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Travel Unravelled: How to Avoid Pickpockets

My partner and I are travelling to Barcelona, Spain, in February, and I recently heard that Tripadvisor listed it as the top spot for pickpocketing. How can we avoid this? – Carrie Blaine, Sarnia, ON

A: Barcelona is a world-class tourist destination, which also makes it ample grounds for pickpockets, who are incredibly deft when it comes to lifting unsuspecting visitors of their wallets, bags and purses.

Barcelona’s most popular shopping and dining attraction, the long promenade La Ramblas, is notorious for its pickpockets, but taking some simple precautions beforehand can insure that your trip isn’t ruined by a petty theft.

Don’t Be an Easy Target

The first step is to not look like an oblivious tourist, or rather, an easy target for pickpockets. Avoid walking blindly behind an unfolded map, with heavy luggage and $2,000 worth of camera equipment around your neck. Instead, try to blend in.

Tourists to Spain often make the mistake that the country is warm and humid all-year round, which isn’t the case in winter, with temperatures averaging about 5C in the colder months. Stepping off the metro in shorts and a T-shirt in January will draw unwanted attention. So do as the locals do and bring a warm jacket.

Wear your backpack in front of you so you can keep an eye on it at all times and with cameras, keep them in a zipped jacket pocket or slung around your neck and under your arm. Only take as much cash as you need for the day and spread it out about your person. Avoid “fanny-packs” like the plague. Be especially vigilant in train stations, and keep your purse or wallet out of sight and your tickets in a separate place.

Be Aware

The most common technique is simple distraction, using more than one person with no violence involved, just stealth.

Pickpockets are often, at first, incredibly friendly, offering help with directions or attractions. A common example is the “bird poo” scam. Someone will approach you claiming that you have had bird poo on your back and will “help” you wipe it off, all while relieving you of your wallet or camera.

If you’re approached by an “undercover” policeman asking for identification, a very common scam in the city, do not hand it over to him. All police officers in Barcelona wear distinguishable uniforms and it is incredibly unlikely that an undercover policeman would identify himself as so. The best bet is to politely decline and look for an actual officer, which are ever-present along La Ramblas.

Use Discretion

Instead of wandering around in front of a map, head to a café and look up your destination there. But beware, cafés are also pickpocketing hotspots. Keep a close eye, or even better, a hand, on your belongings, even if they are stowed away safely under a table.

The beach is another prime target for those intent on stealing. While you are busy sunbathing or swimming, it can be a robbery waiting to happen, so keep your belongings hidden, and don’t leave them unattended.

As a precaution, it’s a good idea to have travel insurance that covers this type of theft. If you are targeted, have your wits about you. If your wallet, purse or camera is stolen, head to the police station to file a report. Unfortunately, the officers will be unlikely to recover your goods, but a police report is required when making an insurance claim.

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