How to send the pickpockets packing

THE INTERCITY train from Brussels arrived at Antwerp Central station a few minutes late and passengers pushed forward in a mad scramble to get aboard. A well-dressed man elbowed me out of the way, almost knocking an elderly woman in the crush. Seconds later, the rude man was exiting again, through the crowd, muttering loudly that he needed to be on another train, jostling past us to get off.

Aboard the Amsterdam-bound morning train and dying for a coffee, I reached for my purse to pay. It had vanished from inside my zipped-up handbag, which I was carrying postman-style, to prevent it being snatched. This Benelux route is notorious for pickpockets, and passengers are constantly warned to keep their belongings beside them.

The catering trolley-server, who kindly paid for my coffee himself, out of pity, asked if the guy on the wrong train passed me in the crush. “Oh yeah…, there were a few more victims earlier in the week, that trick has been going on for a while now. He probably has others taking purses and wallets while he diverts attention away”.

Yet, it could have been worse. I still had my mobile phone, with my bank code and bank telephone number in the list of contacts. So, I could stop my pass-card; I had no credit cards, and less than €25 in my purse.

The Swedish couple sitting opposite me on that recent journey had no such luck. They were robbed on the same route, a week earlier, travelling south to Paris.

Their hand luggage, containing a new laptop, an ipad, their passports, expensive cameras and other valuables, had been stolen. How? A friendly male traveller, seemingly respectable, had engaged them in conversation, asking politely where they were from, regaling them with his wonderful visit to Stockholm.

They paid no attention to a young woman, equally well-dressed and apparently unconnected to the man, who was fiddling with her luggage near their bags, in the overhead rack. They were about to become victims of a favourite trick on this train: the thief removes something from her own luggage, usually a coat or rug. This is used to cover the targeted bags, which are slid along the rack and stolen.

I have been mugged twice and pick-pocketed three times, including once on an escalator at Dublin airport, and in my local supermarket.

While trying to stay alert on my travels, it is hard when you are a bit absentminded and immersed in your new surroundings.

Yet, often places nearer home, familiar and ‘harmless’, can be filled with danger. I have walked the streets of Buenos Aires, and other reputedly dangerous cities, without incident, through being extra-vigilant. The problem is we often let our guard down in places nearer home.

If you are lucky enough never to have been robbed on holidays, you are bound to know people who were, and whose trip was ruined by the experience.

Nearly everyone knows somebody who has been ‘rolled’ in Barcelona. Eliana Guerrero, who lives in the Spanish city, which always comes out tops in Trip Advisor’s ‘Ten of the Worst’, and Smarter Travel (www.smartertravel.com) surveys, hands out pamphlets and blows a whistle loudly, as a warning to victims, wherever she sees gangs of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, who steal an average of 150 handbags a day in Barcelona.

Every day, an estimated 400,000 travellers are victims of pickpockets somewhere in the world.

Where tourists roam, there are always those ready to exploit them and travellers need to be aware of the perils. So, don’t become another easy victim and have your holiday ruined. Take sensible steps and you can beat the pickpockets, bag-snatchers and pan-handlers at their own game, becoming street-wise and staying safe.

Ten of the worst pickpocketing places, in order of merit

1. Barcelona: Worst around the famous Las Ramblas pedestrian area, right, and all Metro stations.

2. Rome: Whose pickpockets hang out at attractions like the Trevi Fountain and the Vatican.

3. Paris: Landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and metro system are notorious.

4. Madrid: Museums are major danger zones because tourists are often off guard.

5. Athens: Poverty has greatly increased and as a result crime has shot up of late.

6. Prague: Don’t go anywhere near the beautiful Charles Bridge carrying any valuables.

7. Costa Brava (Alicante): Gangs of expert pickpockets are bused around for attacks.

8. Amsterdam: Don’t be deceived by its laid back atmosphere, be extra careful on the airport train. full of thieves.

9. Florence: Child pickpockets in this stunning Italian city look so innocent but don’t be fooled.

10. Buenos Aires: Argentina and Hanoi, Vietnam, are cities in which you must stay ultra alert.


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