Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pickpockets in Spain

Thick as Thieves
(Update #3 August 2013 - Roadboy's off to Barcelona, Madrid, Venice, Vienna & Berlin)  
(Update #2 August 2012 - Again Enjoying Spain and Portugal)
(Update #1 February 2011 - After a Visit to Paris)

Before leaving for Barcelona in 2010 I was surprised how many friends alerted me to the pickpocket problem in Spain. I took their comments seriously and did a bit of research.

Overall, during our time in Spain I felt very safe. Cabbies give perfect change (one even returned the next day to return important travel documents I left on the back seat). Despite massive economic problems I saw a nation filled with people that work hard, produce exceptionally well designed and consistently high quality goods and are justifiably passionate in their love for their beautiful country.

But "petty" crime is a problem in Spain's main tourist destinations. Despite the presence of (seemingly ineffective) police officers everywhere, the problem remains. Jaded Spaniards grit their teeth and roll their eyes.

Unprepared or careless tourists? They are lambs awaiting slaughter.

During our ten days spent touring, despite preparation, we experienced four pickpocket attempts. Three in Barcelona and one in Madrid. In Granada we had no problems.

Since we knew what to look for we safely thwarted each attempt. But we now realize how slick and gutsy these crooks can be.

Roadboy's Tips:

1. If Arriving By Train
Be watchful especially outside train stations (most of the stations were well patrolled inside.) Once in a train, pickpockets focus on tourists dragging luggage. They know you are disoriented and distracted.

When we returned to Madrid from Granada we arrived by rail into Madrid's bustling Attoche Station. We then connected to the Metro subway. However, as we rolled our luggage onto the Metro, we were immediately targeted. The pickpocket stood awkwardly close to my traveling companion. He was local and well dressed. He carefully placed his coat across his arm concealing his hands. When my travel companion realized something was up he had already unflapped and unzipped her handbag. When she reached down to grab his wrist she realized his hand was already fishing around in her purse.

She prevented any theft, but he had timed his grab to coincide perfectly with the door of the subway opening and like vapor out he went.

2. If Arriving from the Airport
Spain Update (2012)
In Barcelona the safest option from the airport is always a cab. But in Barcelona (unless you have a large party) I find cab fare from the airport absurdly expensive.

Personally, I take the inexpensive and convenient Airbus from the Airport. It stops at Plaza España or Plaza Catalunya. In Years past thieves used to wait and hit tourists as they waited for luggage to be off-loaded from beneath the bus. Hence, I used to advise against taking the airbus. The new Airbuses, however, have spacious luggage racks on the bus and you get off the bus with luggage securely in hand. So, I now highly recommend the Airbus.

And, once you've taken the Airbus into the heart of the city you can secure a cab for the short (and now inexpensive) ride direct to your hotel.

In the past I highly recommended the Renfe Train (Spanish National Rail) from the airport. But the train ticketing process and airport train station location is so confusing to a first time visitor I no longer recommend it - take the Airbus.

In Madrid there is a Metro stop right at the airport. However, make sure everything is secure as rolling your luggage makes you an immediate target. I put my manbag, wallet, money and passports in my luggage and then lock the luggage before boarding the Metro.

3. Mass Transit
Buy multi-day passes to scan at each station. This allows you to keep your wallet in your pocket.

4. Which Pocket?
If you put a wallet in your slacks, it should always go only in your front pocket. Never put a wallet in your back pocket. And, resist the unconscious urge to tap your wallet as you walk. Most men unconsciously do it and tip off an observant pickpocket exactly where the target is.

Frankly, I'm not a big fan of most money belts. When an aggressive group of pickpockets swarm you, they are known to slip a hand into your waist and when they feel that money belt, they simply grab the strap, jerk it hard, while running away.

Some travelers (me being one of them) carry an old wallet in their back pocket filled with those fake promo credit cards that come in the mail. When a pickpocket hits they go for the easy target. When you see them running away, you can take solace in the fact that they will soon realize they've been had. One point for you.

5. In Tourist Zones
Be vigilant in crowds. When you stroll Barcelona's La Ramblas (and you should) do it in the daylight hours. Know that If you return at night La Ramblas is gritty. If you go to the Magic Fountain (and you should), take a little cash, your bus pass, and consider leaving your room key at the hotel's front desk.

6. Dress Local
Residents of Spain's larger cities dress well. Tourists do not. They wear shorts, logo t-shirts and those comfy old white tennis shoes that scream "rip me off".

I Invest in a good pair of padded leather (Rockport) shoes (or better yet, wait and upon arrival in Spain invest in a great pair of new high quality shoes!). In winter I wear slacks and shirts with sleaves. In summer linen or cotton short sleeve shirts works well. Your clothes need not be expensive, just clean and well tailored. Handbags and manbags must have both a zipper and a flap. Wear them in front. Leave the fannypacks at home.

7. Leave Passports, Most Credit Cards, and Most Cash in the Hotel Room Safe
Make a photocopy of your passport and carry it to use for ID (shopkeeper's understand and accept the copies as ID). Also, and this is important leave a photocopy and a pdf of your passports with someone at home. If your passport gets lost or stolen you then have a place to start. Been there, done that......Not fun.

When sightseeing carry one credit card, and a little cash (travelers checks are deemed quaint and despised by shopkeepers nowadays), along with the passport photocopy.

Most American credit cards have PIN numbers issued only for cash advances. Most European credit cards use credit cards with PIN numbers for everyday transactions. 

I always call card companies to notify them where and when the card is to be used. I also get a PIN number issued on any card I plan to take. Also before you go research and consider obtaining at least one credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees (Marriott Rewards offers one). Frankly, this past summer (2012) trying to use an American issued credit card proved to be very hard. Many merchants and restauranteurs no longer accept American issued credit cards except for large (or overpriced) purchases.

