You are looking at Gammeltorv, the oldest square in Copenhagen. I took this picture on June 15th of this year (2013), as we were walking on the pedestrian Storget on our way from the old port of Nyhavn to the Tivoli Gardens. We were traveling with friends, on a 14-day Baltic and Scandinavia cruise aboard the Oceania Marina. We had one day of touring in Copenhagen and were trying to make the most of it. When we arrived at Gammeltorv, my wife decided to make a stop into a shop at the corner of the square.
So I was simply looking at the comings and goings on the busy square when I noticed a pickpocket in action. A street performer was attracting the attention of people walking through the square, the attention of everyone except one man, who was getting close to people and watching them, not the performer. I pointed him out to my friend, saying “See the pickpocket there. He’s the one who’s not looking where everyone else is looking!”
A few days later, in Riga, I became the target of a pickpocket as we were taking a walking tour of the old city but fortunately I noticed him before he could take action and I simply asked him to move away, which he did. Then again, a week later, as were walking along the Esplanade in Helsinki after a succulent meal at Kappelli’s, I noticed among the crowd of people around us a couple of poorly dressed kids followed by an eastern european looking mother with a baby stroller. Again, the key here is to look for what is out of place; in this case, a poor woman with a family of young children in the middle of a totally touristy and non-residential area should be an immediate red flag. I did not believe for a second that she was a tourist, or that she lived in the area and was merely promenading her family.
Can I prove in court that all of these people were in fact pickpockets? No, but I am sure that the odds are that they were indeed pickpockets and I credit my alertness to my surroundings as one of the main reasons for which, after 45 years of international travel to most countries of the world, my turn to be pickpocketed has yet to arrive. It seems that just about everyone else I know who has traveled the world has told me stories of being robbed or mugged. Being alert is not protection against becoming a victim, but it reduces the chances significantly. It makes it more difficult for thieves to approach you without you noticing.
Every time that I find myself in a situation involving a crowd, whether it be a square or a bus or a metro stop or whatever, my antennae go up and my focus shifts to my surroundings. I do not stand still but constantly shift around, on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Any situation in which someone can actually touch me or bump against me is a big red flag. Entering or leaving a subway car, for example, or standing in line somewhere to buy tickets or pay for parking are wonderful opportunities for close contact and pickpockets will ply their trade there. I don’t have to work at this anymore, it long ago became second nature to me. And that is why I have, so far at least, spotted the pickpockets before they could make me their next victim. So, RULE ONE for stopping pickpockets is BE ALERT!
Alertness is not solely the passive act of being aware of what’s around you. It also means actively avoiding locations and situations which significantly increase the risk of becoming a target and taking behavioral action when necessary. Walking in the evening can be very enjoyable but it also creates many opportunities for problematic situations, so it requires increased attention and focus and the willingness to change route as appropriate to avoid unnecessary risk. In a sense, you would rather be where crowds are in order to avoid potential muggers, but crowded areas are where the pickpockets are, so you want public areas with a crowd that is not too big as to allow for close human contact. A crowded bus, or metro car, or any other location where people can innocently bump into you is a great open target for pickpockets who use intentional bumping as the way to gain access to your pockets.
This past September, I was sitting on a very crowded bus going from Nice to Saint Paul de Vence. As an aside, I highly recommend the public transport system of the French Riviera; for one euro per trip, you can travel from Cannes to Monaco, from Nice to Vence, all over, in very comfortable and modern buses. However, some of the routes are very popular and crowded, such as the Nice to Monaco and Nice to Saint Paul de Vence routes. Lots of people were standing up in front of me and my mind immediately switched to one of the pickpocket favorite ploys — the pretending to fall on you trick — which gives the pickpocket a chance to go through your pockets while he is pretending to recuperate from his “accidental” fall.
What did I do? I pulled out a ballpoint pen from my pocket and held it in my fist, tip upwards, on my lap. Then I carefully looked in the eye of everyone of the men standing a few inches away from me. The innocent travelers probably thought I was an eccentric, but I had a clear unspoken message for the potential pickpocket: “If you decide to fall on me, you risk having the tip of this pen at best in your chest and at worst right at your throat!” I was probably the only individual who got my own message, but in any case, my alertness helped insure that nothing would happen. Quite frankly, I am pretty sure that I would not have used my pen should an incident have occurred; I shudder at the thought of hurting an innocent person. I was using it as a deterrent and it would appear to have worked. I am determined to be ready for all eventualities!
However, I do not believe that being alert is sufficient protection against pickpockets. One needs also to be prepared for the day when the pickpocket does succeed in getting near you and is able to reach into your pockets. There will be undoubtedly many occasions when you will be distracted or focused on something else, or merely absorbed in an interesting conversation, and that is when you are at the greatest risk. Which is why I want to make sure that, if and when a pickpocket does get to me, he does not take from me anything I care about, like my credit cards, my passport, my money, my cell phone, my hotspot, etc… To obtain that protection means paying attention to the clothing you wear and how you assign items to different pockets.
When I travel, I always wear “protective” clothing, meaning clothing designed to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for pickpockets to succeed. Both my shirts and my pants have hidden pockets where my valuable items are kept, while the obvious pockets carry nothing of value whatsoever. In fact, I keep in one of the obvious pockets a small wallet with a couple of expired credit cards with numbers that are no longer in use as well as old worthless currency bills; this is not so much for protection against pickpockets as help against possible muggers.
If I were asked to produce my wallet at the barrel of a gun, that is what I would pull out … and pray that the mugger runs away before noticing anything amiss! Hidden pockets, virtually inaccessible to a pickpocket, carry all my valuables. My cell phone and my hotspot are in my shirt’s hidden zippered pockets under my armpits, easily accessible when I need them, but virtually out of reach to anyone else. This is particularly important to me, because I have a lot of valuable data on my cell phone; it is well protected by a twelve digit passcode, but I still want to do everything within my power to prevent its loss. So, RULE TWO for stopping pickpockets is CARRY NOTHING VALUABLE in your visible or accessible pockets.
Finally, for those of you who carry more or larger objects, such as laptops, you also need to carefully select the bag you will have with you. I always carry a cross-shoulder pickpocket-proof bag. It is designed so that the straps cannot be cut by a thief, and the pockets are closed not only with a zipper but also with a clip which further prevents access by pickpockets. The bag is carried cross-shoulder, with my left arm resting on the bag, so that it cannot be grabbed by someone on a motorcycle speeding by you. Again, these are all what I consider basic precautions. They do not guarantee that I won’t be victimized, but they do reduce the chances significantly. And that is the best one can hope for.
There are companies which offer fantastic clothing and other products to help protect against pickpockets. I encourage all travelers to be vigilant and prepared! Email me if you wish more specific information, or simply use the contact form on my travel blog at BonVoyageurs.com (I invite you to enter your email address on the home page and perhaps become the 1,000th follower of the blog!). Safe travels, everyone!
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