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Watch Out For Pickpockets: Barcelona and Elsewhere

by Lu Sobredo

The Dark Side of Barcelona

“Unfortunately, the Catalonian capital also bears another, more dubious honour: Barcelona is the pickpocket capital of the world.” ~ Phil Sylvester 

When I began my travel blog in 2016, I pledged to use the pages to spark interest in those who are less likely to consider traveling because of personal limitations. I wanted the narratives, which celebrate the beauty of the place and its people, to jump out of the pages. I told myself: Let your words and the words of guest writers highlight unique experiences that exhilarated the senses.

And I also vowed to tell the truth and share a multi-dimensional story including the infrequent yet ugly side to travel. So this essay is about pickpockets in some of the most beautiful places in the world. May the stories serve as reminder to many to take vigilance without paralyzing one’s sense of adventure.

As one of the travel gurus in my youth once wrote: “Europe is safe when it comes to violent crime. But it’s very “dangerous” in terms of petty theft: Purse-snatching and pickpocketing are rampant in places where tourists gather. Thieves target Americans — not out of spite, but because they’re smart. Americans have all the good stuff in their bags and wallets. Loaded down with valuables, jet-lagged, and bumbling around in a strange new environment, we stick out like jeweled thumbs. If I were a European street thief, I’d specialize in Americans — my card would say “Yanks R Us.”  (See Rick Steves’ Outsmarting Pickpockets and Thieves).

Pickpocket became personal when it happened to my family in Barcelona this summer 2017. My plan to write about the topic was much lower on my list. It has now risen somewhere at the top. 

Our family has visited Spain without incident these past ten years or so. The experience of being pick-pocketed was new to us. But after my husband James had fallen prey to the dark side of what otherwise is an enchanting city of Barcelona, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to write about it. Hubby immediately posted on Facebook to remind and alert others. 

After Hubby's incident, the topic of theft, purse snatching, and pickpocketing that a traveler might encounter in Europe did take on an urgency. In the course of mentally processing what occurred, our friends and family sent words of comfort. The caring words included personal stories of how they became victims, or how someone they knew had the same experience during their vacation in Europe and elsewhere. Reading their brief accounts made me think that the incidents could certainly ring true when traveling in any large cities bustling with tourists anywhere in the world.

The stories are a sobering reality check to warn unsuspecting tourists. Although James was an experienced traveler and we have traveled through Spain in the last 10 years, and through Europe for over the past 30 years without incident, he still fell prey. To preserve our friends’ privacy, I chose not include their names. The individual accounts are identified by a letter of the alphabet. 

James’s Personal Story 
What happened to my husband this summer in Barcelona was aggravating. Thankfully, it was not the norm in our experience in Spain. There were two attempts of pickpocketing on the same day. 

Per Max Margan (a travel writer), one could likely become a victim anywhere in Barcelona, but thieves particularly crowd the Cathedral Square, Las Ramblas, Plaza Catalunya and Plaza Real.

Barcelona Cathedral Square at Night. ©James Sobredo, 2017.

Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Daylight. ©James Sobredo, 2017.

In the morning, while my husband and his university friends/colleagues were walking up from the Metro onto the street near Sagrada de Familia Cathedral, James was somehow targeted by pickpockets. The first attempt failed. He caught the perpetrators in the act. He yelled at the bad people trying to pickpocket him…A colleague with him covered his back, and they both were able to fend off 3-4 people who were working as a team. 

Lesson on what to watch for? REMEMBER: most pickpockets work together as a team.

On the first attempt, he did not lose his wallet which he kept in his zippered pant pocket. He learned from this incident and remembered to secure his wallet in his locked backpack the rest of the time.

The main perpetrator at the failed attempt was a woman and three other young males who isolated him and provided "cover" so others cannot see what is happening. James  thought he was being vigilant. He thought he was prepared (a martial arts practitioner for over 10 years), but apparently not prepared enough. It all happened in seconds. He reminded himself that he will survive this ugly ordeal, and that life will go on. It helps to have friends around who provided moral support on a difficult day like that day.

Lesson to watch for? REMEMBER: be aware that bad guys and bad women are out there. 

Unfortunately, another set of bad guys made a second attempt in the Metro at around 11 o’clock at night. This time the thieves  succeeded. One bad guy fell in front of James, and was blocking his path "pretending" to pickup his "broken" pair of eye glasses. Hubby knew foul play was up so he made sure the bad guy was not touching him: He was concerned that the bad guy might try to "pat him down." Unfortunately, James was not paying attention to the bad guy’s accomplice who picked his pocket and ran off with his iPhone. As I said, all of this happened in seconds

What to watch for? REMEMBER: one of the band of pickpockets might create a distraction.

The good news:
1) No loss of life or limb, and
2) When the crime was occurring, some of the passengers in the Metro were yelling and warning him when the other guy ran off with his phone.
3) As a precaution, he changed his passwords (email, bank accounts, credit cards), even though access to his phone is password protected and access to Notes is also password protected. There are NO complete words for his iPhone passwords, just enough information to remind him.

