Even when you try your best ‘not’ to look like the average tourist, you will still be a prime target of pick pocketers and scammers around the world. The worst thing that can happen when travelling is losing your phone, your passport or even your photo camera.
Not only will these valuables cost a lot of money to recover, you will also lose a lot of valuable pictures, memories and cheeky passport stamps.
In order to avoid getting pickpocketed you need to be very aware of the people around you – but even then, the bad guys might find ways to grab your phone or even luggage.
What is the distraction method?
Simply put, the distraction method is when a criminal distracts you after which he or his crony grabs your phone and runs off into the bustling streets.
Your valuables will be hone and the chance that they will be found ever again is small or even non-existent.
One way criminals distract tourists is by asking their targets something in the native language of the country. Obviously confused – you don’t speak that language, you are distracted asking whether they speak English, but by the time you have answered your question, your bag or phone is gone.
Criminals using this method often have a partner in crime (see what I did there?) but they are also known to work alone.
Where do criminals use the distraction method?
Criminals literally use the distraction method ALL OVER THE WORLD. No matter whether you are in Brussels (friends got bamboozled in Brussels – not my proudest day as a Belgian), in Paris, in Bangkok or Kathmandu – you are never safe for the distraction method.
How come the distraction method is so popular all over the world? Well, this has to do with the fact that the distraction method is very easy to use. You do not need to train in sleight of hand for months on end and you do not need an elaborate plan or a gang of trusted companions to make big money in only a couple of minutes.
You just need to be able to run fast or disappear in a crowd.
How not to fall victim to the distraction method?
The distraction method is so popular because it has a high success rate. Why? Because you are so distracted that you literally do not notice your stuff being stolen. Criminals and petty thieves use both the element of surprise and the element of the unknown in order to unhand you your valuables.
For instance: you are walking down the street and a man is walking in the opposite direction with an open can of beer or a cup of coffee. He walks into you, spills his drink on your clothes. The first thing you will do is try to wipe the spilled drink off your clothes. You are distracted by
- The surprise of getting a drink spilled over you
- You react emotionally whether it is to tell the spiller everything is okay or to tell him he can run to hell.
The surprise in combination with the emotional outburst – no matter if it’s a good emotion or a bad one, makes that you are not keeping an eye on your surroundings and that it is very easy for a third person to come in and steal your stuff.
And although it is incredibly hard NOT to be distracted when a criminals picks you as a target – there are a few things you can do to make their life harder and your shit unstealable.
1. Put one foot through your backpack strap
As a traveller, you probably know how a stolen backpack can literally ruin your complete trip. When reading up on my trip to Kathmandu, I read about how when waiting for the bus, you need to be very careful not to get your backpack stolen. Even though you might have padlocked your backpack and made sure it is extra secure – it is very easy for a criminal to just grab your bag when you are not looking. That is why – when travelling or when moving around in crowded areas such as in train stations, you always need to keep one foot through one of the straps of your backpack. That way criminals won’t be able to yank away your backpack – and when they try you will definitely feel it.
I only recently came around to theft proof backpacks. I noticed a lot of people using them in London and now I know why: they are literally awesome.
Theft proof backpacks are backpacks that are designed to make it hard for criminals to open up the backpack and steal your belongings. The zipper is usually located at the back of the backpack. This means that you need to take the bag off your back in order to open it up.
I bought mine for about £10 and I am bloody happy with it. Although I was a bit disappointed when it arrived – it looked small, I now understand that it is not too dissimilar of Hermoine’s purse. Literally. I can get my massive gaming laptop in, the power cable, my gaming mouse, my headphones, my way too big wallet (hey, I’m a girl so that’s okay) and still have room for other shit.
And the best thing is that I should not be scared of my things getting stolen!
3. Do not put your wallet in your back pocket
I’m looking at you here, guys! Do NOT put your wallet in your back pocket! Unless you have secured it with a chain, but even then, you might find that your wallet is left cashless, dangling from a chain off your trousers.
When someone bumps into you from the back or when you are part of a bigger (and moving) crowd like at festivals or even at the tube station (hallo Central Line at rush hour!), there are so many stimuli that your body won’t react to someone trying to lift your wallet from your back pocket.
Instead just try and leave your wallet in your inner pocket of your coat (although safer than your back pocket, it can still get stolen) or just take a theftproof backpack with you. Whatever you do: do not put your wallet in your back pocket!
4. Steer clear from arguments and be cautious when enjoying a street performance
A massive argument in the centre of the street. Exciting! But also distracting. Huge arguments in public places are often set up by a small gang of criminals and pickpockets to steal from people that are distracted by the fight or even want to calm the implicated parties down.
When you see people having a massive argument in the street – stay away. If you are scared it might get physical? Call the police. Whatever you do: do not stand too near and keep an extra keen eye on your belongings.
The same is true for street performances. Especially in big cities such as London and Paris, street performances tend to attract massive crowds. These crowds, however, are an easy picking for pickpockets. This means you need to keep an extra eye out for your stuff, maybe even carry your backpack on your chest instead of your back.
5. If your shit gets stolen – SCREAM!
Okay so, let’s say you got distracted and a thief snatched the phone out of your hand. What do you do? Your first reaction is obviously to run after him or her. But one vital part that can make a lot of difference when it comes to retrieving your phone or even wallet is screaming and making it known there is a thief running away.
Not only will people start calling the police for you – you are also alerting the people the thief is running towards that they need to stop this man or woman. It obviously doesn’t always help, but it increases the chance of not only people stopping the thief, but also people recalling his face or features when later questioned by police.
About four years ago (can’t believe it has already been that long!) I was walking to a bar in Antwerp to meet some friends. I remember it was late – past 11PM. There weren’t many people on the street and although spring was in the air, the “terraskes” (something like a front beer garden but nicer) were empty. I noticed a few people walking in front of me through the Sint Pietersstraat. All of a sudden, I heard a woman scream. I did not see her but I noticed someone running towards me. A man in front of me basically grabbed the thief and literally slammed him into the shutters of the little sandwich shop next to him.
The last thing I saw was the criminal lying on the floor with his arm twisted in a rather unsavoury way. If the woman hadn’t screamed, the man in front of me would never have been able to react in time.
Small recap on how to avoid your shit getting stolen by pickpockets
- It is hard not to get distracted when you are a target. But stop and think whenever someone speaks to you in a language you do not understand or when a local is trying to point something out. When this happens your first reaction should be to keep things close.
- Buy a theft proof back pack. These things are ‘da bomb’. Especially when you live in a big city, have to take crowded commutes or travel a lot, this bad boy will keep your stuff safe.
- Do not – I repeat – DO NOT keep your wallet in your back pocket. You will be an easy target!
- When you need to put your backpack down, try and stick your feet through one of the straps. It is easy to snatch a backpack – even when it is theft proof 😉
- Stay away from fights and big crowds. Public arguments, flower girls, girls asking you to sign a petition, even street performances can all be set up by criminals to distract tourists. If you DO want to enjoy a street performance, please make sure you always keep an eye on your valuables.
- When someone does steal something from you, scream loudly and let people know the man running away is a thief. That way people the criminal is running towards can act accordingly and you have a bigger chance of seeing your stuff back.