Nothing went right for my parents’ trip to Berlin. Their flight was a disaster, the weather didn’t cooperate, and nothing was logistically easy.
And then to cap it all off, my dad was pickpocketed on a Berlin tram.
Here’s the good news: he didn’t lose too much. Some cash, a credit card, and a driver’s license that I’m sure will be a pain the butt to replace because nothing associated with the DMV is easy. But their trip will go on as planned, and they’re thankful to be in Wroclaw, Poland now.
Outsmarting Pickpockets: Before Your Trip
Know Their Game
Pickpockets often create an opening through a scam, so take five minutes before your trip to google the most likely distractions. Know the warning signs on how to avoid pickpockets and be extra careful in places known for pickpocketing.
Areas with high traffic (like public transport or busy squares) and places where tourists are distracted (like getting that iconic photo of a city monument) are hotspots for thieves. If you can’t keep your guard up all the time, be vigilant in high-risk areas.
Leave Everything at Home
Plan for the worst and hope for the best. No one assumes they’ll be pickpocketed, but prep yourself as if you will be. Empty your wallet of all membership cards and non-essential items ahead of time. If you know there’s a credit card you won’t use abroad because it has high foreign transaction fees, don’t even bring it.
Prep Yourself With Copies
Replacements are easier when you have photo copies of passports or credit card account numbers ready to reference. I’d recommend not carrying them with you. Instead, have scanned files ready to access via secure cloud storage (or emailed from family at home) and always, always access this information securely via VPN.
Another necessary travel tip: What is a VPN and why do you need one? (opens in new window)
VPNs are useful for more than just recovering information if you’re pickpocketed. Keep your personal information safe online by encrypting your data.
How to Avoid Pickpockets: During Your Trip
Always Stay Aware
While violent crime is pretty rare in major European cities, pickpocketing is a serious issue. These guys (and girls) are good — in this case, they got through a pocket that was both buttoned and velcroed in just a few seconds without my dad noticing. Will the old trick of putting a rubberband around the wallet so you feel it make a difference? Maybe, maybe not.
The main thing you can do to avoid pickpockets is to stay vigilant. I personally fail at this a lot. How are you supposed to constantly keep your guard up while looking around at the surroundings, taking photos, posting to Facebook, googling directions or translations, or pulling out a map? Tag team with a travel companion if you can.
Don’t Be a Target
On a lot of trips, you will stand out no matter how hard you try to dress like a local. However, you can tone things down and try not to be too flashy. Rapid Travel Chai has one of the best tips I’ve ever read: carrying things in a regular old shopping bag rather than a purse or backpack. Carrying a camera bag around is like advertising “steal from me!”.
When you need something more than a plastic shopping bag, at least be smart about it. Keep wallets in front pockets, use purses that zipper shut, and keep things like smartphones tucked away instead of in plain sight on outdoor cafe tables.
Divide Payment Methods Intelligently
If you’ve got an ATM card, two credit cards, and cash…separate them out and don’t keep everything in one place. Can you leave your passport at the hotel? Can you keep some cash in a pocket for easy access and the rest tucked away somewhere safe? If you’re traveling with another person, can the two of you strategize so that you’re each carrying as little as possible?
What To Do If You’re Pickpocketed
Cancel All Cards, Immediately
It’s time to call each credit card company and let them know your card was stolen and the account compromised. If you don’t have a cell phone with reasonable international rates (hint: try T-Mobile or Project Fi), use Wi-Fi based services like WhatsApp, Skype, or Google Voice.
Learn More: You can make cheap — or even free — phone calls while traveling by placing a call over Wi-Fi instead of cell service, but you might need to set up and verify accounts ahead of time. Plan in advance and practice how to make an international call.
Particularly if your passport was lifted, I’d also recommend taking steps to protect yourself from identity fraud.
File a Police Report
Filing a police report probably won’t help you retrieve your stuff, but it’s still important. If you want to make a travel insurance claim on missing cameras, phones, or other valuables, you’ll need that paper trail to get reimbursed.
I’ve had to file two travel insurance claims in the past year — though neither for stolen items — and I can definitely vouch that you need every bit of paperwork in the world to have a claim approved in full. Save everything you get, whether police reports, receipts, or otherwise.
Travel Insurance Saved Me About $1000 This Year
Travel insurance can protect you on anything from medical issues to flight cancellations to stolen gear. It’s not a fun thing to buy, but it takes the sting out of unexpected travel costs.
It sucks to be pickpocketed, but material items can be replaced. After you’ve allowed yourself that initial moment of frustration, work toward improving your trip instead of letting one incident ruin the whole thing. My parents did a great job of allowing themselves to still enjoy the remainder of their trip. After all, you’re still in a wonderful destination with lots to appreciate.
The problem with pickpocket-proof gear is that it lulls you into a false sense of security. Gear alone will not solve your problems, but it provides one extra layer of protection on top of your own vigilance and smart preparation.
There are so many options for travel gear that it’s hard to narrow down. I personally think money belts are the most uncomfortable thing in the world, so it’s not a solution for me. Slash-proof backpacks and purses can be heavy to carry, especially if you have a lot of walking planned.
I personally choose to wear my protection: anti-theft underwear hides passports while sleeping on overnight buses. I’ve got a sports bra with a pocket that makes my cell phone easy to access and my newest purchase (not yet tested) is a pair of yoga pants with hidden pockets (save $15 off $75 with my link).
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Learn More About Tourist Scams
(infographic by Just the Flight, shared with permission)
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I know you have your own tips!
Have you ever been pickpocketed? What do you do to avoid the situation?