Don’t be easy pickings

This article has been inspired by a gentleman from the UK who was on holiday here in Portugal only to find, the day before leaving, money was stolen from him whilst travelling on a number 28 tram in Lisbon. So slick was the culprit(s) that the victim did not realise this until sometime later and contacted Safe Communities Algarve for help in this case.
Pickpocketing is unfortunately a crime that can turn an enjoyable holiday to one that you would least likely ever forget for all the wrong reasons. Whereas in the Algarve pickpocketing is not a major problem, there are times when there is an increase in this crime, especially during carnival and other events which draw large crowds.
In the Algarve, as far as I am aware, it is mainly the work of opportunists, but in Lisbon it is more of a problem, being the second largest reported crime after theft of items from vehicles.
This article therefore is aimed at creating awareness to those visiting cities where pickpocketing is a problem, as well as those attending major events where there are large crowds.
Criminals involved in pickpocketing are well practised and have the ability, of course, to strike when persons are least expecting this. In Lisbon, one of the most prevalent areas is the number 28 tram route because it is often used by tourists. In fact the FCO foreign travel advice to Portugal specifically mentions this route.
Unfortunately, it is local and overseas tourists who are considered easy targets by criminals because they are considered less “streetwise” and are more likely to let their guard down. Also in the case of overseas tourists, criminals know that, because of the limited time here, the chances that the victim will report the case (unless passports are stolen) and be here for the court case if caught are remote.
So given the above situation, prevention is far better than cure. Associação Safe Communities Algarve and the PSP Greater Metropolitan Lisbon have recently discussed this issue with a view to identifying trends and what further preventative steps can be taken. In fact, there are already a number of measures in place including announcements in English on the Lisbon metro system.

Situation overseas

Although I have mentioned Lisbon, it would be unfair to single this out compared with other cities in Europe and beyond – in fact Lisbon is far lower than most. The 10 worst cities in terms of the highest number of reported pickpocketing cases in descending order are: Barcelona, Rome, Prague, Madrid, Paris, Florence, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Athens and Hanoi. Barcelona is in fact renowned as the “Pickpocketing City of the World”.
Although London is not in the top 10, there were apparently some 1,700 reported pickpocketing cases per day in London during the 2012 Olympics! When visiting these destinations, it is important not to let your guard down, particularly at some of the well-known tourist spots.

Spotting a pickpocket

Pickpockets often work in groups, preying on distracted and disoriented tourists. One hand captures your attention while the other rifles through your bag. It might seem rude or culturally insensitive to question odd or overly-friendly behaviour from strangers while you’re travelling, but this is the attitude pickpockets rely on.
Of course you don’t want to be constantly wound up and paranoid when you’re trying to relax. But, if you do feel suspicious, it’s easy to brush your hand over your wallet to check it’s there, pull your bag closer or have a quick look over your shoulder. Don’t be afraid to confront anyone following you either, but do not get aggressive. If the thieves know you’re onto them, they’ll quickly skulk off to await an easier target.

Different types of pickpocketing techniques

There are a number, but some of the most common are:
The bump approach
This tactic, prevalent in Barcelona but common on other metros, involves a group of thieves who will push in front of you as you try to get on or off a train. They create some delay at the door, meaning their colleagues, who have slipped in behind, have an excuse to bump into you. They also work on a divide and conquer principle, trying to separate potential victims from their travelling friends. You should be alert whenever you’re taking crowded public transport, but if you find someone trying to squeeze between you and your friends chances are your possessions are in jeopardy.
The clipboard cover scam
Someone holding a clipboard will approach you, asking you to complete a survey of some sort. They’ll shove the sheet into your face, obscuring your view and allowing them or an accomplice to dip into your bag.
The admirer approach
As a male in the prime of your life, you are approached by a young lady (in a bar for instance) and you buy her a drink. Her aim, however, is not you but your wallet conveniently sticking out of your back pocket
The covered hand approach
If you are carrying an open bag in a crowded place (e.g. public transport), watch out for anyone with a newspaper who may use this to cover their hand whilst reaching into your bag.
The sleeper
You are for instance on a train and fall asleep. The criminal watches closely to ensure that you are fast asleep and then takes a valuable item which you have left close to you.
The compassionate approach
Some pickpockets play on compassion in their distractions. They “accidentally” drop change or shopping bags on the ground so that someone will stop to help them. While the victim is kneeling on the ground with the first pickpocket, another member of the team steals his or her wallet.
The helpful stranger
Similar to this is the helpful stranger approach. Someone standing close to you simply says that there is something on your coat and offers to brush it of. Whilst distracted, someone else or the person themselves steals your purse or wallet.
There are many others. Not all is lost, however, and with some awareness of how pickpockets operate you can reduce the risk of becoming a victim of this sort of crime. Please see our top 10 tips in the feature with more advice on the Safe Communities Algarve website www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com.

|| Reducing the risk of pickpocketing

Top 10 tips

1. If someone bumps into you, do a quick check to see if your valuables are still there.
2. Leave the valuables and money you don’t need at your hotel room, preferably in a safe.
3. Know and avoid the most dangerous areas.
4. Be alert, especially in crowded spaces or when people invade your personal space.
5. Carry money and passport in separate places, so that losing one doesn’t mean losing the other as well.
6. Wear bags in front of you, not at the rear or side.
7. Deep-front trouser pockets offer more protection than back pockets.
8. Dress inconspicuously so as not to draw attention to yourself as a “rich foreigner”.
9. Attach your wallet to a chain, wear a money belt under your clothes, or an inside jacket pocket with a zip.
10. Above all, do not flash your valuables around unnecessarily. An expensive watch on your wrist or fancy camera around your neck is quite a temptation to someone whose annual income may be less than its price.
By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação Safe Communities Algarve, the first association of its type in Portugal. 913 045 093
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