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Savvy Travelers: Don't Be Outwitted By Pickpockets

Recognize the schemes criminals use, and avoid dangerous situations

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1997


It happened faster than you can say, "Stop thief."

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On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late August, I stopped at a Barclays Bank sidewalk ATM on Piccadilly Street to withdraw 50. I was alone, but the area was suitably upscale, near the Ritz, and other pedestrians were strolling by. What could be safer?

As I tucked the cash in my purse and left the ATM, I noticed a man, thin and slightly unkempt, standing behind me. I gave a reflexive half-smile, clutched my purse a little tighter, and walked to the Green Park underground station a block away.

At the bottom of the steps to the station, I felt someone jostle me. In an instant my purse was unlatched and my wallet gone. I turned and saw the man from the ATM hurrying up the steps. He disappeared in the crowd.

I quickly reported the theft to transit officials inside. They directed me to a nearby police station. As a policeman filled out a crime report, he commented that I was one of 40 or 50 people whose wallets would be stolen in London that day alone.

I also called my husband in Boston to cancel the few credit cards I was carrying. (My driver's license and store charge cards were safely at home.) Although my wallet contained about $100 in American money, my British pounds and traveler's checks were in a zippered compartment in my purse.

For vacationers and business travelers alike, incidents like this can interrupt the most carefully planned trip. But by recognizing the schemes and simple diversions pickpockets use, savvy travelers can avoid potentially dangerous situations.

"When you know how con artists, pickpockets, and bag snatchers operate, it's relatively easy to outsmart them," says Jens Jurgen, editor of Travel Companion Exchange newsletter in Amityville, N.Y. He also publishes a booklet on foiling pickpockets.

Most pickpockets, Mr. Jurgen says, work in teams of two or three. Their typical distractions include dropping something, such as coins, or asking for directions. Other tactics center around bumping into a person or making a scene, such as fighting or faking an accident.

Still others involve forcing someone to squeeze by them in getting on or off a train, bus, or escalator.

ATMs offer another target. Studies show that 95 percent of ATM crimes occur when someone is alone.

"The crooks go where the tourists are, the big famous sites - the Vatican, the Metro station near the Louvre, the Spanish Steps, Piccadilly," he says. "An ATM that is more out of the way may be potentially a little less risky."

Keeping money and credit cards in a neck pouch is better than carrying a wallet in a pocket or purse. But even that isn't theft-proof. Says Jurgen, "Some of the pickpockets are so brazen they come right up to you, grab the pouch, lift it over your head, and it's gone."

Instead, he suggests a money pouch that loops onto a belt and tucks inside pants or a skirt. For passports and credit cards that a traveler doesn't need during the day, an underarm holster worn beneath a shirt or blouse offers even greater security.