8. Outdoor Cafe's
Wrap your purse strap around your chair leg. Do not set your wallet, camera, or cell phone on the table. If anyone approaches your table to "sell a postcard", or is carrying a folded piece of cardboard, look to see what is attracting them and put it away. When they see you securing stuff they will suddenly move on to "sell" to someone else.

9. Looking at Maps in Public
This one is tough. You can't always walk into a store or cafe to look at a map. So, if you must open a map on the street, leave a halo of as much empty space around you as you can. When you see a group (frequently smiling teenage girls) start to move your way, immediately start moving away from them and preserve your open space.

In 2010 at the Arc de Triomphe Metro stop in Barcelona we opened a map and within seconds 10-12 girls started closing in. I spotted them, faced them, made direct unflinching eye contact with the obvious leader and scanned for the adult who they were working for. I gave her a good glare too. When they kept coming I yelled "back off". My raised voice drew lots of stares.

Thieves are human cockroaches, they hate bright light. I was rewarded with a chilling “you win this round” smirk as they moved on.

10. Bird Poop On Your Shoulder
It is a scam. Move on. Do not let anyone get close enough to "help" you or offer to "clean' your shoulder.

Paris Update (2011)
11. The String "Puzzle"
On a recent trip to Paris a smiling young fellow approached to show my daughter and I a string "trick". He held up colored strings and asked to tie them on a fingertip. The string is simply a distraction. While you are concentrating on the string, he'll be brushing against you. The contact desensitizes you as an accomplice will step up "to watch". You will then be pickpocketed.

12. The "Cause"
Another widespread Parisian scam is the "please sign my petition" scam. You will see teens clustered near bridges, Metro stations, or monuments carrying clipboards. Smiling, they approach, and in English ask you to support some important "cause" by signing some sort of petition.

Despite a firm "no" they will follow you imploring and touching your side, shoulder, and sleeves. The touch again is to desensitize you to contact. Once you take their clipboard, your hands will be busy, and you will be pickpocketed.

Sadly, the kids involved are frequently victims of human trafficking. When approached, move to a safe distance and look back. It won't be hard to see their adult handler nearby monitoring everything.

Our approach? We just muster up our best "I have no clue what you just said" look while babbling some gibberish. They assume you do not speak English and divert to some other mark.

More Spain (and Portugal) Update (2012)
Our 2012 trip was great. We only witnessed one pickpocket attempt in Madrid. One of the pickpockets was very pregnant (they always seem to work in teams.) The woman they "bumped" was clearly Spanish and was rolling a suitcase. After they bumped her, she tapped her pocket (they had missed the target) and issued a blood curdling scream at them even giving a short chase.

Everyone is just fed up. With a bad economy no one can afford to suffer from a rip off. We noticed great care by locals and tourists using purses and manbags with big flap over the zipper. They all wore them in front and held them cross armed on the subways. Men on subways frequently held their wallets tightly in their hands.

In Lisbon we rode the famous (or infamous) Tram 24 - no problem, but do be wary.

This trip, only one thief scoped us out and it was on the subway in Barcelona. I gave him a big focused look and his hands went down to his sides as he moved on.

Update (2013)
Our 2013 trip was amazing. I am very pleased to note that this year we witnessed zero pickpocket attempts. We all noticed how serious residents and many visitors were about protecting handbags etc. on the subways. We did see a number of tourists with unprotected backpacks that would have made a pickpockets day.

Although the street scene and overall temperament in Berlin at times felt edgy, an example being our English language "Alt Berlin" walking street art tour where we experienced a prolonged expletive filled shout down from a big SUV filled with Turks (who clearly did not want these walking tours in their Kreuzeberg neighborhood), I'd have to say overall I felt very safe this year.

In Sum

I am a contrarian traveler.

When people deserted Mexico’s beautiful beaches during the H1N1 flu scare, I was busy trying to figure out how to go there knowing the beaches would be empty and hotels would be cleaned meticulously. When Mad Cow disease hit Britain, we booked a trip to London. When would-be airborne terrorists lit up their underwear and my, otherwise logical, friends scaled back on travel, I started planning another trip.

Those that live in monochromatic guard gated communities and talk of building "border fences", while spending their lives transporting their families around in urban assault vehicles are just fooling themselves. They are the same people who demand our armed forces seek out and kill potential enemies “before they can reach our shores”.

Yet, history confirms any society that becomes paralyzed by fear, will perish.

Travel, like life, requires preparation. After you prepare, then venture into the world! Lean into your fears.

In my half century (plus) on this planet I have always found that If you practice honest, thoughtful, and principled behavior while traveling, you will almost always be rewarded by locals who are proud to show you the very best their culture has to offer!

Roadboy's Travels © 2010 / 2011 / 2012


Cassieopia said...

Hey Jim, your blog is on my desktop so I remember to check in now and again. Love your last 2 blogs - "a brand new Jesus", "lean into your fears". Very zen-like for an intrepid traveler - or maybe that's what brings the zen?

All is good on this side of the continent. I travel frequently too, although much closer to home. Spent Christmas in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, x-c skiing, snowshoeing and in general having a grand time. Been biking a lot this spring and look forward to many more bike trips. Backcountry PA is beautiful, and in some ways the culture is as alien to me as Saudi Arabia. :)

Kids are good too - oh, and Jerry's father died unexpectedly in February. Jerry took it pretty hard. I was able to make it to the funeral and it was great to catch up with all the Lohses, despite the very sad occasion.

No need to feel obligated to reply - just checking in and letting you know I do like your blog!


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