Pickpocketing in Europe: How to Avoid and What to Do If It Happens

January 4, 2019

photo credit: Archie McPhee Seattle Pickpocket Wallet via photopin (license)

The 7th-floor terrace of House of Legends restaurant was small and cramped, just two tables taking up any excess space.  I squeezed past the diners, made my way over to the railing, and whipped out my smartphone to snap a photo of the stunning sunset over Lviv, one of Eastern Europe’s most beautiful cities.

pickpocketing in europe

Aerial view of House of Legends rooftop. Photo by Charles Neville

Recalling the recommendation that there was a better, albeit even tighter space for a photo op – complete with an old car and other oddly juxtaposed items – on the roof, I turned to the spiral staircase which would take me to the top.  This was arguably the most Instagrammable spot in Lviv, and the narrow spiral stairs were jammed with tourists and Ukrainian locals going up and coming down.

Why It Can Happen to Anyone

“This could be dangerous,” I thought to myself, so I slipped my phone into the open front pocket of my zipped cross-body bag.  I’d taken no more than one step on the inside portion of the stairs when a burly man pushed me ever so slightly against the metal pole of the winding structure.   I didn’t really think too much of it; it was that crowded.

A few seconds later I arrived at the rooftop and went to retrieve my phone, only to find the pocket empty.  I immediately thought it had dropped out, and quickly descended back to the terrace to look for it.

A quick scan told me the phone was not there.  It was then that the cold fingers of dread gripped my flesh… my phone had been stolen, and I realized I had been the victim of a scam by Mr. Burlyman.  Who, me? This wasn’t supposed to happen to someone like moi!

My fear was quickly confirmed by Petra, one of my four traveling companions.  “I saw him slip a phone into his back pocket just after he leaned into you, but I didn’t know it was yours!” she spewed angrily.  “Then he said something to the women behind him and she laughed!” And just like that, the incensed Petra fled down seven flights and out into the street to find the two schemers, unsuccessfully.

Believe it or not, that’s probably a good thing for the connivers because tall, athletic, zealous Petra is not someone you want to mess with.

pickpocketing in lviv

Stunning Lviv rooftop sunset. Photo by Charles Neville

Pickpocketed.  Yup, it can happen to anyone, even when you think you’ve taken the necessary precautions.  As a travel writer/blogger who has seen much of the world, I consider myself to be savvy, but it happened to me because I was distracted by the scenery and crowds.

Where the Pickpockets Hide Out

Barcelona is known as the pickpocket capital of the world, with Rome and Paris not far behind.  Your chance of getting robbed greatly increases in highly dense tourist cities and attractions.

Why is pickpocketing so prevalent in Europe? Does that mean you should avoid historic European cities? Definitely not.  The reason there are so many tourists in those places is that they are so incredible to visit.  But it also makes them a magnet for thieves.

10 Worst Cities for Pickpocketing

pickpockets in europe

  1. Barcelona, Spain
  2. Rome, Italy
  3. Prague, Czech Republic
  4. Paris, France
  5. Madrid, Spain
  6. Florence, Italy
  7. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  8. Amsterdam, Netherlands
  9. Athens, Greece
  10. Hanoi, Vietnam

Pickpocketing can happen in any crowded city, though, as I found out.

Precautions to Avoid Pickpockets

  • If you have a handbag, wear it cross-body, and keep it zipped with your arm tight over it. If you put it on the floor, hook it around your leg.
  • If you have a backpack, put a lock on the zipper and keep it in front of you when possible
  • Don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket. Put a thin wallet in a front pocket where you’re more likely to notice an attempt to lift it.
  • Don’t pull your wallet out or flash cash in public.
  • Wear a money belt under your clothes.
  • Don’t leave your phone on the table.
  • Just take the money you’ll need for that day; leave the rest in your hotel safe.
  • Dress like a local, not like a tourist. Full disclosure, this is the hardest one for me.  While I don’t travel with expensive branded clothing or expensive jewelry, my long blonde ponytail and predisposition for brightly colored clothes and hats (it’s my personal branding for my Instagram!) can be a beacon.
  • Be attentive to your surroundings, especially in and around public transportation, open-air markets, and other crowded places.
  • If you are visiting a country that requires you to carry your passport at all times, make sure you keep photocopies of the passport in your luggage and in your hotel.
  • Before leaving home, write down your phone’s IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number – the serial number that all cell phones have, your computer’s serial number, and important documents. Keep that info in the cloud and have it in your hotel.
  • Don’t be afraid to push people away when they get too close to you, even children.

