25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 8

Pickpockets, Thieves, and Self-Defense

State Department Advisories  Dangerous Areas and Local Information  Pickpockets  Money Belts  Wallet, Shoes, Jewelry  Thievery  Street Children  Self-Defense  Tips

MOST VISITORS TO European and other countries don't encounter pickpockets or thieves regardless of how or where valuables are carried. In one developing North African country with a rap for rip-offs only five percent of visitors are victimized by thievery, according to a British magazine survey. In your travels you will mostly experience waitresses chasing you down with a forgotten camera, taxi drivers taking the best route, other backpackers looking out for your stuff, the correct change in your hand time after time, the shining honesty and kindness of good people.

Nevertheless, if you make it easy there are a few thieves everywhere who may steal your property, and the trouble and expense of replacing passports, tickets, travelers checks, and gear can wreak havoc on your tour. Fortunately, with common sense and an awareness of how thieves operate, risks can be reduced.

State Department Advisories and Website

The United States Department of State operates a website and twenty-four-hour hotline with security and political information for every country. These advisories are compiled by State Department staff in every country, and partially depend on traveler reports. Thousands of documents are available. Travelers from all over the world use this service.

State Department Overseas Citizens' Emergency Center Washington, D.C.
voice phone: 202-647-5225
fax-back service: 202-647-3000
computer modem: 202-647-9225
world wide web: travel.state.gov

The voice number connects to a taped voice-mail system which allows you to listen to hundreds of topics by punching in selections. The fax-back service sends faxes after you punch in selections via phone. The modem number (dialed by computer) accesses the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board. The web service, of course, is the most convenient.

State Department reports include:

While some backpackers say the travel advisories exaggerate problems, I consider them the best information source for current dangers around the world, if properly understood. For instance, the State Department advisory on Guatemala cites so many instances of possible trouble that many would-be travelers are scared-off. In reality there are thousands of travelers in Guatemala at any time, most of whom are having a fantastic experience. Read the reports for what they are, take them into careful consideration, but also imagine how a travel advisory for any large American city might appear.

If the State Department report says, "There have been numerous reports of robberies on the volcanoes around Lake Atitlán," that doesn't mean it's completely unsafe to visit Guatemala, or even Lake Atitlán, but that you should be wary around those volcanoes. If I didn't have that information I probably would have walked those trails on my own. Instead it was easy to go with a group and guide to reduce risk.

On the other hand at this writing the report for Somalia says, "The State Department strongly advises U.S. citizens to avoid travel in Somalia as it is totally unsafe." I would totally abide by that.

Author on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala -- Click for another lake view (65k) No place, of course, is perfectly safe, but some are more imperfect than others. With good information you can travel smarter by knowing what to beware: in Belize City, snatch and run thieves; in Managua, pickpockets and pack slashers on public buses; in Thailand, drugged gifts of food or drink; in Lahore, Pakistan, sleazy hotels where backpacks regularly disappear; in the hills around Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, armed robbery and rape.
Photo: Author below Atitlán (click image for another view)


Dangerous Areas and Local Information

Every major city has an area more dangerous than elsewhere, and a time when this is especially true. It may even be safe during the day, but becomes sinister after nightfall. Such areas are always well-known to locals, so get advice from a hotel, tourist office, or waitress. Most guidebooks include warnings about red light or seedy areas, but conditions may have changed since the information was written.

Another point is that just because other travelers say someplace is perfectly safe, that doesn't make it true. It may only means they didn't encounter problems. I listened to an experienced backpacker swear how the dangers of a particular area were highly exaggerated or non-existent, when the previous day I had encountered three Germans who had been robbed at gunpoint there.

Local authorities and tourist offices cannot always be relied upon, either, as they may have an interest in minimizing problems, so you always need to use your eyes, ears, instincts, and best judgment, along with a few degrees of body lean towards safety, away from recklessness.

Hanging Outside a Tourist Office Right Now?

The first part of my first trip to Europe was an escorted tour, the latter a backpacking trip to Spain, Morocco, Greece, and Turkey. I took a flight from Madrid to Istanbul expecting an afternoon arrival. The flight was delayed, however, so I didn't land until eight. I went to the tourist office at the airport to find out how to get into the city. There I met a man who said he was a reporter--he had the right identification.

