How to avoid pickpockets in Paris (and Europe generally)

A shady pickpocket in Paris.

I have lived in Paris for almost two years now, and I like to think that I’ve acquired a local’s knowledge of pickpocketing practices here in the City of Light. Even if you’ve lived in big cities in the U.S., the Parisian pickpocket is of a different breed, with different techniques and a different modus operandi. What’s more,  you are also different here. You are a tourist. You speak another language, loudly. The accent that got you an “A” in high school French is barely comprehensible. Not to mention the fact that you are probably wearing a giant backpack, kaki pants, and running sneakers…an ensemble most Parisians wouldn’t be caught dead in. In short, you stick out like a sore thumb. There are some things you can do, however, to avoid been targeted by pickpockets.

  1. Buy the right kind of travel gear. You don’t have to buy the fancy slash-resistant bags, although it can’t hurt. Generally, you will want bags or clothing that zip and have hidden pockets.  I, for instance, wouldn’t be caught dead with a purse without a zipper on the metro.  It makes you a huge target, as it is easy for any seasoned pickpocket to dip his or her hand into your purse without your knowledge. If you are carrying luggage or big backpacks, luggage locks won’t hurt either.
  2. Place your belongings strategically within your luggage. This means you should not be leaving valuable items out on tables in restaurants. Make use of hidden pockets, separate your money and credit cards in the event that you do get robbed, and for goodness sake: keep your valuable items with you in your carry-on luggage to avoid having things stolen in the airport!
  3.  Place your luggage strategically on your person. If you’re wearing a purse or messenger bag, keep it to the front of you, rather than behind you or to your side. If you’re wearing a backpack, move it to the front of your person when you are in a crowded place, such as an elevator or escalator.  Never wear handbags or clutches – make sure the bag had straps and you keep it securely around your shoulder, it is much harder to have it snatched in this position. Keep large suitcases where you can see them, and always hold onto them when in the metro or bus. Lastly, don’t put your purse or bag on the ground or hang it on the back of a chair – keep it in your lap, or, if the bag is too large, put it between your legs in front of you, with the straps wrapped around your leg.
  4. Place yourself strategically in public. In other words, don’t let people get too close to you, if you can help it. Wait for the next metro (there is usually one in the next 2-5 minutes during the daytime), or move elsewhere in the car. Also, try to avoid being too close to the door on the metro – people have been known to snatch bags just as the doors as closing.  One trick I use to avoid crowded situations or unseemly characters is to take the stairs rather than the escalator, as they are inevitably less crowded. If you must take the escalator, place your back toward the railing instead of facing forward. This way you have a clear view of the people behind and in front of you, which is especially important if you are wearing a backpack.
  5. Don’t put valuable things in your outer pockets. No exceptions.
  6. Always zip your bag. Don’t get distracted by a purchase or phone call.
  7. Try not to look like a tourist. In other words, be conspicuous. Don’t wear your camera around your neck. Don’t take out your map or travel guide in public places. Don’t wear expensive shit, buy expensive shit, or start using your expensive shit (laptops, ipods) in public places – if you do, be extra careful. Place your freshly-bought Hermès bag in a reusable shopper, as much as it might pain you.
  8. Be vigilant.  Be mindful of people wearing strange, overly baggy clothes, such as ponchos. Be mindful of people shielding their hands and arms. Look behind you often, to make sure no one is following you. If you think you’re being targeted, stop, and let them pass you. This may sound crazy, but I have done it more than once. And once again, don’t let people get too close to you, if you can help it.
  9.  Know your opponents strategy. Understanding their techniques is half the battle. One common misunderstanding is that pickpockets work alone. This is not the always case. More often than not, they work in pairs or groups. Bearing this in mind, they get to your goods using a variety of methods. Below is a short list based on internet research and personal experience:
    • Standard techniques: involve opening bags, reaching into open bags, or bag or pocket slashing. This is often accomplished by creating a shield for the arms or hands (as with ponchos, a newspaper, or a folded coat)  in order that they might go unseen.
    • Distraction techniques: almost always involve more than one person. Generally, it starts with a “distraction, ” which can be any number of things, including: street games, aggressive begging, spilling something on you, hitting you, hitting on you, bumping into you, or creating some sort of scene, such as a fight or loud argument. While the distraction is happening,  other pickpockets are going through the victim’s bags or clothing, taking his or her valuables.
      Note: The most common distraction technique I’ve seen in Paris is used by single pickpockets and involves placing a piece of paper on a table over a phone or other electronic device, and asking the victim to read it. The pickpocket lifts the phone when he or she lifts the paper, makes his way toward the exist, and starts running as soon as he is out the door. It takes a few seconds for the victim to understand that he or she has been robbed and, by then, the thief has gotten enough of a head start to outrun the victim. Another similar distraction technique, which is apparently popular in Italy, involve pickpockets who prey on tourists in bathroom stalls. Avoid placing your bag on the hooks in bathroom stalls if you don’t want to, quite literally, be caught with your pants down.
    • Compassion techniques: often involve using the people you would least expect to rob you, such as children, handicapped, or the elderly. I once heard a story of a friend who was standing not too far front the Eiffel Tower when an old lady punched him. He looked over, startled, and felt something rustling in his pocket. On his other side, there was a little boy. Luckily, he was smart enough to have kept his valuables elsewhere. Other compassion techniques might involve pretending to have fallen or pretending to be hurt.  There are also a large number of “petitioners” (mainly young girls) with clipboards pretending to be deaf/mute near the Centre Pompidou, Louvre, and Eiffel Tower. Ignore them,  they are not really deaf/mute, and they will ask you for money. I can’t confirm if they work with pickpockets, but I wouldn’t put it past them given their lack of scruples about pretending to be handicapped.
  10. Don’t take hotel safes for granted, especially if it is a seedy establishment. A report by USA Today shows that  entering all zeros can often open a digital safe quite easily.  Other youtube videos provide instructions on how to open safes using paperclips. This may not relate to pickpockets specifically, but it can avoid a nightmare scenario while travelling just about anywhere in Europe.
  11. Lastly, be paranoid. Those backpackers you were drinking with last night in the hostel are not your friends. Lock your things up or bring them with you, even if you are leaving the room for two minutes. If there is not a lockable drawer or closet, or if the lock seems weak, sleep with your arms around your valuables. Place things where people won’t expect it. I wore my passport in a neck wallet, tucked inside my shirt, for the first two weeks I was here (in a hostel) and kept my money in a moleskin notebook, which had a hidden pocket in the back.  This may sound extreme, but I have never been robbed in Paris, or anywhere in Europe for that matter, which is something a lot of my friends can’t say…