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How to Avoid Pickpockets: The Psychology of a Thief

How to Avoid Pickpockets: The Psychology of a Thief

Avoid pickpockets

The Psychology of a Thief

In backpacking, few things are more frustrating than thieves. We try different methods for avoiding them; sometimes those methods are successful and sometimes they aren’t.  In my experience, there is no guarantee to avoiding pickpockets and thieves completely, but it does not mean that you cannot be doing something more.  I believe that there are many more things that backpackers can be doing in order to ensure that they won’t get robbed.  Often,  the reason(s) that people get pick-pocketed or robbed while traveling are not very complex.  Furthermore, I think that in many cases there are things that you can do to avoid pickpockets altogether.

Defining pickpocketing

What is pick-pocketing?  In a nutshell, pick-pocketing is the most prevalent type of petty theft anyone will experience while traveling.  Pickpocketing consists of people robbing you of the things that you carry on your person.  Often times the victim has no knowledge of the crime happening.  It can literally happen before their eyes and they would never know.

Inside the mind of the pick-pocket

In my experience, the best way to avoid something is to know how it thinks.  For example, let’s apply this principle to a Futbol (soccer) match. If you want to win the game, then you have to outsmart and/or outplay your opponent.  Just as the best team may not always win, the most traveled person could get pick-pocketed.  The person who shows up to ‘play’ is the one who will take come the gold so to speak.  It is sad that we have to compare avoiding pickpockets to a competition, but in my mind it is the best way to come out on top.

Therefore, what does a pickpocket think about?  Think about it for a second.  They want what you have, but they don’t want any conflict.  How do they connect the dots?

Pickpockets predominately play off of 4 main things:

  • Senses
  • Emotions
  • Vulnerabilities
  • Play off of distraction

If you can be keen and aware on these 4 aspects you will greatly reduce your chances of being pickpocketing, and maybe even avoid pickpockets altogether.

The 4 Main Ways to Avoid Pickpockets Explained

  1. Senses– At times, pickpockets actually play off of your senses.  This one is more subtle and less common.  This method includes the physical touching, movement, et cetera.  For instance, a thief could be walking towards you and ‘accidentally’ bump into you.  Your senses wouldn’t feel their hand quickly slip into your pocket for your wallet, and you would not likely feel that it is not there until it is too late.
  2. Emotions– Pickpockets like to play off of emotions.  Beggars do the same.  The difference between a pickpocket or thief and a beggar is that one will not take, but only ask.  They use your feelings of guilt, sorrow, and happiness against you by turning it into a distraction (which is #4).  An example of this would be a person holding a child or trying to get you to hold it while they rob you (It’s not this obvious).  The child is an object used to make you feel guilty because it is an innocent bystander.  After all, it is a child.
  3. Vulnerabilities – Vulnerabilities are what differentiate foreigners from locals.  Typically, foreigners are vulnerable in a number of ways.  For example, travelers can get lost easily, which makes them vulnerable to a thief ‘giving them directions’.  Also, someone who was not from the area, would be less likely to know the areas that thieves and pickpockets frequent.  Vulnerability is really a knowledge game.  You can beat them.
  4. Play off of distraction – (A.k.a – Smoke and Mirrors technique) Distractions are probably the most common method that pickpockets use to steal from you.  I have heard countless stories of this happening.  Pickpockets will often implore this technique by creating mass chaos out of something simple, like getting onto a train for instance.  While people are worried about getting on and off of the train, the thieves are worrying about taking everything that they can get their hands on.  Always remember, if something does not seem right, then it probably isn’t, and what you see and hear is not always true (distraction of the mind).

Pickpocket Scenarios: Applying What You Know

Scenario 1: I remember one time when I actually witnessed a pickpocket.  It was one of the more frustrating times in my travels as I couldn’t communicate to the victim what had just happened (Which is just another reason to learn a second language).  My friend and I saw these two guys (I won’t call them men) stalking a women.  She had caught their eye because apparently her wallet was hanging out.  As they got to the red light (waiting to cross), the guys stood very close to her.  As they began moving, a hand slipped up, and the two took a sharp right turn.  My friend and I took off towards the girl and the guys.  As the guys saw us, they ran.  The girl, thought we were the ones following her and we couldn’t communicate otherwise.  We had to accept it.

Scenario 1 Breakdown: Now I would argue that she, felt their presence, which made her nervous.  As she was nervous (emotions), she forgot about things like her wallet (which was vulnerable).  Next, as she began to cross the road she wouldn’t feel slight movements (senses) because she herself was moving.

