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Travelling to Europe? Here are 9 pickpocket scams you should know and tips on how to avoid them

Thieves in Europe may have kicked things up a notch, but these tip-offs and hacks might keep them at bay during your year-end holidays.

Travelling to Europe? Here are 9 pickpocket scams you should know and tips on how to avoid them

Close-up of a person stealing a purse from someone's handbag. (Photo: iStock/AndreyPopov)

Travelling overseas during the holidays, or planning to do so next month around the Chinese New Year period? You might want to be extra careful.

After last week’s news regarding Singaporean actor Desmond Tan’s unfortunate incident in Italy, when his backpack was stolen while on a train, many readers chimed in with their own experiences.

Unfortunately, Europe’s pickpockets and snatch thieves’ reputation precedes them. And coming from a country where laptops or phones can be left unattended without batting an eyelid, travellers from Singapore may not stand a chance.

A sign with a warning against pickpockets and people sitting in outdoor cafe in The Hague, The Netherlands. (Photo: iStock/thehague)

The bad news is that pickpockets often work in teams that the average tourist can neither outsmart nor outnumber. The good news is that some techniques are so well rehearsed, they're almost predictable.

With cautionary tales making their rounds on Tiktok, we've compiled the scams to look out for and tips to avoid them.


Dark alleys never bode well, but in London, people have had their phones snatched under the Christmas lights in Oxford Circus. Bikers and cyclists in balaclavas are known to operate on the main street, targeting distracted pedestrians on their phones as they pass.

But tourists can’t be blamed for using their phones openly. The London Underground is nearly void of reception, and you would inadvertently find yourself searching for directions on the streets. If you must, plan your route in the tube station and refrain from navigating on the go.

On public transport, passengers by the bus or train doors also make easy targets since they can't give chase once they close. According to TikTok user @notmarinaa, whose mishap happened in Rome, “they will pickpocket you right in front of your face”.


What I call “show and swipe” is most rampant at the likes of Pret A Manger and Starbucks. A “lost tourist” enters and approaches diners who leave their phones on the table. They shove a map or leaflet in your face, presumably asking for directions, and swipe your phone underneath while you process the interaction.

Why anyone still uses a paper map is suspicious to me, but this manoeuvre happens so quickly that victims wouldn’t know what hit them.

Sometimes, the map is swapped out for a leaflet or sling bag. In Barcelona, purse-snatchers are so slow and steady that they can even stop for a chat.


Street performances are a big part of European cities, but distracted tourists standing elbow to elbow make a field day for pickpockets. My friend Sepi, who calls London home, has on occasion intercepted them.

“It happened when I stood in a circle on Oxford Circus. Two or three guys came over and split into different areas of the audience, and I saw one put his hands into someone else’s pockets. My friend went over to tell them and we just sort of started telling everyone to be aware.”

But tourists aren’t always this lucky, and it’s best not to get too carried away with your phones in the air.

Street sign which warning tourists in Sarajevo. (Photo: iStock/Vedad Ceric)


It would seem that pickpockets in Paris are expert distractors, and among them are young women with clipboards, asking tourists to sign a petition for some grand cause. Not for a single cent, just your signature. Surely you have a second to be the change you want to see in the world, right?

Well, not really. A moment of being hands-free is one moment too many, and their expert accomplices would’ve fished something out of your pocket or bag during that time. This is most prevalent at attractions like the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre, so you’d want to keep your guard up in their vicinity.


It’s upsetting that we have to be suspicious of the elderly and children, but vulnerable individuals in distress can’t always be trusted. In Paris, a Singaporean friend of mine was once led into thinking she’d caused a pregnant woman to trip and fall on the metro. She panicked, naturally, but quickly grew suspicious and spun around.

By that time, a boy’s hand was already going through her bag. Clearly, the pickpocket needs acting classes and my friend needs a crossbody bag she can wear on the front.

Old-fashioned sign for the Paris Metro. (Photo: iStock/halbergman)


We’re not doing any wonders for the metro’s image, but Parisian train stations can also be dicey. “Passers-by” offer to help tourists with their ticket purchase, or show them a better deal altogether.

Later, they learn at the gantry that they’ve been sold expired, bogus, or child tickets, while the “kind soul” makes off with a full-priced ticket they can resell. (Train tickets don’t expire for two years in France)

If you’re really unlucky, another scammer in the guise of a metro official would try to fine you for using illegitimate tickets. Never hand over your passport, or you’d have to pay a ransom to get it back. 


It would seem like the modus operandi when travelling in Europe is to walk straight on and stop for no one, but constantly being on edge isn’t fun for anyone. Going on vacation is about stopping to smell the roses – as long as you have one hand in your pocket and the other in your purse.

Here are some other tips to steer clear of thieves in Europe:

Invest in a phone strap. It’s tough to avoid using your phone on the go since you’ll be on Google Maps and Google Translate a lot. An adjustable phone strap can help and doesn’t ruin your outfit like a fanny pack.

Wear outerwear with inside pockets. When you’re so bundled up you can’t tell where your skin ends and layers begin, you’re also less spatially aware and sensitive to movements on the train. Wear your bag on the front or, better yet, store valuables on the inside of your coat.

Leave the credit cards at home. I personally use YouTrip, but any travel debit card that isn’t connected to your local bank accounts works. I keep limited funds in mine and make top-ups only when necessary.

Carry photocopies of your passport. We all know what a prized asset our Singaporean passport is, and losing one can single handedly ruin your trip. Keep a copy handy as proof of identification – you’ll need that should complications arise.



Meeting people from other cultures is a big part of travelling, but that came at an eye-watering price for a Singaporean whom we shall call Nat – he got pickpocketed on the first day of his Europe trip.

“I thought I would be pickpocketed in Paris but, on my first day in Berlin, my wallet carrying 1,000 euros was gone,” he said. Apparently, another tourist was asking him for directions while his partner-in-crime went in for the kill. “He had a whole bit, pretending to be Colombian and all. He didn’t speak much English and preyed on my naivete.”

Being bilingual means we can lend non-English speakers a hand on the road, but it pays to remain situationally aware while doing a good deed.

Locals can be helpful. Unless they're not. (Photo: iStock/JackF)


Currency can be a literal handful in Eastern Europe and large notes, like the Hungarian Forint, take getting used to. At a ticket machine in Budapest, a local offered his help rather forcefully, taking the biggest note (20,000HUF or S$71) off my hands and feeding it to the machine. Out came my ticket and some coins, and the man said something to the effect of “voila!” and urged me to be on my way.

Except I had more change from the notes output, which he conveniently blocked and tried to distract me from. He didn’t budge till I insisted, and left grumbling when I did. I was later told that scammers sometimes tape the ticket output to stage a technical fault. After tourists lament their luck and move on to another machine, they double back to retrieve the first ticket and sell it.


Nothing puts you on a thief’s radar like having luggage in tow, especially on public transport. Tiktok user @Calladion, who travelled with her family of eight to Athens this year, recounted their close shave on the Metro.

Apparently, the robbers had feigned an escalator breakdown so they could “help” them with their luggage. Her uncle’s pocket was unzipped in the process but, thankfully, he had the foresight of emptying it before boarding the train.

Source: CNA/mm