He told me how to get into the city and what places to visit, etc. After that I went for coffee--he followed and sat down with me. I believe I was vulnerable as I had not met anybody speaking English for a week. As we chatted I missed the last bus. He offered a ride and I did something I never should have--I accepted.

On the way he said we had to stop at his house before dropping me at the hostel. I told him I was tired but he insisted. When we got there he started coming on to me and I had to be really smart and firm. Finally he took me to the hostel. Believe me I could not sleep the whole night thinking of all that could have happened.

Normally I would never go with a stranger, but in this situation I was vulnerable--perhaps I was needing the company, I don't know. I was really lucky. Angela, Canada

You can bet that guy is a smooth-talker, knows exactly what he's doing, and that not everyone is lucky.


As you wait in line at the crowded Amsterdam tourist office continuously blaring over the loudspeaker is this warning in six languages: "Your attention, please. Watch your wallets, there are pickpockets about!"

That tourist office is tough pickings for any would-be pickpocket, as everyone is continuously fidgeting with pockets or purses, and throwing about a great many suspicious looks.

I have, however, encountered a number of pickpockets in my travels. While queuing in a train station I observed a pickpocket's hand stealthily slip into a purse. For some reason the snatch couldn't be made, so he slithered into another line and attempted to lift a wallet from a back pocket. (I then made his presence known, but he immediately disappeared into the crowd.) 

I have also chased hands from my pockets four times--twice while disembarking crowded buses (a very vulnerable situation1); while temporarily blinded as I descended into a dark, sleazy club from a bright street; and in a market. A travel mate had her fanny pack unzipped and wallet removed while pressed against a wall of people in a crowded market. Another backpacker in the same country had been pickpocketed three times in two months, also in markets. Said he, "They're good."

The professional pickpocket in the developed world has a more-or-less standard operating procedure. He chooses a likely target--someone who obviously has money within easy reach, which includes back pockets and purses. If the thief cannot get the money cleanly, he or a partner will create a distraction by bumping the target, violently colliding with the target, or spilling something on the target. The wallet is snatched and within two seconds discreetly handed to a partner who quickly walks away. The money and valuables are removed and the rest dumped within a few more seconds.

Even if you see or feel what is happening, you have no evidence. The scoundrel says someone shoved him into you, you fell into him, or you were trying to rob him.

Another tactic is to create a disturbance with the target's friend or partner, and then pickpocket the real target while she is distracted.

These pickpockets look for easy marks. As long as you don't dangle your money in a purse, or dangle it in a back pocket, or otherwise dangle it on a thread ten feet behind you, they will choose an easier target, of which there are many.

In the developing world you are a juicy target because pickpockets know you have ten, a hundred, or a thousand times more money than the average local. You are the target. There is no getting around that. But if you keep most of your money in a hidden money belt against your skin as detailed below, you'll be safe from pickpockets.

Money Belts--Your Best Defense

"Money belt" does not mean the fanny or waist pack many tourists wear outside their clothes. If you wear one of these in some areas you will immediately see "$" signs light up in some eyes. And I'm willing to bet when you see a waist pack on a tourist your first thought will be something like "Big, fat bag of money!" Imagine your thoughts if you were hungry and jobless, or a street urchin with no one to look after you.

You can probably use a waist pack in Europe without incident. Millions of tourists enjoy their convenience, and they are safer than pockets and purses. But they are not nearly as safe as hidden money belts. Criminals know waist packs are "where the money is," and no waist pack is a match for their deft hands and incredibly sharp razors.

Thus the primary achievement of hidden money belts is the "out of sight, out of mind" principle. It's almost a secondary benefit that they are impossible for a thief to snatch without your knowledge.


Beware European street gangs
Photo: Beware European "White Blouse" street gangs.

