Avoiding Theft and Scams in European Cities

Concluding a five month backpacking trip through Europe, I did not come across any danger besides two attempted thefts. Out of the 25 European cities I visited, the two times it happened were in the obvious cities: Barcelona and Athens.

#1: Barcelona

Barcelona wins first place on the list of petty theft incidents in Europe. The locals abhor tourists. You can easily see the sentiment indicated all over the city. You’ll see graffiti of that nature around the most tourist-heavy attractions. That, on top of a society of highly-skilled, masters of disguise, slight-of-hand magicians that some of those thieves are, it’s highly recommended to exercise extra vigilance in Barcelona.

You’ve probably already heard many cautionary tales about infamous Barcelona thieves. Sometimes they get you two or three at a time from different directions. As you’re boarding the metro, on your left someone slices off the string of your drawstring bag, on your right a cohort slices off the other string, picking the fruit of your belongings from your dismembered bag as the door closes shut behind you. I didn’t experience this myself, but I hear it’s not uncommon. My own experience was a bit different, but no less confounding.

There were four of us loitering outside an ice cream parlor. It was one of those parlors that mold your red-cream-and-yellow-colored ice cream into the form of a flower. We were standing outside talking among ourselves when I felt a foreign tug on my backpack zipper. I whipped around and met the eyes of a hooded woman in her sixties. She was dressed in black and wore her hooded jacket in a weird way. It was twisted so that part of the hood covered half her face. I kept eye contact with her as I checked the contents in my opened bag. She had successfully fully opened it but didn’t get around to pulling out my phone or wallet yet.

She pretended like she didn’t know what I was looking at her for, simultaneously backing slowly into the line of people waiting for ice cream. But as she was integrating into the line of people — all of whom by now were trying to make sense of the commotion I was making to publicly brand her a Thief with a capital T — a small wave of doubt gave me the thought that she really could have been waiting in line for ice cream and that I had forgotten to zip up my backpack. Nothing was missing after all.

But as soon as I eased up eye contact with her and returned to my bewildered friends, she got out of the line and shuffled out of the parlor. That was when I knew she was bullshit. I yelled back at her BYE, +/- some profanity.

The thief was so stealthy that all three of my friends who were facing my direction toward what should have been her body did not even notice that she was standing right behind me. Reflecting on the magic trick she pulled, I reckon it was the black hoodie covering her face which gave the illusion that she was facing away from me and not toward my back, like she actually was. It was an invisibility cloak of sorts, the black turning her into a silhouette in plain sight.

#2 Athens

Greece has been recovering from a near-economic meltdown and the threat of a Grexit last year. Austerity measures and tough times plague the Greek people. Walking through Athens, you’ll observe that much of the infrastructure has not been updated in what looks like two decades. Dilapidated buildings, broken sidewalks and pavements, rickety trains inside graffitied metro stations, it’s easy to see that the city’s been under financial stress, having neglected its public infrastructure to this degree. Some people resort to thievery in response to this turn of events, bumping Greece to the top of list of European cities ranked by theft.

As if it were a parting gift, I met three of these enterprising entrepreneurs on the very last leg of the five month Europe trip on my way to Athens airport. They must’ve targeted me because I might as well have carried a big neon sign that says “Tourist leaving for airport.” I was wearing one of those white garbs only enthusiastic tourists — or people going to toga parties — wear and lugging a pulley suitcase, a large backpack, and a small daypack on my chest. The three must have colluded in advance of the train’s arrival because when I walked into the cart, a man in his late thirties with dark eyebags and a chainlinked wallet — a member of the trio — was already stationed inside. At the time, he was just a bystander to me.

A few more people filtered into the cart before the doors closed. A well-dressed, clean-looking woman with an expensive watch stationed herself to my left. She came in together with a friend, a skinny, androgynous female in her early thirties who looked like she could’ve been a gang member. The latter placing herself square in front of me. She was uncomfortably close, facing me at less than an arm’s length away, so I backed up to give us both more room.