Nevertheless, it was all a bummer... but the positive news is: no loss of life or limb. As my cousin Professor Dawn Mabalon said to Hubby: the cell phone is replaceable, family is not.

Stories from Friends
The rampant petty crimes in tourist areas are enough to make a traveler paranoid.  My family have talked often about high unemployment in Spain and wondered how those who are economically disadvantaged are doing. We--and everyone else--have observed how some immigrants from a certain ethnic group of Eastern Europe are the main culprits involved in petty crimes and have given their community a bad name. And as Phil Sylvester, a contributing writer for World Nomads (a travel insurance company) said: “Spain's soaring unemployment rate, a wealth of tourist wallets, and scarce legal deterrent for petty crimes have created some kind of larcenous, perfect storm.” 

Recalling a couple of my own experiences in Barcelona, I realized I came close to becoming a victim. While walking Las Ramblas, one of two women approached me offering flowers. At another time at the Cathedral Square, a man carrying a clipboard creating some distraction came close to me. Luckily none of these incidents resulted in a crime. My husband and/or son disrupted their attempts.

Walking Las Ramblas in Barcelona with My Teenage Son. ©James Sobredo, 2010.

Some of our friends and/or someone they know have fallen victim. Here are the stories they shared with James in their own words.

A: “This is always our biggest concern traveling in large cities in Europe . . . On a past trip to Greece, one member of our group, a senior police officer, was also picked . . . completely, in the wink of an eye, while he was going up the escalator from the metro system in Athens.”

B: “My friend had everything stolen at a Starbucks in Barcelona just a couple days ago this summer. It must really be getting bad there if you got hit.”

C: “My whole paycheck was stolen, many years ago, when in Juarez, Mexico. Unfortunately, I had two small children that were also distracting me. So, I have a sense of how you must feel.

D: “When in Barcelona years ago, people on scooters were snatching women's purses off the passenger seat at stoplights. And pickpockets—I think their trade is timeless and they always can spot a tourist a mile least it seems.”

E:  “I learned a lesson when it happened to me once in Paris in a crowded bus. Two women were pushing back and forth. Despite my zipped bag, they got my wallet, all my cash, and credit card. And to think I've been there many times before and I was aware about how bad it could get. I never thought I'd be a victim. In Madrid, there was a pickpocket attempt on my backpack, the zipper was already open, but the kid failed to take my wallet. They should impose a harsher sentence to these thieves. It will eventually affect their tourism industry.”

F: “This happened to me in Barcelona while I was waiting for the train. I was waiting at a door where there was no one else waiting. Suddenly as the train door opened, a group (4 of them) squashed me in between them. One stood in front of me, one on my left and one on my right. I felt something was wrong. Then, I felt a hand creep into my back pocket. Fortunately I was pretty fast and quickly held on to my back pocket. The hand came out and I got onto the train. Those thieves sat down, but with shifty eyes were still looking at me. I was already on high alert…, so I moved to other carriages. I managed to shake them off eventually. That's why I never really like traveling in Barcelona. It is a nice place with great people, but you must constantly be on watch for such robbers/pick pockets.”

Waiting for RENFE train at a Metro Station in Madrid. ©Lu Sobredo, 2016.

G: “(My husband) got swarmed by a group of young women in Madrid a while back. They got his wallet and he yelled at them immediately. They dropped his wallet with his credit cards and license but managed to lift all the cash in that short time.”

H: “When traveling in Europe, I usually purchase several old wallets from Goodwill (Thrift Store) before going. I carry these empty in pockets but keep cards, some money, etc. in a money belt. I've had my false wallets stolen as expected. My assumption is pickpockets are very talented and much faster than I will ever be. In Italy, they are often women or children who aren't prosecuted. Think about it, if you're on vacation do you really have time to be involved in a legal process?”

I: “Sad to report that we had an "encounter" when we were there (Barcelona). Three women working in a team targeted our son, approaching him selling roses! We were on a private walking tour with a guide and she exchanged words with these women. "Well, you have your work, we have ours," they replied. Close call.

J: “I once caught a bunch of kids trying to pickpocket me in Paris. They looked stunned when I caught the little guy who actually tried to lift my wallet. The others were in front grabbing at my arms in a fake greeting. I told them to run away, which they did, and I was able to spot their adult leader from afar, but (I) just let it go.”

K: “Beware of children who pickpocket! My experience in Madrid was with a group of kids working as a team!”

Lesson on what to watch for? REMEMBER: beware of children who pickpocket.

What Now? 
It is a sickening trend in large cities in Europe and elsewhere. Be that as it may, I don't think we should stop wandering the world because of bad people giving a nice place a bad name. But the incident did give us pause. It did leave a bitter after taste about the city of Barcelona, but it did not dampen our desire to travel.

The experience of being pick-pocketed is stressful enough. I thank my husband's friends and our family for their concern. Unfortunately, even though still shaken from the experience, one must take steps to prevent or reduce additional damage of having a cell phone (or other personal item) lifted from one’s pocket. 