Scenario 2: A girl once told me about when a time when she went to the ATM (Automated Teller Machine).  While she was getting money out of the machine a guy walked up with a newspaper with which he used to cover up the computer screen.  The guy was pretending to show her something on the newspaper, while he was trying to take her money and card underneath, which she could no longer see.

Scenario 2 Breakdown: The guy was trying to distract her with the newspaper (Playing off of distraction). The girl, being well raised, was probably conflicted with the fact that she had been taught to be respectful and polite to others, so at least part of her felt compelled to appease the guy (emotions).   (She avoided him by the way.)

Scenario 3: A friend of mine was sitting at a European café with his friend.  He left his camera on the table while they were eating.  A guy came up placed his hat over the camera and began to tell them a long and drawn out story about nothing.  The guy was speaking a broken European language and did not make much sense to my friends.  After they finally succeeded in getting him to walk away they realized that the camera was long gone.

Scenario 3 Breakdown: As the guy walked up, he placed his hat over the camera, and immediately began to ramble (playing off of distraction).  This distracted my friends enough so that they had forgotten about the camera altogether and began to become frustrated and irritated (emotions).  The camera had been openly placed on the table, which was vulnerable.

Honestly, I could go on.  Unfortunately, I have heard of more stories like these.  I told you these to help you to understand a few real-life pickpocket situations.  Although I chose to tell stories about guys pickpocketing, don’t think for a second that women and children aren’t perfectly capable of doing so.  In my experience, they can be some of the best (or worst) because you wouldn’t expect it from them, especially the children.  As you may notice in my breakdowns, there are some reoccurring themes.  If you look at these stories by yourself, think about how they could have ended differently.

The moral of this section is to be observant and aware at all times; do not let these 4 things I defeat you, or at least be mindful of their presence and applicability in your traveling.

  • Do not let your emotions cloud your ability to see things as they are.
  • Know that distractions are common practice and thieves use them for a reason.
  • Remember that your senses are there for a reason.  Feel out people and things, and be aware.
  • The largest thing that you can do to avoid pickpockets is eliminate your vulnerabilities.  Get informed, don’t flash valuables, don’t look lost, etc.


Some more helpful travel tips

  • Leave everything that you do not need at home.  Why carry your grandfather’s special medallion (fill in the blank) with you, when it has sentimental value?  Remember if you aren’t carrying something, then people cannot steal it.
  • Don’t carry more cash then you need.  It just isn’t necessary to roam the streets with pockets full of cash if you don’t have to do so. You wouldn’t do it at home, then why do it on the road.
  • Leave all valuables you are not using in a locker.  Most hostels and hotels have some form of safe room to keep valuables.  Use it!
  • Attach your camera to you physically.  I used to keep my digital camera in my pocket with my handle-string tied to my belt. They can’t take what they can’t easily walk with.
  • One trick you may find helpful is to use a safety-pin to keep your zippers closed.  For your bigger bags you can use bag locks, but you can benefit from keeping smaller zippers difficult to open with a safety-pin.  Remember that avoiding pickpockets is really just about making it difficult for them.  If it is, then they will move on.
  • Never fall asleep on a beach or in a park without securing your valuables to you! I would recommend wrapping strings to you or sleeping on them as a pillow or wrapped in your arms.
  • If you think it will help, you can try carrying your backpack in front of you.  That way, you can see everything going on with your backpack.
  • To put things into perspective, someone once told me, “What you foreigners don’t understand is that what’s in your front pocket is yours and your back pocket belongs to the world.”
  • Remember that thieves, specifically pickpockets, want an easy target.  As I mentioned previously, the more inconvenient and difficult you make yourself, the less interested they will be in you as a target.

Always remember that above all, your life and health are the most valuable assets that you carry with you daily.  You should never take a gamble with these with respects to this article.  Should something ever become violent, it just isn’t worth it.  That being said, following this article strictly might not avoid all pickpockets, but I can say from my experience that it would greatly reduce the chances of it happening to you.  Take care and travel safe!


Tell me what you think!

Did this article help give you some good suggestions?  Do you have any pickpocketing tales that you’d like to share? 


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  1. Thanks for the helpful article, great tips!

  2. Tourist in Romania

    Really useful article! Got robbed a couple of times so I find this very interesting
    Tourist in Romania recently posted…Romanian Sour Cherry Brandy (Visinata) – an amazing sweet alcoholic drink of the ancient ancestors that Romanians make at homeMy Profile

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