Types of Money Belts

Waist type
The most popular. Typically about ten inches long and four inches wide (25x10 cm) with a waist strap. It has a zipper with one or two compartments, weighs about two ounces (57 grams), and costs about $10. It can be worn either tightly against the stomach or dropped loosely into the pants.
Pocket type
About half the size of the waist type. It hangs inside your pants from your belt or belt loop. It has one or two zippered compartments, and is easy to whip out when needed. This is what I use most of the time.
Two money belts. Photo: My usual system. I darkened the loop with a magic marker to hide it better.
Neck or shoulder type
Hangs under clothes from around your neck or shoulder. It may take a while to whip out when needed, depending on dress. The strap could be grabbed, cut, and pulled away. The neck-type is the least safe of any hidden money belt, but still much safer than wallets and fanny packs.
Leg type
Straps around your leg just above the ankle. These are used by some travelers in bandit areas (which doesn't apply to 99.99% of us) since it remains hidden if a bandit forces you to drop your pants to display your waist money belt. Another trick is to place valuables inside an Ace bandage wrapped around your leg.
Belt type
A real hold-up-your-pants belt with a zippered compartment on the inside. It has about twenty-four inches (60 centimeters) of zippered area, about one inch (2.54 centimeters) wide. It comfortably stores a dozen currency notes. I always use one as extra insurance. A fabric belt for men is available from Campmor and some travel/outdoor stores for $20. A nice leather belt which can be trimmed to fit women is available from Magellan's for $28. See Useful Information for catalog info.

What Belongs in the Money Belt

I use a dual system: a pocket-type money belt together with a hold-up-the-pants money belt. I don't load them with anything less than crucial so they are as inconspicuous and comfortable as possible.

Into the hold-up-the-pants belt I put about ten $20 bills; one or two $100 travelers' checks; a trimmed photocopy of the first two pages of my passport; and a piece of paper with travelers' check numbers, American Express phone numbers, flight numbers, airline phone numbers, credit card numbers, foreign contacts, and any other vital information.

Into the other money belt I put the rest of my travelers' checks; the rest of my U.S. currency (probably not more than $200); my passport and another trimmed photocopy of the first two pages of it; any visas; my driver's license; three checks from my U.S. bank account; airline or other tickets; and another duplicate list of vital information. This is also the best place for your credit and ATM cards, but don't bring more than you need. Two or three should suffice.

The duplication is in case you lose one you won't be penniless or informationless in the cold. Additionally, I keep more duplicated material in my pack, including a travelers' check or two; about $40 in cash; and another photocopy of vital information. Losing some of your stuff is bad, but losing everything could be really bad.

The Wallet

The money belt should not be used for day-to-day activities, but once per day to remove the necessary money for that day. You don't want to draw attention to it unnecessarily. A wallet or money clip can be used for the myriad of daily transactions.

Pickpockets call the back pocket the "sucker pocket," so don't carry your wallet there. I always use a front pocket or a jacket inside breast pocket. Other travelers keep theirs in a waist pack, but be wary in some situations.

I recommend sewing or gluing (Magic Stitch, $2, at sewing or discount stores) Velcro closures (same places) into your pockets to protect contents from spillage and pilferage. I've been lucky several times when my wallet fell from my pocket while sleeping on buses and trains. (While I haven't gotten around to this myself, I know it's a good idea.)

Unless you are using your credit card often, don't leave it in your wallet--keep it next to your skin in the money belt. Usually I just have whatever foreign currency remains from my last cashed travelers' check, which is rarely more than $100. There may also be a few coins, a bus pass, etc., but nothing of too dear value.

Some travelers prefer keeping their bills rolled into a money clip and deeply deposited in a front pocket. This is the lowest-profile way to carry daily money.


In higher crime countries it's worthwhile to deposit a greenback or two under an insole. While I've never been robbed of everything, I've heard ugly stories from people who have, so I can assure you having a little money is infinitely better than none.

Watches and Jewelry

While traveling in unknown lands never wear expensive watches or jewelry, or even watches or jewelry which look expensive. There is nothing like a real Cartier, a knock-off Rolex, or anything sparkling or gold to make you look like an easy mark and occasion a gun to your ear or a knife to your throat.

Thievery on Trains and Buses

The big backpacker scare in Thailand is being offered candy and drinks on trains and buses from supposedly friendly people. The treats are spiked with powerful drugs which knock you out. They then take whatever they want. While this is rare, it's doubly nasty because most Thais are wonderfully generous and love to offer sweets and things to visitors.

