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13 Signs You’re About to Be Pickpocketed

Updated: Apr. 27, 2023

Make sure you know the signs that a pickpocket is nearby, and take precautions so that the pocket that gets picked isn't yours!

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Human hands exchanging money - closeup shot
Maryna Pleshkun/Shutterstock

You just pulled out wads of cash

Pickpockets like to target rich people, because…well, it’s a bigger payday! Shuffling through a large hunk of cash, especially if it includes big bills, is an excellent way to attract a pickpocket’s attention. For that matter, if you’re traveling to an area that’s known for pickpocket activity, you really shouldn’t be doing anything that showcases your wealth. Keep your fancy, sparkly jewelry and designer watches at home. Home burglars take notice of your wealth, too—learn some more secrets they won’t tell you.

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Young woman looking for something in her purse

You just checked on your belongings

If you see a sign to beware of pickpockets, or if you have reason to suspect there might be a pickpocket around, your first instinct might be to reach down and feel for your wallet or credit card. But this protective measure can actually backfire since it’s a good way to ensure that a potential thief knows where you’re keeping your valuables. Gene Turner, Certified Identity Theft Risk Management Specialist and author of pickpocket.com, points out that men’s suit jackets and backpacks often have loads of pockets. “The wallet, cash, and credit cards could be in any one of ten or more pockets,” Turner says. “A pickpocket doesn’t usually have time to search all ten, but when they see you check your pocket when you see the sign, they now know the exact location.” Even just glancing down at the location can clue in a potential crook. If you think pickpockets might be around, resist the urge to glance down at your belongings. Keep your head on a swivel instead. Make sure you know about these warning signs of hoarding.

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Female tourist exploring city while holding map

You’re lost (and look it)

Pickpockets pick on the distracted. They also keep an eye out for people who clearly are unfamiliar with the area, which is why they’re notorious for operating in popular tourist spots. If you have your head buried in a map or glued to Google Maps, pickpockets will take advantage of your distraction and confusion to swipe something off you. Even when you’re unsure of where you are, try your best to appear confident and stay aware of your surroundings.

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a waitress taking orders from her customers in a crowded restaurant
Corepics VOF/Shutterstock

A group of people came somewhere together and then immediately split up

You happen to notice a cluster of people enter a restaurant or a tourist spot like a museum or cathedral together, and then disperse and start acting as if they’re alone. Try to steer clear of them, as there’s a real possibility they’re hunting for pickpocketing victims. Pickpockets rarely work alone, and accomplices will usually spread out to try to find a victim. They may also feign innocence by talking on the phone, when they’re in fact scheming with their partners-in-crime.

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Someone yelled that there was a pickpocket around

This might seem like the most obvious sign there’s a pickpocket lurking…but maybe not for the reason you think. Of course, it could just be a worrywart tourist crying wolf. But sometimes, it’s the pickpockets themselves that sound the alarm. They know that it’ll send tourists (especially ones with more dough to lose) into a frenzy—and, again, get people patting their pockets.

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You’ve got your wallet in your back pocket

If you’re going to chance keeping your valuables in your pockets at all, they should absolutely be in the front ones. Your front pockets are usually small and tight, making them harder to remove objects from…not to mention they’re in the front of your body, so you’re more likely to notice hands reaching toward them. On the other hand, if your surroundings are chaotic and/or unfamiliar, your back pockets may as well be in another world. Even if your back pocket is buttoned, thieves can swiftly and sneakily unbutton it or, at the very least, cut it with a knife. Either way, they still make off with your wallet.

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Young couple arguing in a cafe. Relationship problems.
Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock

People just started arguing in public

Pickpockets know that people can’t resist sneaking a peek at strangers fighting, so a pair of them will stage an argument in hopes of getting the crowd good and distracted. Another thief will zero in on the gawkers. “Pickpockets are counting on you paying more attention to everything else except for your wallet or purse,” says Turner. Other ways pickpockets will cause a diversion, and ensure that people’s focus is off their valuables, are by tripping and falling or acting like they’re suddenly feeling sick.

