It happened faster than you can say, "Stop thief."
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.
Jurgen also likes a belt with a small zipper inside. "You can fold a $100 bill three times and put it inside, along with a passport number and credit-card numbers," he says.
If a wallet does get stolen, Jurgen recommends canceling ATM cards even before going to the police. "An ATM card is a little more dangerous than a credit card," he says. "With a credit card, they don't have your money yet - you can always dispute a fraudulent charge."
But if thieves know an ATM pin number, they can withdraw the cardholder's daily limit.
In letters from readers of his newsletter, Jurgen receives more complaints about crimes in Spain than any other country. He also gets "a good number" of letters about incidents in Paris. He describes South America as "well-known" for its skilled pickpockets.
Most tourist boards, he says, don't want to spoil their country's image by talking about crime.
But in a refreshing display of honesty that he hopes will spread, the Guatemala tourist promotion in Miami gives travelers a pamphlet with detailed warnings about crime in that country.
Will my experience deter me from traveling? Of course not. Will it make me more alert next time, whether I'm alone or with my family? Of course.
In this case, there was a semi-happy ending. A business executive in London found my wallet in a taxi. The money was gone, but everything else was intact. He mailed it back, and it arrived home before I did.
The wallet, well-worn even before this misadventure, is due to be replaced. But its traveling days aren't over. Filled with a few dollars and several canceled credit cards, as Jurgen suggests, it can serve as a decoy in my purse on another trip. My money and valuables will be tucked elsewhere, safely out of reach of even the most feather-fingered passerby.
Safety Tips on the Road
* Before leaving home, photocopy your passport, credit cards, and driver's license. Leave one copy at home and pack a second copy in your suitcase.
* Travel as light as possible. Don't take a heavy suitcase you can't carry or roll yourself.
* Leave expensive jewelry at home.
* Keep luggage, laptops, and other possessions in sight at all times - at airports and train stations, in rest rooms, on airport shuttle buses, and in hotel lobbies.
* Don't let anyone help you, particularly a stranger who volunteers assistance at an airport or a railroad station.
* If you wear a backpack, don't carry valuables in the outside pocket. Thieves can slash it and grab the contents. Instead, roll valuables in underwear or other clothing and keep them in the middle of the backpack.
* Leave your passport, airline tickets, and valuables in the hotel safe. There is no charge for this service.
* Walk around tourist areas carrying only a minimum of funds and one credit card.
* Know how to cancel ATM cards immediately.
* If you're traveling alone, keep emergency funds in several different places, including a small amount of money in your suitcase at the hotel.
* The 24-page "Pickpocket Report" is published by Travel Companion Exchange, Box 833, Amityville, NY 11701. $3.95 per copy, two for $6.