In some countries checking your pack on a train is the same as kissing it goodbye. Backpackers always carry their packs onto trains, usually placing them on an overhead rack in easy sight. While sleeping place your pack under your feet, or strap or padlock it to yourself or something immovable. If you have a sleeping compartment, bring your pack in. These precautions are enough to deter most thieves, who move on to easier targets.

Unless you keep your pack to the size of a large daypack--no more than about 3000 cubic inches (50 liters)--bus drivers will sometimes insist your pack be placed underneath, or on top of, the bus. Both are not so good, but on top is much worse. For one, it can get wet up there. For another, anyone can climb up at any time and loot your pack, or toss it into a field to retrieve later. Or on a narrow mountain road as the bus plunges over a cliff, the pack could fly off without you.

When stowed underneath the driver and conductor have a higher level of responsibility, but I still make a point of checking on it occasionally, if only to let everyone know I'm keeping my eyes open. But then maybe they get the idea there really is something valuable in it, and become inspired to steal my pack and retire early. But then again, just because I might be paranoid, that doesn't mean they aren't trying to steal my pack. But then again, didn't his eyes light up when I handed him my pack? And what about that guy getting off now. Why would anybody get off here? Does he have Grand Theft Pack Larceny on his mind, too?

It's better to travel superlight and carry on your tiny pack, whistling.

Snatch and Run Thieves

Snatch and run thieves are usually teenagers who grab a purse, camera bag, fanny pack, or wallet and run like hell or speed away on a motorbike, so beware prowling motorbikes and teenagers. Straps may be cut with a knife or scissors, or you dragged along behind a sputtering Vespa, causing heads to turn. While I have never encountered this type of crime, it is said to be prevalent in some large Italian cities.

Don't carry a purse or camera bag on the street side of the sidewalk, and develop the habit of holding both securely. If you carry a purse, don't have money or valuables inside. Use a small nylon tote instead of a camera case that shouts money. A confident, rapid walking pace is also a deterrent.

In some South American cities, notably Lima, many travelers walk with packs in front to prevent thieves from slicing it open from behind, dumping contents onto the street. In a wild melee of grabbing and running, you are left with a slashed pack. One victim said people were fighting over his shirts.

Reading this one might expect good technique would be to run from corner to corner in paranoid terror. But since easy walking is essential for observing and feeling the world, the best compromise may be to relax and enjoy while remaining alert to constantly changing surroundings.

Street Children

In some major cities of Latin America (especially Rio de Janeiro) and other parts of the developing world, there are thousands of children who have no home, no one to care for them, and who only live by what they beg or steal.

One ploy is to encircle by pretending to sell something, perhaps shoving a newspaper in your face, and then boldly pilfering your pockets, or slicing into your pack and fanny pack. If you shove some away, others step in like sharks in a frenzy. When they get what they want they scatter in all directions.

Another tactic--one I have experienced--is for a child or two to "befriend" you. He follows you around, carefully watching your every movement, continuously asking for money, inquiring about your things, and waiting for your wallet to appear. In an unguarded moment, perhaps as you are looking into your wallet to give him a few cruzados, or to make another transaction with someone else, he grabs whatever he can and runs.

Of course these children have been dealt an awful hand in life, and are just trying to survive. And while you probably want to be compassionate, I suggest giving to local aid agencies, if possible. It is too risky to embolden the hungry and desperate with ultimately insignificant gifts of sweets or money.

The best defense, as always, is to maintain a low profile and travel lightly. A hidden money belt is a necessity. In high-crime and street-urchin areas do not encourage even one child, as others may follow. Locals often treat street children like dogs, completely ignoring or threatening them. While few travelers can do that, you must keep your own safety in mind.


A few years ago I attended a self-defense class designed for women, and taught by an Israeli Army veteran. As the only male student I was volunteered to attack the instructor, who then absurdly flung me around like a stuffed animal. After three humiliating and painful results I concluded the path of good was altogether superior for me.