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Backpack on the chair of cafe. Blue with brown and white pattern bag. Hand made backpack for travelers.

You hung your belongings on the side of a chair

While this is a perfectly acceptable way to unburden yourself of your purse, backpack, or coat in a restaurant you’re familiar with or an area you know is safe, you may not want to do it in an unfamiliar or very crowded spot. Skilled thieves can stroll by and snatch up a backpack strap without even slowing down. Instead, keep your bag or coat somewhere you can see it at all times, on your lap, or down by your feet. Better yet, loop your purse or backpack strap around the leg of the chair you’re sitting in to ensure that it won’t be gone after a single tug. Learn some more tips that’ll help you avoid getting robbed on vacation.

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Girl listening to music

You’re rocking out to your tunes

Technology is the ultimate distraction. If you have your headphones in, you’re much less aware of your immediate surroundings, which makes sneaking up on you all too easy. It’s effortless for thieves to unplug the headphones from the phone and snatch the latter. As Brightside.com points out, people will probably think something’s gone wrong with their headphones, or their battery’s died, before they jump to the conclusion that it was a pickpocket. The thief will probably be long gone by the time the victim realizes that their phone is. Watch out for these other common vacation mistakes that travelers make.

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People inside the crowded metro train. Singapore

Someone is invading your personal bubble

In large, bustling crowds, getting up close and personal with strangers is often inevitable, and pickpockets will take advantage of that. One of the most cliché pickpocketing methods is the old jostle-and-snatch—someone bumps into you in a busy crowd, and either they or another pickpocket snatches your wallet. But be equally wary of someone who gets up very close to you, especially if you’re face-to-face, and especially in a space where it’s difficult to move further away, like a packed subway train. Your first instinct will probably be to turn away…which might leave your purse or backpack fully exposed to the thief. Instead, try your best to move somewhere else (without turning your back on them). Or, if you’re comfortable doing so, look directly at them. Thieves’ entire livelihood revolves around secrecy, so a direct, head-on stare might be all it takes to deter one.

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Multiethnic Travelers are looking at the map at the train station, Travel and transportation concept
TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock

Somebody tries to get you to look at a map

Posing as tourists themselves, pickpockets may go up to a target and ask them for help reading a map or finding a destination.  Be especially concerned if they’re particularly aggressive and try to shove the map close to your face. Of course, it really could be someone who needs help, so try to avoid being rude, but consider just apologizing and saying you can’t help. If you do decide to help them, make sure you remain alert, looking around for a potential accomplice who might swoop in. Or, better yet, have someone you’re traveling with, and trust, keep a close eye on your valuables the entire time. Some other variations of this trick involve people asking you to sign a petition or read a flyer or brochure.

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Ice cream on the ground. (selective focus)

Someone spills something nearby

Here’s another surefire way to get you rattled and distracted. Again, using crowds and chaos to their advantage, would-be thieves drop coffee, ice cream, or some equally messy substance nearby (or even directly on!) their chosen target. Whether this makes that person rush to offer help or just makes them more flustered and distracted, the thieves can take advantage. This method is especially common near ATMs, where pickpockets might zero in on people who’ve just withdrawn cash. Be especially wary if someone spills something on you and offers to help clean up your clothes; chances are they’re going to snatch something from your pocket instead.

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Thief stealing wallet from purse of a woman using mobile phone at the subway station. Pickpocketing at subway station
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

You don’t think it can happen to you

“But I’d know if someone grabbed my wallet!” people say all-too-commonly. News flash: Most pickpockets are experts. “I have always said a good pickpocket could pick me clean and I would never feel it,” warns Turner. Are you really certain that you couldn’t possibly get your pockets picked without realizing, or are you just in denial? It can and does happen, so don’t just assume the rules don’t apply to you. Indeed, “the greatest advantage that pickpockets have is that most people think it can’t happen to them,” says Turner. For more advice on how to stay safe from pickpockets, learn the 18 secrets they won’t tell you.

[Sources: pickpocket.com, Brightside.com, LifeHacker]