She takes an aggressive step towards me. I back up once more until my back hit the door. She takes another step forward, closing the distance.

That was when an alarm went off in my head because I found it weird that she was coming so close when there was plenty of room in the cart behind her. What did she want from me? It became clear when I saw her hand peak out from underneath the bag she had in front of her to use as cover.

I looked down at her hand then up at her, clutching my phone in the bag I had on my chest even closer. I was cornered between three people at the time but was only concerned with her, as she was making the most obvious attempts at my stuff. Then she eased up and, like a hostess welcoming me into a hotel, extended her arm and opened my path to the back of the cart where there was plenty of room. I pushed through the blockade. It felt as if I were a bug ripping away from a web of spiders that were closing in on me.

I backed up into a corner where no one was standing and checked that all my stuff were safe. The front pocket of the backpack on my back was undone. I kept observing the androgynous female and picked up an exchange of eye contact between her and the man who had been standing on my right — silent signals communicated between two people who should have been strangers.

Suspecting the three were working together, I took a prolonged look at each one of them. I made sure they knew that I knew. The man looked at me and crinkled a smile. The posh looking woman stood with her back to me. The androgynous female paced angrily from door to door, away from me then toward me. When the train stopped, I made sure to be the last one out the door.

As I walked to the exit, I saw the same three people enter into a different cart of the same train that we had just off-boarded. That was when I knew they were definitely together and they were attempting a heist, not taking a train ride. I stopped to wait for the androgynous female to sit down. I waved a goodbye to her as the doors of the train closed. She flipped me the bird. Then she made an invisible inch between her index finger and thumb, squinting her eyes as if to say, “I was inches from getting you.”

Common Scams by Country

Violent crime has been declining in Europe while petty theft and street scams are on the rise. Check out Just the Flight’s infographic about common scams to avoid in certain countries. The country you’re visiting could be on it.

Tips to Avert Theft

  1. Exercise vigilance while in transit

Trains are happy hunting grounds for thieves. A lot of attempted thefts can happen right in your face, or literally behind your back. Many heists occur when you’re on the move, bogged down by the weight of your luggage and focused on directions rather than your environment. Transiting with your belongings is usually when you’re changing hostels, going to/from the airport, crossing borders. This is when you’ve got all your stuff on you while you’re exhausting mental energy navigating to a new destination. It’s most critical to reserve attention span to scan your surroundings in these moments.

2. Exercise vigilance in crowds

Crowds are another good source of prey for opportunistic thieves. It’s like a people-sea they can waft in and out of, a grabby hand out of thin air, a disappearing act the next. If you catch them, they have little to lose except maybe receive a veritable slap on the wrist from you. If they get away with it, they have your phone or laptop to gain. Americans tend to stick way way out in Europe. You’re like the fucking rainbow fish in a school of sardines.

3. Never put your gadgets/non-replaceables in the front pocket

Thieves almost always go for the most easy-to-access pocket of your bag. To have one less thing to worry about and minimize losses, never put your important stuff in the front pocket. Always put those things like your passport, phone, wallet, and camera in the “big” pouch. This challenges a thief to make a big, obvious motion like unzipping a bag with a long way to go and risk you feeling the tug. It’s much more attractive for them to make a small, subtle motion of unzipping the little front pouch, decreasing the likelihood you’ll feel anything. This is why, almost one hundred percent of the time, thieves go for the front pockets.

4. Slightly inconvenience them

Any added layer of security deters thieves. A small padlock on the zipper, a strap tied around your wrist or waist, a phone in the front pocket, an extra clip they have to undo, a hand directly on your bag — it all stacks and sends a message to the perp that you’re not one to get your stuff stolen by the likes of them.

Sum up

Don’t be easily hunted! While you can’t avoid crowded areas or stop them from targeting you, you can do your part and exercise these precautions to avoid having to replace your expensive necessities. If you keep these in mind and exercise vigilance, you can both enjoy Europe AND have all your stuff too.

Bon voyage!