He taught techniques the Israelis have developed over fifty years in a hostile environment. Not karate, kung fu, or other stylized systems, but a scientific approach to incapacitating an attacker as efficiently as possible.

He maintained that many men and women--but especially women--do not know how to react when attacked, and have never considered what they might do in such a situation. Of course travelers are only very rarely physically attacked, but the consequences are such forethought is imperative.

Following are a few points on defensive techniques. You may want to attend a good self-defense class.

Self-Defense Tips

THESE POINTS ONLY RELATE TO A PHYSICAL ATTACK UPON YOUR PERSON. If they want your money or belongings, let them have it. Even for a highly trained Israeli, if your attacker is armed with a gun or knife you are likely to lose a fight very badly.

1. Attackers often test victims before assaulting as they are looking for a good victim. He may shout or curse at you, and/or bump you. He wants you to become rattled, to stop in your tracks, and, in effect, turn yourself over to him. Mentally prepare yourself now for such a test. You want to look tough, confident, and unflustered.

2. In a fight for your life you cannot be squeamish about inflicting injury. You have many tools at your disposal, including fingernails, fingers, thumbs, teeth, elbows, and legs.

3. Get a finger in his eye and gouge. Get fingers in his mouth, dig in with your nails, and rip his cheeks out. The same for nostrils, ears, and balls: rip, tear, and gouge. Run when you get the chance.

4. Don't delude yourself that "knowing where to kick a man" is going to save you. That is a difficult or impossible blow to deliver in a fight. In reality you would need to use fingers and nails to gouge and tear.

5. Scream at maximum power to startle, frighten, and alert. Men should do this, too. Think banzai battle cry.

6. If the attacker has a choke-hold around your neck, don't grab onto his arms or hands to pull them off. Instead, join hands at your waist and swing upward to blast his grip off, then come down with a blow to the nose. Otherwise gouge eyes or rip apart balls.

7. Fighting back may induce your attacker to greater violence, and some women have talked their way out of harm. No one can tell you what your response should be. You must decide then and there. Prepare now to make that decision.

8. Many Department of State Travel Advisories for various countries state that tourists who quietly accede to bandits' demands are usually not harmed. Do not argue, but give whatever they want, including your car. The rule is: Do what they say, hand it over, and get away.

Travelers' Tips

In the Middle East if you come across a sign telling you to keep out of a place or town, keep out! I learned this after coming a hair's breadth from being stoned to death by a group of Palestinians who thought I was Israeli. Since tourist dollars are much desired, there is good reason for any such warnings. Robin, Brownsville, Texas


When booking airline, bus and train tickets try to arrive at your destination during daylight hours, especially in some large American and developing world cities. There can be dangerous people at bus stations looking for vulnerability. If you become a target, don't show weakness--instead look arrogant and confident. Even in times of dire poverty, sometimes money spent on a taxi is a great bargain. Slam, New Zealand


Crime finally caught me after traveling in more than sixty countries. After locating a seat on a very crowded train leaving Yogyakarta, Indonesia I set my daypack on the seat and placed my bag on the overhead rack. Within those few seconds the daypack was gone. I obtained a police report at my next destination, beat myself up for a day, and continued on to have an amazing trip. My new rule is to not let go of my property until the train leaves the station. Indonesia is a fantastic country despite that one unpleasant encounter.  Curt


Opportunity makes the thief.

Next Table of Contents Reader Comment Top

How to See the World is copyright © John Gregory 1995-2009. All rights reserved. Except for personal use like showing to a friend, it may not be reproduced, retransmitted, rewritten, altered, or framed. All product names and trademarks are property of their respective owners. Comment.
Sales. Disclaimer. Thank you.

............ .

. . ....... .                                                    . .. .. .
.......    :)      . . .                                          ..... .. ..  . .
. .   .  . .   . .
.   . . ............... .  . .   .
  . . . ......................................... . . . .  


.  .  


    .   (: ..



......... .

. .  . . . .  .  . .


1. In Belize as I struggled with my pack past an attractive, well-dressed young woman with whom moments before I had been pleasantly chatting, her hand profoundly dived into my pocket in a searching manner. When I confronted her with an incredulous stare (my wallet was elsewhere), she replied, "Excuse me."  back