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Since travelers stick out in most places and are obvious targets, protecting your wallet and avoiding pickpockets is very important when you’re on the road. Once Larissa and I were posing with a group of elderly local women on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It was going well until I felt tiny hands groping inside my pocket. Fortunately I wear trousers with hidden zippered pockets and the would-be thieves were foiled. Zippered pockets are just one way to avoid pickpockets. Here are a dozen tips to protect yourself while traveling.
Tips for men to avoid pickpockets:
- Never store your wallet in a back pocket. Never. I don’t care that’s what your father did and your grandfather before him. It’s like wearing a sign on your back that says “Please rob me.” Don’t think that buttoning the pocket protects you either. It’s just too tempting and easy a target.
- Be on high alert after you leave a taxi. If you are being dropped off at a heavily trafficked location like a train station, airport or hotel, there are people who are watching to see which pocket your wallet goes into after you pay the driver.
- Be careful of people who approach with a clipboard in hand asking you to sign a petition for some “good” cause. In Europe these are known as “chuggers,” short for charity muggers. While you are distracted by the clipboard in your chest, they are sliding their hands into your pockets below.
- Be aware of signs that say “Caution: Pickpocket Area” or something similar. Would-be thieves hang out near these signs. Why? When people read them they subconsciously reach for their wallet to make sure it’s secure, while also revealing its location.
- Be careful in “cattle chutes,” that is, any area where you are forced to go slower such as a subway turnstile. Those are prime spots to get you when you are focusing on something else while also slowing down, making yourself an easier target.
- Don’t wear expensive jewelry or watches. Ostentatious shows of wealth indicate to thieves that there’s more cash to be had in your wallet. I wear a cheap Timex watch I purchased over 10 years ago for $18. It tells the time just as well as a Rolex or Bulova. (Added benefit: It doesn’t set off airport metal detectors so that’s one less item to remove.)
- I don’t like inconvenient money belts or cumbersome pouches that are worn around the neck to hide my money. I want my cash secure but reachable. To do this I wear pants that have hidden zippered pockets. Lately I’ve been wearing P-Cubed Pick-Pocket Proof Pants by Clothing Arts. They have so many hidden pockets I’m still finding a few.
Note the tab that buttons over the zippered pocket for extra security. If you prefer for convenience not to use the tab, there’s a button to the side to attach it so it doesn’t cover the pocket.
- Know the thieves’ techniques. On a crowded train or street they’ll bump the intended victim. Typically the tourist will then pat the pocket where their wallet is to make sure it’s still there, while also revealing its exact location. Whenever I get bumped like this I’ll pat down several pockets to ensure my wallet is not missing. Although I end up looking like a hyperkinetic third-base baseball coach giving the hitter signals, I don’t reveal where my wallet is.
- Don’t keep valuables in your backpack, unless perhaps they’re buried under a week’s worth of dirty clothes. The outer pockets of backpacks are so vulnerable that someone can take your money and even leave you some change without you being aware of it.
- Fanny packs (or bum packs for you Brits). Do I really have to say that for so many reasons a fanny pack should not be part of your traveling gear. Not only are they vulnerable, nothing screams “Look at me! I’m a tourist!” like a fanny pack.
- Don’t get pickpocketed electronically. New credit cards with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) can be scanned while still in your pocket. Purchase cheap RFID sleeves to slide your cards into and foil electronic pickpockets.
- Camera bags. A camera bag that obviously looks like a camera bag, particularly one with a Nikon or Canon logo or something similar is a no-no. There are camera bags out there that just look like ordinary shopping bags that don’t tell the world a $1,000 item is lurking inside. They even have padded compartments to protect your equipment and lenses. While you’re at it, change out the logo covered strap that came with the camera for something more inconspicuous. Sometimes just the strap poking out from the bag due to a hastily stowed camera is enough to give away the camera’s presence. Here’s an extensive review of camera bags that won’t make you stand out in a crowd.
Pickpockets are everywhere, particularly where tourists congregate. Earlier this year the Eiffel Tower was temporarily shut down due to problems with pickpocketing gangs. Be aware of your surroundings and follow these tips to come home with your wallet, and pride, intact. Here’s our cautionary tale of mixing it up with pickpockets on the Buenos Aires subway.
These tips for men to avoid pickpockets is obviously geared towards, well, men. Please provide any suggestions from your travels below. Here’s Larissa’s guide for how women can avoid pickpockets.
Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.