You’ve probably heard horror stories of petty crime happening to travelers… like the infamous pickpockets on the Paris metro who work in teams, letting one distract you while the other raids your bag.
It makes it sound like riding the metro entails putting your valuables (and your life?) in danger.
But if it’s that bad, why don’t Parisians get pickpocketed on their way to work? For that matter, why don’t New Yorkers have their phones and wallets stolen every time they ride the subway?
Half of the answer is that our imaginations are worse than real life: these are actually safe places.
The second half of the answer is that when crime happens, it’s not only about the place. Paris isn’t evil. There are reasons a rare thing happens more often to travelers than locals. And that’s what we need to address.
4 ingredients that make you a target
After years of travel, and time spent sitting on the other side (watching thieves work tourists in a few of countries I’ve lived in), I have observed four things that conspire to make travelers a target more than anyone else.
1. You're a foreigner.
Pickpockets know this. Sure, you can try to dress more like a local and not look as much like a tourist. But in reality, it is extremely hard to shed the reality of who you are. It takes me just 2 seconds in NYC to know if you’re from out of town.
What’s important is that you understand the implications of being a foreigner in the eyes of a thief: when a scam goes down, you will be slow to realize what’s going on. This is typically because 1) on a trip, you are easily distracted, and 2) there are cultural barriers that prevent you from reading the cues when something is out of place because you’re out of place yourself. More on that to come.
2. You're carrying valuables.
Travelers tend to carry valuables. It’s often a necessity of the journey, be it the cash you just changed to local currency, or an expensive camera to capture this special experience. But this makes you a more worthwhile target, over a local.
3. You're unprepared.
When something happens that feels wrong, raising your voice takes courage. Thieves count on the fact that you will be more reluctant to speak up when visiting a different environment, either out of deference to the culture or not knowing how to.
Whereas back home you can easily communicate, have a sense of what to do when something goes wrong, and confidence that if you call for help people will come to your aid. But language and culture barriers can be intimidating, and it doesn’t take much to make us feel off our game, while the thief is getting away.
4. You're a low risk.
Thieves love foreigners partly because we are so unlikely to call the police or pursue legal action against a perpetrator. This is especially true when we are only visiting a destination for a few days. (Not to mention, legal juggernauts are difficult to navigate even back home.) That makes us low risk targets for thieves: they’ve got very little to lose and potentially plenty to gain.
All this adds up to make us easy pickin’s for a seasoned pickpocket. Luckily, there are ways to make yourself a much less attractive target.
I learned all this the hard way
On day one of a three week trip to Morocco with my best friend, I got off a train and entered a crush of people to buy a bus ticket to our final destination.
I was wearing a large backpack on my back, and had a fanny pack in front with valuables like my precious camera.
I was still in my 20s, and had recently come off a solo trip around the world. I was confident, and jazzed to be “so close to the people” again, back in the excitement of travel.
Thrilling as it felt to be in the crowd, when I exited, my bus ticket in hand but I was missing the camera out of my fanny pack. In hindsight, I realized there were a few guys who didn’t seem as eager to reach the ticket booth as everyone else. And they must have been the thieves.
How not to look like a tourist
After countless miles of travel, a few years of living overseas, and the founding of Bluffworks, I’ve taken an interest in travel security. Here are my four tips on how to avoid pickpockets and not look like a target.
1. Don't be an easy mark.
In 1981, a notable study showed a group of convicted felons video footage of pedestrians walking down a street in New York City. Researchers found there was a clear consensus on who the felons would choose to attempt to rob.
But the big surprise: there was no obvious reason for the convicts’ selections. Targets weren’t chosen based on their height, size, gender, or any other physical attribute. Instead, they were selected based on their attitude and body language. The exact observation was:
“Perpetrators notice a person whose walk lacks organized movement and flowing motion. [...] Criminals view such people as less self-confident, and are much more likely to exploit them.”
What does all this mean?
Whether you really are confident or afraid, you can still present yourself in a way that reduces the odds that you’ll look like a target, whether you’re traveling or closer to home.
