cut.

To find out how I got my phone back after being pickpocketed in Tijuana, read the whole story here.

Final Thoughts: How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling

If you’re unprepared, getting pickpocketed can ruin your entire trip. If a pickpocket manages to steal your passport or a large chunk of cash, you just might have to go home early. At the very least, you face a major hassle and expense to replace everything. Having to replace your belongings because someone took them from you is both infuriating and expensive. Travel insurance is a good backup but never a sure thing. You never know if they’ll actually pay out.

Luckily, there are ways to lower your likelihood of falling victim to a pickpocket. Remember, this is not a violent crime. If you secure your belongings in a way that they are difficult for a potential thief to take, chances are, they’ll target someone else.

Another important thing to remember is to not be too paranoid. Even if you do everything right, you can still get pickpocketed. It doesn’t make sense to worry all the time. You can’t assume that everyone you encounter is a criminal trying to get the better of you. All you can do is be prepared. Fear and paranoia can ruin your trip just as easily as a thief.

Have you fallen victim to a pickpocket while traveling? Share your experience and tips to avoid pickpockets in the comments below! Maybe your story will help a fellow traveler from having the same bad experience.

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4 comments

Karen October 23, 2019 - 9:46 am

I had my small rucksack slashed when I was in the Philippines. I can’t be sure but I think it was when I was in a jeepney.
The annoying thing was I had only bought it two days early and all the thief got was a pen.

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wheretheroadforks October 23, 2019 - 10:06 pm

That’s a shame. At least the thief didn’t get anything valuable. Too bad about the bag though.

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Zack February 7, 2020 - 6:40 pm

Years ago, I was living and working in Hamburg, Germany. I took a trip with a friend, and my girlfriend, to Prague in the Czech Republic. There were signs in the city square and at the bus/train station warning of pickpockets. After reading this article, I realize I may have been targeted by one. I was approached to buy some obviously homemade toy that the guy would throw on the ground and it would bounce back up. But then, suddenly, there was a murmur through the surrounding people, and a number of them ran off without a word. I think the cops were coming.

Later on that same trip, we had to exchange some currency. We were carrying Euros and needed Czech Koruna. As we attempted to enter a currency exchange shop, a guy came up to me and said he would give me a better deal. He said he was a tourist from Turkey, and was getting ready to go home, but had too much local currency left over. I thought it would be a good deal for both of us, so I agreed.

Later, when I pulled the cash out to pay for something, I found out they were Russian Rubles, worth far less than the Koruna I thought I had exchanged for. I probably turned beat red with embarrassment and anger at that moment. I immediately recalled the con mans face and remembered something unique about it, so if I ever ran into him again, I would know it was him. In this case, there were some small moles right next to his left eye.

The next day, my friend split off and went sightseeing by himself. My girlfriend and I walked around the city. I kept an eye out constantly looking for my new nemesis, knowing the chances were slim that I would see him. And then my girlfriend said, “That’s him.” I looked, and sure enough, there he was, running the same scam on the same corner! I said to my girlfriend as we walked closer, “Don’t look at him.” I didn’t want her to tip him off that one of his victims was approaching. Then I said to her, “Wait here.”

I walked up like I was just going to pass by him, then suddenly turned and stared right at him with just a few inches between us. There were those moles next to his left eye that I had remembered. I knew I had found my guy. I told him to give me my money back. As I had figured, he acted like he didn’t speak English. I shoved him. As I did so, I felt a streak of fear run through me. Although he was much shorter than I, he was solid, easily outweighing me. My shove only caused him to take a small step backward. It was too late to back down. I had to stick to my guns. I could tell he was a bit shocked by what the crazy American had done. He reached into his pocket. I looked down at his hand in his pocket and then back to his face with a look that said, “If that’s a weapon you’re going to pull out, I’m gonna make you eat it.” I was pretty much banking on the likelihood that if the cops showed up, they’d take my side, and this guy didn’t want the cops showing up. My girlfriend told me someone else was coming. A quick glance told me the con man’s partner was approaching from the opposite corner of the intersection. He didn’t look too threatening. Just then, my gamble paid off. He said, “Then give me my money back.” I said, “Okay.”

As it turned out, I got all of my money back. He didn’t get all of his back though. As part of the con, a few Koruna were on the outside of the fold he had given me. I had spent those.

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wheretheroadforks February 9, 2020 - 8:59 pm

Great story! I hadn’t heard of that particular scam but I can see how it would be easy to fall for. Lots of currencies look similar. It’s amazing that you got your money back. What are the chances that you’d find the guy and remember what he looked like? You took a bit of a risk by confronting the guy but it paid off.

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