How to avoid pickpockets and muggers when you travel

7 July 2023
How to avoid pickpockets and muggers when you travel

Some of my friends just returned (safely, thank you) from a trip to Tulum, Mexico. One of the most common thoughts travelers have regarding trips to Mexico is, unfortunately, about safety and security. 

To be fair, the same friends lost items from their coat pockets while touring the Palace of Versailles in France with the classic ‘stall’ technique. Luckily, they only lost a hand-knit hat and a nice pair of gloves. 

Turns out, my friends are in good company. Plenty of expert travelers have had run-ins with despicable thieves. For example, Rick Steves got pickpocketed in Paris (just like my friends) and Dan and Bailey were mugged in Brazil. These expert travelers learned from the experience, and you can too!

The US Department of State information to tourists who want to visit the country of Mexico typically warns travelers about violent crime and lists the places not to travel, but the truth is that planning a trip to Mexico is like many places in the world.

Be honest: Would you refuse to travel to New Orleans or Chicago because of the crime warnings? 

The answer is probably not because the travel rules are, for the most part, the same:

  • Don’t display signs of wealth (rolls of money, expensive valuables, etc.)
  • Keep an eye on your drinks (not too many and watch them carefully)
  • Be careful when using ATMs
  • Don’t be out late at night or taxi alone
  • Keep your travel documents secure
  • Stay alert to your surroundings
  • Be wary of ‘helpful’ strangers

If you’re planning any trip, what do you need to know to avoid getting robbed while traveling? Read on understand how to avoid pickpockets and muggers anywhere in the world.

Thieving is not a solo activity

Pickpockets work in teams. Usually, one person will cause a distraction, allowing their accomplices to grab items from unguarded pockets, purses, or backpacks. 

Some of their most heinous actions include:

  • ‘accidentally’ pushing or bumping into you or spilling things onto you
  • pleas for compassion, including from old people (aka, falling ladies) and children
  • kind individuals who share their immigrant/family/distress story with a ‘free’ bracelet

Rules to follow: Be cautious about anyone who wants your help or wants to help you because thieves play on compassion (it’s disarming), and they work in groups. 

Distraction is their sweet spot

A successful pickpocket is a magician. They have an arsenal of techniques that work beautifully for just a few seconds because that’s enough time to pilfer your things.

Things to be aware of include:

  • anything that looks or feels unusual, like unexpected surges of people or commotions
  • something that’s not working, like your personal headphones (they may have been deliberately unplugged), the train ticket kiosk, or the ATM in front of you
  • anyone who asks to see your documents or tells you you have the ‘wrong’ pass or ticket

Rules to follow: Be cautious of any situation, piece of technology, or person (especially those that look official) when you simply try to go about your day. Calmly observe the situation and your surroundings, and be willing to ask questions politely.

High-traffic areas are a thief’s happy place

Pickpockets work in high-traffic areas where locals avoid and where tourists are more likely to be. Not only are tourists focused on navigating and seeing the sites, but they’re also more likely to have plenty of cash. 

Crowded spaces offer a pickpocket the perfect scenario: a crush of people and built-in distractions.

Here are the most common high-traffic areas where pickpockets thrive:

  • Public transportation stations – super easy to snatch a wallet and options to escape
  • Tourist attractions – tourists focus on the view and not their surroundings
  • Restaurants – delicious food can easily pull the focus of a traveler away from their purse or backpack (please don’t hang these on the back of the chair)
  • Bars and nightclubs – a pickpocket’s job is much easier when a tourist is even slightly intoxicated

Rules to follow: Keep your phone and wallet hidden securely off the table. The more crowded a place is, the more careful you should be.

Zippers and other anti-theft strategies work

Zippers make a thief’s life hard. They’re difficult and time-consuming to deal with, especially in crowded areas where speed is a thief’s friend.

Of course, zippers aren’t the only theft deterrent a savvy traveler uses.

Strategies that deter the common pickpocket include:

  • Locking your valuable documents in the safe in your room
  • Limiting how much cash you have on you at one time
  • Keeping only one or two cards with you

Rules to follow: Secure valuable things, like your passport and wallet, in the pockets of a zippered jacket, purse, or backpack.

Pro tipTravelon bags and backpacks have slash-proof straps and locking zippers (disclaimer: Travelon is not a sponsor, but a brand that friends and family recommend).

Thieves will fall for decoys

Thieves, especially muggers, will fall for decoys. It’s that need to get away quickly that inspires them.

An old (well-loved) wallet with an expired card or two and a couple of dollars is an excellent offering to a potential mugger in a hurry. 

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.