*Notify cell phone carrier or other appropriate service provider to suspend service to your cell phone so they cannot use it to make international calls and run up your bill. James has his name and email and phone number on the home page of his phone--he made this decision in the hopes that if his phone got lost, it may possibly be returned. 

*If you have an iPhone, go to iCloud and immediately report your phone as stolen. Apple has the option to disable and wipe out data from your phone ("brick your phone") if it gets stolen. This only works, however, if you have "Find My iPhone" ENABLED. Hint: make sure you enable this feature. James had all these features enabled and he was able to "brick" his iPhone immediately.

*Change your contact number for your email, credit card and other important accounts that use your stolen phone.

*Change passwords to email and other contact information as applicable.

*Advise family and friends to reach you through alternate means until a new phone is secured. He posted this message of Facebook so that his friends knew what happened and that they would NOT fall prey to an email or telephone scam. 

*Complete a report with the local police. Be ready to provide your Passport ID number, AND the serial number and IMEI number of your phone. The police need this information to file a report. The IMEI number is NOT the Serial Number. Go to Settings --> About, then get a screen shot of all this information. Store information in a place where you can retrieve it when needed: either on the Cloud, email, or USB drive in your hotel suitcase. This is also good to do with your Passport ID and a spare Passport photo: Make sure you password-protect all this information. Luckily James had done all of this and was prepared when he filed his police report.

*Take time to process what happened, and to shake it off so the unfortunate incident doesn’t become overly consuming.

*Spend healing time with family and/or friends if possible. James was lucky to have the company of professor colleagues from Berkeley who provided him company and beer later in the evening. 

*Think of something good that happened that day, to cap the day on a positive note. 

*Secure your wallet, Passport and cell phones. Having them in your back pockets is an open invitation to be pick pocketed. When using public transportation, use secure bags like pacsafe or other anti-theft bags and backpacks that lock and make it harder to pick pocket. You can also secure your regular backpack with small combination locks.

*Separate your credit cards, identification (Passport, driver's license) and other important items so that if one set gets stolen, you have enough funds and  identification information to: A) get a replacement Passport, B) finish the rest of your vacation, and C) get home. 

*Be prepared: have credit card, license, Passport ID numbers stored in a secure place (Cloud, email, USB drive) where you can retrieve the information when needed. 

*Safety: being alone makes you an easy prey. The pickpockets usually operate as a pair or in a group. If you are with friends, they will try to isolate you from your group. Stay away from Metro doors and be extremely cautious when entering or leaving the Metro/bus: Pickpockets grab your valuables... and run out the door

Our Son Carrying His Backpack at His Chest in Madrid. ©Lu Sobredo

Although we feel safe in Madrid, our Spanish family likes to remind us to carry our backpack or daypack in the front, so we could wrap our arms around it. This is especially helpful when walking around the city or while in the Metro.

Pacsafe Cross Body Bag from REI. ©Lu Sobredo

Each of us in the family has some version opacsafe brand of cross-body bag with a security clip, steel slash-guard shoulder straps and body mesh. The pacsafe bag also has an RFID safe blocking pocket for bankcards and the like. However, pacsafe won't help unless one also remembers to put away that all-convenient-cell-phone we use for taking photos. One takes the risk of a grab-and-run when using a cell phone while sightseeing. As traveler, we must decide if the risk has a potentially lower consequence over losing something of higher value. It is a balancing act between safety and convenience. In my husband's case, he would rather protect his professional camera gear over his cell phone. And of course, he would choose to protect his life over everything else.

My husband is not into “retributionist justice,” but he has this to say: “I think they (pickpockets) have just become so BOLD...The penalty if they get caught is ... small... 2-3 nights in jail and less than €300. The bad guys, on the other hand, get away with enough money to pay for their Barcelona apartment rent.” 

The high occurrence of pickpockets in Barcelona, and other frequently visited tourist attractions in Europe is not good for their travel industry. It is not good for our sense of safety when traveling. It is an issue that Barcelona in particular must address. 

In the meantime, those of us who are resolved to not let bad guys take away the joy and thrill of travel must stay vigilant. In the words of Phil Sylvester: “There's no need to go and cancel your flights. Sure, petty theft could almost number among Barcelona's leading industries, but the perpetrators are out for easy pickings which, after a few quick tips, won't be you. Violent crime is also very rare, so as long as you can keep a hand on your wallet you have nothing to fear in Barcelona.”

Stay aware and don’t let the bad guys win. Keep traveling! 

Margan, Max,“The five European cities where you are most likely to be pickpocketed - and how to avoid becoming a victim,” Daily Mail Travel News, January 29, 2016. Web July 20, 2017.

Steves, Rick, Outsmarting Pickpockets and Thieves, Rick Steves’ Europe. Web. July 8, 2017.

Sylvester, Phil, How to Stay One Step Ahead of Pickpockets in Barcelona, World Nomads, June 20, 2015. Web July 17, 2017.

©Lu Sobredo, writer and co-editor.

Guest co-editors: James Sobredo & Adrian Sobredo.

©Photos: James Sobredo & Lu Sobredo


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