- Wear a money belt, money pouch or hidden pocket. Carry small bills and coins in a travel wallet. View samples here and for more information about money belts, click here.
- Hotels are relatively safe, but it is still not wise to leave your passport, large sums of money, etc. in your hotel room.
- Have copies of your important documents in your hotel room and with a close friend or family member at home.
- Be aware. Often thieves work in teams, with one person/group creating a distraction and another picking your pocket.
- Keep your bag zipped shut and turned toward you.
- Be especially careful at subway/bus stops where a thief can jump on, take your stuff, and run before the doors close. Similarly, watch out when you go through a turnstyle (in a metro, etc.) Once you're through, you can't turn around but the guy who just stole your wallet is running the other way.
- Keep a low profile. The less you look like a clueless, ostentatious, vulnerable American traveler, the less likely you are to be targeted.
If you are the victim of a theft:
- Depending on the items/amount of money stolen, file a police report. You will need this for insurance purposes and to replace your passport.
- Go to the nearest American consulate or embassy if you need a replacement passport or if you need help in getting money wired to you. (Of course if you are wearing your money belt, it's highly unlikely that your passport and money will be stolen.)
Tourist Scams in Europe
Many of the most successful scams require a naive and trusting tourist. The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businesspeople, generally with something official-looking in their hand. Lately, many are posing as tourists with fanny packs, cameras, and even guidebooks. Be wary of any unusual contact or commotion in crowded public (especially touristy) places. If you're alert and aren't overly trusting, you should have no problem. Here are some clever ways European thieves bolster their cash flow.
Slow count: Cashiers who deal with lots of tourists thrive on the "slow count." Even in banks, they'll count your change back with odd pauses in hopes the rushed tourist will gather up the money early and say "Grazie." Also be careful when you pay with too large a bill. Waiters seem to be arithmetically challenged. If giving a large bill for a small payment, clearly state the value of the bill as you hand it over. Some cabbies or waiters will pretend to drop a large bill and pick up a hidden small one in order to shortchange a tourist. In Italy, the now-worthless 500-lire coin looks like a €2 coin — be alert when accepting change. Other coins (such as Turkey's one-lira coin, worth 55 cents; and Thailand's 10-baht con, worth 25 cents) also resemble a €2 coin.
Oops! You're jostled in a crowd as someone spills ketchup or fake pigeon poop on your shirt. The thief offers profuse apologies while dabbing it up — and pawing your pockets. There are variations: Someone drops something, you kindly pick it up, and you lose your wallet. Or, even worse, someone throws a baby into your arms as your pockets are picked. Assume beggars are pickpockets. Treat any commotion (a scuffle breaking out, a beggar in your face) as fake — designed to distract unknowing victims. If an elderly woman falls down an escalator, stand back and guard your valuables, then...carefully...move in to help.
The "helpful" local: Thieves posing as concerned locals will warn you to store your wallet safely — and then steal it after they see where you stash it. If someone wants to help you use an ATM, politely refuse (they're just after your PIN code). If a bank machine eats your ATM card, see if there's a thin plastic insert with a tongue hanging out that crooks use to extract it. (A similar scam is to put something sticky in the slot.) Some thieves put out tacks and ambush drivers with their "assistance" in changing the tire. Others hang out at subway ticket machines eager to "help" you, the bewildered tourist, buy tickets with a pile of your quickly disappearing foreign cash. If using a station locker, beware of the "hood Samaritan" who may have his own key to a locker he'd like you to use. And skip the helping hand from official-looking railroad attendants at the Rome train station. They'll help you find your seat...then demand a "tip."
The attractive flirt: A single male traveler is approached by a gorgeous woman on the street. After chatting for a while, she seductively invites him for a drink at a nearby nightclub. But when the bill arrives, it's several hundred dollars more than he expected. Only then does he notice the burly bouncers guarding the exits. There are several variations on this scam. Sometimes, the scam artist is disguised as a lost tourist; in other cases, it's simply a gregarious local person who (seemingly) just wants to show you his city. Either way, be suspicious when invited for a drink by someone you just met; if you want to go out together, suggest a bar of your choosing instead.
Fake police: Two thieves in uniform — posing as "Tourist Police" — stop you on the street, flash their bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or "drug money." You won't even notice some bills are missing until after they leave. Never give your wallet to anyone.
Young thief gangs: These are common all over urban southern Europe, especially in the touristy areas of Milan, Florence, and Rome. Groups of boys or girls with big eyes, troubled expressions, and colorful raggedy clothes play a game where they politely mob the unsuspecting tourist, beggar-style. As their pleading eyes grab yours and they hold up their pathetic message scrawled on cardboard, you're fooled into thinking that they're beggars. All the while, your purse, fanny pack, or backpack is being expertly rifled. If you're wearing a money belt and you understand what's going on here, there's nothing to fear. In fact, having a street thief's hand slip slowly into your pocket becomes just one more interesting cultural experience.
The found ring: An innocent-looking person picks up a ring on the ground in front of you, and asks if you dropped it. When you say no, the person examines the ring more closely, then shows you a mark "proving" that it's pure gold. He offers to sell it to you for a good price — which is several times more than he paid for it before dropping it on the sidewalk.
The "friendship" bracelet: A vendor approaches you and aggressively asks if you'll help him with a "demonstration." He proceeds to make a friendship bracelet right on your arm. When finished, he asks you to pay a premium for the bracelet he created just for you. And, since you can't easily take it off on the spot, you feel obliged to pay up. (These sorts of distractions by "salesmen" can also function as a smokescreen for theft — an accomplice is picking your pocket as you try to wriggle away from the pushy vendor.)
Leather jacket salesman in distress: A well-spoken, well-dressed gentleman approaches you and explains that he's a leather jacket salesman, and he needs directions to drive to a nearby landmark. He chats you up ("Oh, really? My wife is from Omaha!") and gives you the feeling that you're now friends. When finished, he reaches in his car and pulls out a "designer leather jacket" he claims is worth hundreds of dollars, which he gives to you as a gift for your helpfulness. Oh, and by the way, his credit card isn't working, and could you please give him some cash to buy gas? He takes off with the cash, and you later realize that you've paid way too much for your new 100 percent vinyl jacket.
Room "inspectors": There's a knock at your door and two men claim to be the hotel's room inspectors. One waits outside while the other comes into take a look around. While you're distracted, the first thief slips in and takes valuables left on a dresser. Don't let people into your room if you weren't expecting them. Call down to the hotel desk if "inspectors" suddenly turn up.
The stripper: You see a good-looking woman arguing with a street vendor. The vendor accuses her of shoplifting, which she vehemently denies. To prove her innocence, she starts taking off her clothes — very slowly. Once she's down to her underwear, the vendor apologizes and she leaves. Suddenly all the men in the crowd find out that their wallets have "left," too, thanks to a team of pickpockets working during the show.
The broken camera: Everyone is taking pictures of a famous sight, and someone comes up with a camera or cell phone and asks that you take his picture. But the camera or cell phone doesn't seem to work. When you hand it back, the "tourist" fumbles and drops it on the ground, where it breaks into pieces. He will either ask you to pay for repairs or lift your wallet while you are bending over to pick up the broken object.
Talkative cashiers: The shop's cashier seems to be speaking on her phone when you hand her your credit card. But listen closely and you may hear the sound of the phone's camera shutter, as she takes a picture of your card.
Crooked cabbies: The scam you'll most likely to encounter in Europe is being overcharged by a taxi driver.