How to foil pickpockets

Dandy PickPockets Diving: Scene Near St. James Palace (ill. by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, 1789–1856) (Photo from an illustration by Isaac Robert Cruikshank (1789–1856), in the Lewis Walpole Library)
Dandy PickPockets Diving: Scene Near St. James Palace (ill. by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, 1789–1856)
Dandy PickPockets Diving: Scene Near St. James Palace (ill. by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, 1789–1856), Pickpockets, General (Photo from an illustration by Isaac Robert Cruikshank (1789–1856), in the Lewis Walpole Library)
A moment's distraction, and a pro will rifle through your bag, Pickpockets, General (Photo by Kat Northern Lights Man)
Beware the tiniest of pickpockets!, Pickpockets, General (Photo by Howard)

How to keep your valuables safe from pickpockets while traveling

It's no secret that pickpockets target tourists, especially the American kind. The United States is a rich country, and they know that American tourists carry the best cameras, the most money, and the latest, priciest electronic gadgets.

If your stuff does get stolen, see the "Losing things without losing your mind" page.

Try to avoid that situation and make yourself theft-proof by following this advice (which may sound scary at first, but is really just a list of sensible precautions that quickly become second-nature).

Safety tips to make yourself virtually pickpocket-proof

  • Carry all important documents and cards in a moneybelt. In your wallet, you should have only a day's spending money. Keep the rest of your cash, passport, credit cards, ATM cards, ID, railpasses, plane tickets, and any other crucial items in this flat pouch worn under your clothes. » more
  • Don’t tempt the thieves. Leave all your jewelry at home. Don’t flash your wallet or valuables.
  • Watch out for pickpockets. Be especially careful anywhere that’s crowded: Buses, subways, train stations, street markets, exceedingly popular tourist spots. Also, be especially careful around gypsies, who only hang around tourist sights in order to beg (which is fine) or steal (not fine).
  • Divide your credit cards amongst you. That way, if one person does lose his or her cards, you can rely on the other's. (This technique once saved a Spain trip for my parents.)
  • Make your wallet largely a dummy. Keep in it just a day’s spending money (the equivalent of $40 or $50) plus a few expired library cards and such (so that it looks convincingly real to any muggers). That way, if you get pickpocketed, all you're out is fifty bucks and one wallet (great excuse to go buy a new one at the local leather market). Even so...
  • Carry this wallet either (a) in a front pocket with a rubber band wrapped around it (the rubber band makes it harder to slip the wallet out easily), (b) in a hidden zippered pocket (a common feature in travel specialty clothing), or (c) at worst a buttoned back pocket. Ride buses with one hand stuck nonchalantly in the front pocket, covering your wallet.
  • Don't keep your phone in that easy-to-slip-in slit pocket. I love those. Allows me to access my phone quickly and easily. Same goes, however, for theives. When traveling, keep your smartphone in a securely zippered pocket.
  • A moment's distraction, and a light-fingered pro has plenty of time to rifle through your stuff.
    Wear your daypack on your front. Especially on trains, the Tube, buses, and other crowded places. That way you can keep an eye on your zippers and pockets (also, keeps you from whapping other people with your pack).
  • Sling your purse strap across your chest, not just hanging off one shoulder where it can be easily snatched. If it has a flap, keep the flap and latch side against your body, not facing out where nimble fingers can open it. On the sidewalk, walk against the wall instead of along the curb, and keep your purse on the side of you facing the wall. Beware of Vespa thieves who zip up on their scooters to snatch away purses.
  • Consider a purse (or more manly shoulder bag) with a steel cable hidden in the strap so that slasher thieves can't razor it off and dash away.
  • I often travel in a trench coat (good for warmth, rain, a makeshift blanket, and fitting into European crowds), or in warm weather a modified sports jacket with lots of inner pockets. With all my valuables in my inside coat or pants pockets and the coat wrapped around me, I feel pretty pickpocket-proof. I always button up the coat before stepping on a bus, subway car, or train.
  • When you aren’t using your camera, keep it stowed in your daypack or some other plain bag (a camera bag is like carrying a big sign that says to thieves “Yo! Over here. Steal this camera.”).
  • Strap your luggage to the railing in the overhead bin of a train (and to the bed frame in your hotel room), to keep it safe from snatch-and-run thieves.
  • Lock your daypack (and your luggage). No, those teensy TSA-approved zipper locks are not going to stop a determined thief, but they will keep an opportunistic browser from pawing through your stuff.
  • Keep your wits about you, and be aware of your surroundings, and you'll be fine.

Proud (?) to be an American

Some travelers worry about being pegged as an American when they travel. They think it makes them a target, both for pickpockets and petty thieves as well as terrorists.

To some extent, the nervous nellies are right. Americans carry the best and most expensive stuff to steal, and, frankly, tend to be the most oblivious to the above safety precautions.

There's a bit of resentment out there, rightly or wrongly, regarding America's status as sole superpower and role as head of the global economic empire. There is also some resentment, latent or blatant, about how that power is often wielded broadly and, frankly, frequently obliviously to local sentiments. (I'm not passing judgment here; just noting perceptions.)

I'm not trying to trash-talk my own peeps, just illuminate a point: Many bad guys take these resentments as an excuse (or at least a mitigating factor) for targeting Americans.

Repeat after me...

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

The result? Some Americans learn to fake Canuckness. 

You've seen them. They sew a large Canadian flag to their pack (imitating many actual Canadians, who are quite cross that we Yanks do this), learn the words to "O Canada!," and train themselves to flatten their vowels and end all their sentences with "eh."

The problem with this is that we are now starting to give our honorable (oops, make the "honourable") neighbors to the north a bad rep. ("Wow, these Canadians are just as bad as the Americans...")

But seriously. In truth there are far more people out there who like Americans than who hate them.

The haters just yell more loudly.

A better solution: Prove the haters wrong by being the gosh darn best cultural ambassadors for your country that you can be.

Show them that Americans can, indeed, live up to our stereotype of being open, friendly, eager to learn, outgoing, guileless, warm, and just plain ol' aw-shucks nice—but not to the stereotype that we are arrogant, self-centered, ignorant, uncultured buffoons with a massive (and undeserved) superiority complex.

And if that doesn't work, you can always belt out a verse of "O Canada!"