Some people aren’t paranoid about getting their stuff stolen. I am not one of those people. Sure, it doesn’t happen to everyone, but pick-pocketing is a real thing. Sometimes, it’s a crazy thing.
Take Florence for example. Now Italy in general is infamous for pickpockets. Not the violent or scary kind, just the rob-you-blind-before-you-even-realize-you-were-robbed kind.
Anyway, the last time I was there I met a girl who was studying abroad there. She had been pick-pocketed once in the three months she had lived there, and everyone in her program had been pick-pocketed at least once—great odds. But, the story she told me stuck with me for a long time.
It didn’t happen to her, and maybe it was an urban legend, but she swore it was true.
These women would beg for money in one of the town squares. (That part is completely viable since there are people begging for money everywhere.) And some of the women have their babies or children with them. Real babies. As you walk by or approach, the woman will throw her baby at you.
Like a football.
When you catch it, she or her children will pickpocket you, then she’ll quickly grab the baby and run.
I had so many questions after I heard this story, like, “what if you don’t catch the baby?”
Answer: she will grab the baby before it hits the ground.
Question: What if you don’t let the baby go?
Answer: People are too shocked to cling to the baby.
I’m sure I had more questions, but these were the two I was most concerned about. And then my brain wrapped back around to baby-throwing.
The second craziest story I’ve heard about pick-pocketing happened to my friend in Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar is notorious for pick-pocketing as well. In this case, my friend was actually Mongolian—not some dumb tourist; she was used to the UB culture. As with most Mongolian women, you clutch your purse with both hands as you walk, and don’t show your fancy smart phone in public. (One girl I knew had someone snatch her iphone out of her hands while she was riding the bus)
So this young woman knew what to expect.
Well, one day, she was walking home and realized that someone was touching her bag. She quickly turned around and shouted at the man. He looked at her blankly and said,
“I robbed you five minutes ago. F***ing idiot.”
And walked away. Turns out he had used a knife to cut through the bottom of her purse and had already taken most of her things (a pretty common practice by Mongolian thieves).
Other examples of being robbed all the time: My friend from Ecuador carries a fake crappy cellphone to give away every time he gets mugged (which is often). In my friend’s town in South Africa, people throw crap on your windshield so they can car jack you when you stop (nobody drives with the windows down).
Let’s take a look at the big picture and the facts. Nobody is immune to getting robbed. Some places are much (much much much) safer than others. Every city has different expectations when you do get robbed. And, the last fact, you can make yourself less of a target.
Use the pouch.
Yeah, maybe it’s lame, but I use the travel pouch. I keep it under my clothes and I only keep a bit of money in my actual pockets. Yes, I do keep my passport with me all the time (though in recent years I have locked it in hotel safes or lockers if I thought the place was safe enough).
I’ve known too many people whose things were ransacked at their hotels or in their vans.
And though the pouch may sometimes be sweaty, it’s a great alternative to having to replace all of your I.D. and credit cards. The only really hard part, is going to the beach with it. But beach trips in general are very vulnerable times for your possessions. If you’re traveling with friends, you can alternate who stays and watches your things. If you’re traveling by yourself, well… yeah.
Don’t broadcast your tourist-ness.
I have met quite a few couples who I instantly knew were tourists. Usually, they’re American, and are wearing clothing that is completely different from the local style (short shorts and visors). The other give away is fanny packs and backpacks. I mean, for real, if you’re 50, wearing gold chains, a visor, sunglasses a pastel shirt, short shorts, sandals and a camera bag/ hiking backpack, you’re practically begging to be robbed. Try to fit in a little with the locals.
It’s a pretty nice souvenir to come away with the few clothing items or outfits that are stylishly local.
However, I get that you need the camera bag sometimes. I get that a lot of people think their photos are better when they’re taken with a thousand dollar camera. Fine. Take it when you go to touristy places. Unless you’re a professional photographer, you don’t need a giant SLR camera to walk around-- a point and shoot or your camera phone will do you just as much good. If you do insist on taking your fancy camera, get a bag that doesn’t look so ridiculously high-tech.
To be extra safe, you can cover the brand name with electrical tape. Thieves sometimes don’t bother with non-name brands (picky eh?).
Hide some money from yourself
I do this because I tend to really forget where I’ve hidden the money. In general, I keep a stash in the bottom of my suitcase or in a random pocket in a bag that I don’t plan on taking out of the hotel. I separate my money into different areas so that if I do get robbed it’s much less likely to be everything I have. A little spare change goes a long way when you got nothin’.
Also, don’t flaunt your money. Organize your cash with the big bills inside and the small bills outside. That way when you pull out your money to pay for something, you don’t look like richy rich.
Be aware when watching cool things.
So you're focused on the sexy fire-breathing men putting on a show in front of you. Who wouldn't be?
Unfortunately, street shows, performances, and really interesting things in general are the most likely place you'll get pick-pocketed. When you're attention is somewhere else, it's easy not to realize someone is stealing from you or even that you've dropped something. That's why I like things like the pouch, so I don't have to worry about having something taken (I usually tuck it into the front of my pants...probably know if I'm getting pick-pocketed there).
In those situations, just being more aware of your surroundings and where your belongings are is key. For instance, when you're holding up your camera to take pictures, remember that you're leaving all of your pockets vulnerable. And if I didn't mention it before, never put your valuables in the most outside pocket of your backpack.
Basically, getting stolen from sucks, but it happens. It seems like the more interesting the place is, the more likely you are to get robbed. Just be safe, and try to make things easier for yourself by: trying to blend in, keeping your passport in a safe place, and not flaunting your wealth or nice things.
In the end though, those things aren’t worth your life, so if you’re getting mugged at gunpoint give them your things. You can always get more things.