Important: Take out travel insurance. Thievery is just one of the many reasons why you should always buy travel insurance.  More on this below.

Be especially wary of your belongings in public places.  When we first arrived by train from Kiev to Lviv, a young man tried to open the backpack of one of our group who was struggling to pull an oversized suitcase down the station stairs.  Our guide, Katia swatted him on the head with her hat and he ran away.  We laughed about her antics later because nothing had been stolen, but it could have easily gone the other way. Train, metro, subway, and bus stations are notorious for harboring pickpockets because of the crowds as well as the number of exits to scurry away with their bounty. One way to circumvent this happening is to use a theft-resistant travel backpack.

Also, pickpockets may be the people you least expect.  They are often well-dressed, work in groups, can be children, or mothers holding babies.

What to Do If It Happens

pickpocketing in europe

Sitting outside the police station in Lviv, Ukraine at midnight

Cancel your credit cards as soon as possible. File a report with the local police within 24 hours.  You may think this is futile, and as far as getting the phone back, it is.  It was likely wiped, locked, and/or passed on to someone else within minutes. But depending on your travel insurance policy, you may be able to file a claim for whole or partial replacement value.

I won’t sugar-coat it…filing a police report will likely be a hassle because of cultural and language barriers.  Lucky for me (and this is one reason why I recommend using local guides), Katia, my local  JayWay Travel guide was fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian.

We had to go to three different police stations before we found one, at midnight, willing to take our report, and not a soul in any of the precincts spoke English.  Katia had to go back the next day to notarize the translation, and I had to go back with her again the next evening to get the signed copy of the crime report.  I would not have known what to do and would have given up after being turned away in the first police station (who it seemed just didn’t want to be bothered).

I was thankful for Katia’s tenacity.  My travel insurance policy accepted my claim only because I had that police report.  That’s several hundred dollars I didn’t have to spend to replace the phone, taking some of the sting from the incident.

Getting pickpocketed is traumatic, even for a savvy traveler like me.  My immediate thought was that I just wanted to go home.  I had to force myself to get over that because I was only a few days into a month-long press trip through Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Poland.  Two things really helped me:

  1. It’s petty theft, a device that’s easily replaced. I wasn’t hurt and won’t be spending 7 weeks in a foreign hospital!
  2. I have a fabulous life, in every way. What kind of pathetic existence is it when you make your living inflicting emotion damage on other people? Not fabulous, that’s for sure.  I found it within myself to pity Mr. Burlyman.

Go Local

Assistance with filing the police report is one reason why I always recommend using a local guide.  Here are some others:

  • Helps the local economy
  • Have knowledge and experience about their city, culture, and etiquette
  • Take you to secret places you might not find on your own
  • Customize itineraries to fit your interests

And then there’s this…

Knowing that I was just at the beginning of my trip and that my phone is a vital piece of business equipment (panoramic photos, selfies, record interviews, take notes, communicate with my fellow travelers via What’s App, etc.), JayWay Travel arranged for me to borrow one of their cell phones for the duration of my travels.  That’s just an over-and-beyond example of how using a reputable company with local guides can turn a seemingly impossible situation around.

