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What’s In Your Pocket?

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Large amounts don’t grow on trees. You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two.

~ Fagin, in the movie Oliver! 

We do love our pockets — use ’em all the time. The first pocket, it turns out, was invented some 700 years ago. But for as long as we’ve had pockets, we’ve  needed to be alert to the possibility of having our pockets “picked”. Naturally, the more you’re exposed to the threat, the more it’s liable to happen. Thus, in over 50 years of intensive travel, it’s happened to me – exactly twice.

The  first time was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in the winter of 1986. I had just been to the “Marche de Fer”, a place you could get anything if you had the money. You could equip a private army there. The place was a black-market military outfitter, payment in American $s or gold. It was just the place to go if you wanted to pull off a coup d’etat, or other such mischief. I was there merely to buy a switchblade . “Pour vous, monsieur, un couteau automatique? Pas de probleme!”

After this successful transaction, I stepped outside and was crossing Rue Courbe – in itself a colorful exercise in risk-management — when I felt a hand coming over my left shoulder. The fingers tried to extract something from my breast pocket. I instantly reached up with my right hand and grabbed the guy’s wrist. He fled empty-handed, almost as though he’d had an attack of conscience.

In thinking about it, I understood what had happened. I wore a white shirt with a $1  bill in the pocket. The thief saw this from the far curb, and as we passed one another, he reaching back over my shoulder. His hopes must have been dashed, poor lad: he probably thought he’d be running home with a twenty.

The other time I encountered a pickpocket I was totally outclassed. It was the summer of 2010;  my wife, Cynthia, and I had just arrived in Athens. We were travelling downtown by train from the airport, cheek-by-jowl all the way.  We were happy to be there; I hummed a tune. My wallet was in my right front zippered pocket. I kept my hand on it while we were rolling.  I was surrounded by a bunch of scruffy lads who kept smiling at me, friendly-like. I smiled back. I kept on humming.

We came into a station and I braced myself for an instant, using both hands. The instant later the doors opened, and out bolted the lads. I felt for my wallet. Visa card, driver’s license, 150 Euros, library card… gonzo. What’s worse, the zipper, evidently just opened by the thief, was now neatly closed. Pretty cheeky! For hours I was in a state of disbelief. It’s a poor way to start a trip.

Next day we  reported our loss  to the police. The officer, with sweat rings under his arms,  went through the the motions – he was a perfect vision of  apathy in a swivel chair.

The authorities were so unconcerned it occurred to us that there might be a degree of collusion between them and the pickpocket community – spreading the tax-free wealth around, you might say.

To butress my argument: we never once saw a police officer anywhere near the trains  that day in  Athens. Pretty suspicious, if you ask me.

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There are several established pickpocket techniques, with many artful variations. The main technique is to distract youfor instance, slopping coffee or squirting ketchup on you, or dropping an item in your path. Sometimes an accomplice will even fake a medical emergency– a heart attack or  drowning. It’s hard to keep your wits about you in such a situation.

The dexterity of the skillful pickpocket is breathtaking. This of course takes training and practice. He may, for practice, put a watermelon into a nylon stocking, and then proceed to  slit the nylon with a razor blade, without damaging the melon. He may also practise dipping his hand into a bucket of water without causing a ripple. Some thieves, incidentally, use tongs, tweezers and fishhooks.

Pickpockets often work in teams, so the stollen item can be passed hand to hand, frustrating attempts to identify the actual thief.

It’s a long story, but our experience in Athens involved a team of about eight people who had set a sophisticated trap for us.

The reason Cynthia wasn’t hit is that she hugged her pack to her chest — and glared at everyone nearby. She thought I was way too relaxed; as it turned out, she was right.

Of all  continents, Europe is the worst in this respect.. Barcelona has the sad distinction of being the “Pickpocket Capital” of the world. Next are Prague, Rome, Madrid, Paris, Florence, Amterdam and Athens – in that order.

There’s little point in trying to avoid pickpockets altogether. You just can’t do it when you travel. You must concede they’re present in any crowded  spot — and they’re targeting you! Otherwise, you  won’t be careful enough; experiments have shown that we tend to overestimate our ability to know if we’re being pickpocketed.

There are many articles online about how to cut your risks; YouTube has tons. The advice is usually  common-sensical, along the lines of avoiding crowds, not looking rich, using your hotel safe,  keeping alert, carrying minimum valuables, avoiding beggars, touts and prostitutes — and so on.

Some  people claim to be able to spot pickpockets. Maybe so, but this doesn’t sound like much fun — and it’s bound to make you a paranoid bundle of nerves and to spoil your experience of the place. Here are a few ideas I’ve found useful that may help pickpocket-proof your own travels.

(For years I used a money-belt; it was OK, I guess, but once I had to drop my drawers in a London Tube station in order to get cash from it. After that spot of embarrassment, I’ve abandoned the money-belt altogether. Besides, my money and passport often smelled like ripe Brie.)

  • Use a leg-wallet that Velcro-straps to an ankle, then pull up a sock over it. If you wear slacks, the wallet is virtually impregnable. Safety-pin the zipper
  • Carry a piercingly-loud personal alarm that can be used as needed. Such an alarm often causes a thief to panic, drop his loot and flee.
  • Avoid standing near the doorways of trains; groups of pickpockets can rush in and out before you know it.
  • Carry a walking stick. It’s an amazing deterrent, and an excellent defensive/offensive weapon.
  • My friend John carries a “decoy” wallet stuffed with Canadian Tire money. What fun he has with that!

So, my travelling friend, the world  is still a jungle out there — so keep your guard up! You have been forewarned ! And as the great Julius Caesar –a victim of  crime himself — said,

Praemonitus, Praemunitus”. Which is to say, “Forewarned is forearmed.”