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While abroad, tips to avoid pickpockets

Posted by guest  June 25, 2010 08:49 AM

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By John P. Harrington
Globe Staff

Hard to believe, I know. But I did not have my first experience till I was fiftysomething. With a pickpocket, that is.

Last year, purely by accident, I picked the best entrance into the combination subway-national railway station beneath the Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s bustling main boulevard. It was easy to see what to do: Straight to the counter for a ticket to Sitges, then directly down to the platform.

This year, navigating on vague recollections, I picked the worst entrance. Down. Along a long subway platform. Up a few steps. Into a confusing intersection. And carrying more luggage than last time.

Then it just sort of happened, on the stairs. The touch was ever so gentle. But not gentle enough.

I’m pretty agile, so I turned aggressively, put my back toward the wall, and barked “Hey!” at the guy about 20 who had been leaning down the stairs right behind me, his hand brushing against me just enough to raise the threat level to red. He backed off immediately -- without my wallet.

Moral of the story: In train stations, airports, bars, and bazaars, wallets don’t belong in back pockets; they go in front. I knew this, but that particular day I just didn’t bother.

Of course, we can’t predict the future. But travelers can anticipate the situations they will be in and adjust how they carry valuables.

With both hands occupied and my mind focused on finding the right platform, I should have been using the money belt. Few thieves are magician-like enough to get one out of your pants. But remember, a money belt is like underwear: The public should never see it. If you are not wearing it but are carrying it in a backpack, for instance, just a glimpse of it will have a thief lusting after you.

Forget those wallets and pouches that hang around your neck and under your shirt, though. The cord around the neck is a dead giveaway. The thief is going to rip it off, and it will hurt.

And remember, thieves will go to great lengths to distract you, There have been reports from Barcelona about a bird poop ruse. Perpetrator One discreetly squirts the gunk on you. Perpetrator Two exclaims “Oh, look what those birds did to you! Let me help you clean that off … “

You can guess the rest, This is a variation of an old trick that has plagued Latin American cities and Miami International Airport off and on over the years, but there they use mustard or ketchup.

Also beware of the time-tested “accidentally on purpose” collision of pedestrians. Crash. You’ll hardly notice where his hand goes. And you’ll never know where your wallet went.

In a report on a travel website, a woman told about her recent experience at La Rambla in Barcelona, perhaps the place most tourists head for first. She was confused because “someone grabbed my bum” -- but that made no sense because she was surrounded by adorable schoolgirls who were singing and laughing. Later, she realized they were working as a team, and the valuables were gone.

Last fall, after an informal survey, ranked Barcelona number one for pickpocketing. The crowds are dense at tourist hot spots like Placa de Catalunya and La Rambla, and it’s near impossible to spot the suspicious. Other cities in the top 10 included: Rome, Prague, Madrid, Paris, Florence, Bueno Aires, Amsterdam, Athens, and Hanoi. And the same situation applies in many, many other cities.

That’s why you should avoid studying maps in exposed locations. I put my back against a wall if I have to get the map out.

That’s why backpacks and the like go under your feet, with the strap looped into the leg of your chair, if you are sidewalk café-sitting.

That’s why Velcro is your friend. I like cargo pants with pockets that have Velcro tabs. It’s like having a built-in alarm on your pants: Opening the pocket makes a lot of noise, and takes a fair amount of tugging.

But most important: Leave a lot at home! You don’t need seven credit cards, a gym membership card, three department store charge cards, and your access card to the computer room at work to climb Teotihuacán, the pyramid near Mexico City.

I bring just two credit cards, plus the ATM card. One credit card always stays in the hotel room, in the safe if one is provided. (Along with the passport.) The other credit card hides behind the Velcro on my leg.

Both credit card numbers and my passport number are in an e-mail message to myself , just in case.

Despite all the precautions, things happen.

That’s why some mental rehearsal is mandatory. Squirted with mustard, most people will be befuddled. That’s the idea. But if you have thought out what you would do, you will do it. Which is to say, you will turn sharply, immediately put as much distance as possible between you and the would-be “helper,” and shout without embarrassment: “Back off! Don’t touch me! No me toca!”

That’s why they have fire drills.

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John P. Harrington/Globe Staff
You probably don't need to worry about pickpockets on the tour bus. But make sure the valuables are where they belong when you jump off for sights like Parc Güell, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí's fantastical landscape, created in the years 1900 to 1914

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