Common Pickpocketing Scams

pickpockets in europe

photo credit: Pascal Volk

  • Good Samaritan – wants to help you with your bag or wants you to help them find something on a map
  • Bump and Lift – this is what happened to me. He waited for my attention to be directed towards something else, caused a diversion, and voila.
  • ATM Confusion – offering to help you withdraw money
  • Turnstile Take – the person in front of you stops short while the person behind sandwiches you and steals your wallet
  • Street Urchins – sadly, these child beggars are used by gangs and sent out to draw sympathy while they lift your valuables
  • Bag Slashing – they simply use a knife to cut your backpack and take what slips out

Vacation is a time to relax and let your guard down a little, but that can also make you a target.  A little preparation goes a long way to avoiding being an easy mark for pickpocketing in Europe, which will make the bandit move on to an easier target.

Click on image to PIN so you can find it again!

pickpocketing in europe

You may also be interested in:

Best Anti-Theft Backpacks

Baby Boomer Travel Trends

Baby Boomer Travel: 15 Bucket List Holidays

Disclosure:  The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Ukraine, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.

17 comments

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  3. Comment by alison abbott

    alison abbott Reply January 14, 2019 at 9:44 am

    I remember when I got my “phone leash” before traveling to Barcelona, I had been told that pickpockets often came by on bikes and grabbed the phone out of your hands while taking pictures. It really made me paranoid! I was sick after this happened to you in Ukraine, and glad your wonderful attitude and JayWay’s incredible help saved what could have been a heavy cloud. Kudos to you for turning it into a good lesson for all of us.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 17, 2019 at 5:51 pm

      Thanks, Alison. I was very glad to have you there to lean on when this happened! We went on to have a fabulous trip in Ukraine with JayWay!

  4. Comment by Rose Palmer

    Rose Palmer Reply January 12, 2019 at 9:24 am

    Funny, that’s exactly how my phone was stolen in Marrakesh. Slipped it in the front pocket of my bag for just a bit and it was gone. I normally put it in my pocket but didn’t t this time. Since it was an old phone And I wanted to get a new one soon anyway, it was not a big deal. I just bought a cheap local phone which served me fine

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2019 at 7:10 pm

      That’s how it happened to me, too. Unfortunately, the scam artists have their eye out for people who are distracted for “just a second.”

  5. Comment by Marilyn Jones

    Marilyn Jones Reply January 10, 2019 at 8:06 am

    I learned so much from reading about what happened to you and how travelers can try to prevent it from happening to them. My biggest fear is having someone take my passport. I always keep a copy in the hotel room, but I didn’t think about keeping the computer and phone serial codes available as well. Thank you for this excellent report!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2019 at 7:08 pm

      Glad you found it helpful, Marilyn. I was so thankful for JayWay Travel — they really helped me cope and get on with the rest of my trip.

  6. Comment by Jeff & Crystal Bryant

    Jeff & Crystal Bryant Reply January 8, 2019 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for this timely reminder of the prevalence of pickpockets in tourist zones. Your tips are helpful for travelers to keep in mind whenever and wherever they roam.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2019 at 7:07 pm

      People who travel a lot like both of us still need to be vigilant!

  7. Comment by Lori

    Lori Reply January 7, 2019 at 5:37 pm

    All great tips. We’ve been fortunate through our travels but then again we adhere to what yo advise here. Absolutely can happen anywhere, but yup, especially in those crowd crush places. Sorry to hear you got stung. But I know that won’t slow you down.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2019 at 7:07 pm

      You’re right. “Stuff” happens, but it’s how you deal with it that defines who you are!

  8. Comment by Lori

    Lori Reply January 5, 2019 at 10:01 pm

    Great advice! Sorry to hear this happened to you.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2019 at 7:05 pm

      If that’s the worst thing that happened to me last year, I’m pretty lucky all told.

  9. Comment by Fernando

    Fernando Reply January 5, 2019 at 3:06 pm

    Unfortunately it is more common than we think, but following these precautions you will be fine, they will always try to theft the easiest victim.

  10. Comment by Fernando

    Fernando Reply January 5, 2019 at 3:05 pm

    Unfortunately it is more common than we think, but with follow these precautions you will be fine, they will always try to theft the easiest victim.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply January 13, 2019 at 7:04 pm

      True. In this case, the most distracted.

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