Be organized. Rather than walking with your head in a guide book, map, or app, figure out the basics of where you’re going in advance. If you’re confused in the moment, pause and pull over, maybe stepping into a doorway to consult your phone before setting off again – with confidence.
Dress appropriately for the environment. Consider what you pack and what you wear. If you get overly geared-up for a trip – treating a city destination like it’s a hiking trail or safari – it often makes you stand out and look nervous and inexperienced. Try not to think of your destination as so “foreign” and consider the local climate, culture, and your activities so that your outfit reads as reasonable.
- Relax. People are people all over the world. Imagine the ease with which you would behave if you lived there all the time. Just be confident and normal – you are probably doing a regular activity, just in a different context.
One of the most surprising experiences of living overseas was sitting in a cafe day after day, watching the constant stream of visitors. For the traveler, it's like "oh my goodness, I am deep in the old city of Hanoi right now!" But, for others, it's just Tuesday morning, and I am late to work after lingering over coffee too long with my wife.
If you operate with a different attitude, pick pockets won’t cease to exist. But, they may not pick you.
2. Carry things discreetly.
Given that thieves already suspect you are carrying valuables, where you carry them matters.
For example, a member of my team did have someone try to pickpocket her on the Paris metro; as she was walking through a turnstile, the man behind her unzipped and opened her bag. Luckily, she was carrying her valuables in hidden pockets, so all he found inside the main section was a Rick Steves guidebook.
Dividing your valuables between specialized areas in hidden pocket clothing rather than putting everything in one place helps reduce the risk of you losing more than one thing. We design our travel clothing with hidden pockets to help secure valuables and keep them out of sight. This means your valuables are in places thieves aren’t likely to look and the zippered closures make it that much harder to access.
I am always gaming scenarios involving where my valuables are, and creating good habits like leaving part of your cash in the hotel (I just hide it when there isn’t a safe), and keeping a photocopy of your passport in a separate place.
Not traveling with or wearing expensive jewelry should be obvious. Unless there’s a specific reason you need it for your trip, it’s probably best to leave valuable accessories at home. For men, I shared my perspective and recommendations for best watch for travel, with several affordable options that won’t attract petty crime.
3. Trust your instincts.
When something begins to feel off, your first inclination may be to try to explain it away. Don’t.
Our instincts kept us alive when we were facing down predators that wanted to eat us, and they keep us safe in unfamiliar situations still. You have to pay attention when your alarm bells go off.
While traveling, this is harder to do as we are absorbing so much newness in an unfamiliar situation. The trick is to give yourself permission to trust your gut and if something doesn’t feel right, change the situation. Most of the stories I’ve heard end with a reflection in hindsight, “I thought something was wrong with ____.”
Try to listen to your sixth sense, and don’t hesitate to act.
4. Prepare yourself to act.
One of the things that can provide the greatest peace of mind is to be prepared for something to go wrong.
Scam artists can be very pushy, and I like to remind travelers that it’s okay to protect yourself by claiming physical space, slowing things down, asking questions, and walking away if things don’t feel right.
They’re simple things to do, but you have to be mentally prepared to do it. Sometimes, we go out of our way to avoid being rude, but if you don’t feel comfortable, you have the right to get out of there. Although it’s good to be respectful, you can and should stop a conversation or interaction to protect yourself.
Keep it in perspective.
It wasn’t easy, but I recovered from my experience in Morocco and ended up having a fantastic trip.
Honestly, the amazing thing about travel is that most of the time, everything turns out OK. When something does happen, it’s rarely the end of the world — and if you can shake it off, it doesn’t even have to ruin the trip.
My message is that fear can be a tool. It is useful to help you prepare in advance, and put the brakes on a situation when something questionable begins to unfold.
But letting fear take over will make you a target, due to how you carry yourself and how you dress. Not to mention, feeling constantly afraid can significantly impact your ability to enjoy your trip.
I’ve visited a number of far-out places. And, I can’t remember a single place I’ve visited that was nearly as dangerous as the stories people told me before I went.
I wish you safety and bliss in your travels!