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The writing on the wall. Photo: Daquella manera

How to avoid being a target, and recognize the common pickpocket techniques.

YOU’RE WALKING DOWN a city street. It’s late, and you just want to get to the subway station and get back to your hostel for the night.

Suddenly, a man bumps against you, reeking of beer. Seeing you’re a tourist, he asks where you’re from and enthusiastically offers a handshake.

He pulls you closer to him during the handshake and, being drunk, stumbles and leans against you in a momentary lapse of balance. He then apologizes and walks away.

Did you see when he reached into your pocket and took your wallet?

In my travels around Europe and Asia, I’ve almost been pick-pocketed, scammed, and was even once, in Beijing, held at knife point.

Did you see when he reached into your pocket and took your wallet?

These incidents were what motivated me to get more familiar with the underground trade. If I was to continue my travels, I was bound to run into more of these people, and my luck would not hold out forever.

I decided to learn the skills of a pick-pocket. Through a friend, I managed to become the student of a magician specializing in prestidigitation (sleight of hand) and pick-pocketing techniques.

The following are my tips to help you better your odds on unfamiliar streets.

For the sake of this article, a “mark” indicates a victim and a “target” indicates an objective, be it a wallet, purse, jewelry or camera.

Your Attire

Avoid creepy alleys / Photo Sir Mildred Pierce

The first thing any pickpocket must master is the ability to determine the location of the target. For ladies, a handbag is the obvious choice, and for men, the inside jacket pocket or back pocket is most common, so try to avoid keeping important things in such places.

The inside jacket pocket, though more difficult to access, bulges easily and is a dead giveaway. Be careful when putting something in the jacket pocket because the weight makes it sway, giving away its location.

Baggy clothes are good for concealing lumps and bumps. Try to keep these in mind when picking your attire for a trip or a night out.

Use a Satchel

Many travelers use backpacks, especially when touring around Europe. But backpacks are super easy to access.

I recommend using a light satchel instead. A satchel is easier to be aware of, because you can position it to the side or in front of you.

Satchels are lightweight and packable; I usually pack one into my backpack and use it as a day-bag while I’m exploring, leaving my big pack in the hotel or in a locker.

Keep a thin card in your pockets

The most common pick is done by lifting the lining of the pocket to bring the target to the hand; this is called “reefing”.

Reefing keeps contact to a minimum and makes a much quicker retreat possible. Putting a semi-rigid card (a name card or a tag does nicely) in the pocket can obstruct the lift, giving you more time to notice the pick before they get away.

Walk with purpose

When traveling, it’s common to slow down and take in all the sights. You’ll want to linger in places and take your time.

While enjoyable, meandering makes you stand out to pickpockets. An easy way to solve this is by walking with purpose. Even if you don’t have a destination in mind, act like you know where you’re going – this makes you a less desirable target.

Be especially careful to walk purposefully when in a popular tourist location.

Shake Hands With Caution

Locals are often hospitable to travelers – sometimes overly so. If a stranger is quick to greet and anxious to get near you, try to keep a hand on your belongings. A theft often starts with a handshake that lasts too long, which allows the thief closer access to you.

Don’t judge by appearances

One of the most common tricks pickpockets use is to wear a uniform to gain trust. In Asian countries especially, pickpockets may dress up as police officers and become real friendly with tourists while an associate makes the lift.

Be mindful of these confrontations. Also scrutinize over-friendly children and seniors because they generate much more trust.


Please take this last piece of advice with a whole pile of salt because I do not want to encourage violence.

Remember that it’s very uncommon for a pickpocket to engage. The are usually unarmed. If you catch a thief in the act, you can choose to confront them directly, or just alert the police as soon as possible.

The example in the beginning of this article was not something I made up. It really happened to me.

I was in London and was heading back to my hostel at night when a man came from behind and greeted me. He acted as if he was drunk and quickly reached for a handshake which I mistakenly accepted.

I was defenseless. If the thieves had pulled weapons, I don’t know what I would have done.

Of course, he did not let go and immediately got up close and physical against my body, pressing his whole chest against mine to hide his arm that reached behind his back and into my pocket.

I was lucky enough to notice the lift with my peripheral vision. I confronted him, but he denied everything, and immediately another man came out of nowhere and walked behind the original thief, who made a pass.

I then confronted the second man, who eventually took my wallet from his back pocket, flung it down on the street and scurried off. They managed to get a few bills, but nothing large was taken.

My London experience was an extremely lucky stroke. I was defenseless. If the thieves had pulled weapons, I don’t know what I would have done.

Your life isn’t worth your wallet.

Have you been the victim of pickpockets on the road? Share your thoughts/stories in the comments!

Travel Safety


About The Author

Oscar Chung

Oscar is the kind of person you'd find out in the middle of nowhere, perhaps a desert or maybe a forest, sitting on a rock and just waiting for the next thing to happen. His passions include traveling, writing, reading, learning, laughing, crying, thinking, and everything else-ing.

  • Jenny

    This is a nice article. Makes me rethink about pockets the next time. Scared crap when one guy tried to fish my cellphone out of my back pocket.

  • sarah

    I just moved to Quito, Ecuador about a week and a half ago and took the trolley to the old town today. Mistakenly i brought my camera in my purse. I felt very secure because i had my hand on my purse the whole time but when more and more people got on a woman got right next to me with a backpack and jacket on the strap of it. I felt funny about it so i kept looking down to make sure my purse was ok but the trolley stopped hard a couple times and i had to take my hand off my purse to steady myself for two secodns but that was all it took and she took my camera and got off before i realized it, and it made it easy for her because she had her backpack over my purse. My advice if you are on a subway, bus, trolley, etc. no matter how rude it seems push someone away from you if you dont feel comfortable or keep your elbows out so they cant get so close to you they are touching no matter how packed it is.

  • eiji

    I think Manila will be safer than Europe!

  • Derek

    I was in a club in Barcelona, and felt someone going for my wallet, which was very small and in my front pocket. The guy was mid twenties and totally normal looking. He did not have any sketch to him at all. I grabbed his wrist, and immediately told my friend to check his pockets. His wallet was gone. I got the attention of club security and explained the situation. Security made the guy turn his pockets out, but he had made the pass, so my friend did not get his wallet back.

    The moral of the story is that you never know where they are going to get at you. A lot of my friends, Catalans and ex-pats alike, had been robbed/pickpocketed, but I had never of someone being hit inside of a club or bar before. My advice is to always keep valuables in the front pocket of your pants, and as often as possible, hook a thumb into that pocket so that your hand covers the entrance. It’s a good compromise between being unprotected, and looking like a skulky weirdo who is playing pocket-pull all the time. I got use to doing it quickly, and now that I’m home find myself standing and walking like that just out of habit all the time.

  • kyle

    I was on a packed bus in Rome and felt someone reach for my front pocket, where my wallet was. I shifted my weight to get away. There was a young girl, about 12, standing in front of me whom I suspected of being the culprit. I looked her straight in the eye and shook my head no. At the next stop the girl and about 10 others about her age got off the bus.

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