Pickpoket tricks in Spain

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Pickpocket acting in Spain

How To Avoid Pickpockets In Barcelona

KNOW THE ENEMY: EVERYTHING ABOUT THE BARCELONA PICKPOCKETS

Barcelona has the worst reputation when it comes to pickpockets… Some even go to the extend of calling Barcelona pickpocket capital of the world. But trust me, it’s not that bad. So why are there so many horrific Barcelona pickpocket stories out there?

Everything dates back to 2009. Yes, I know: that long ago! But once you get bad reputation, it’s very difficult to get rid of it. Specially when the internet perpetuates it! But that year was really, really bad. It was so bad that I even considered quitting my job even if I love giving tours. But I was feeling more like a police than a tour guide! I was constantly protecting my guests from pickpocket approaches…

There were over 300 cases reported to the police per day! We were suffering from a large organized group that benefited from a local law that says that thefts of less than €300 value are considered petty crime and therefore only fined – but no prison sentence applies. It took months for the police to perform a deep research to prove that those people were connected like a mafia and that pickpocketing was their only means of making a living. That was when prison sentences entered the scene.

And pickpockets fled. Sure they did: soon the same guys were being arrested in other European countries, according to international police records. Unfortunately by then the tourist season was almost over and the city had already become famous for its pickpocket problem.

Are there pickpockets in Barcelona now?

What's the situation like? Pretty much like in any big European city. There's still pickpockets in Barcelona, but it's not a plague of them. Finding official Barcelona pickpocket statistics, it's not easy.

Specially data speciphic for the city, and even less in English. But this page by the news agency Europa Press is quite reliable and informative. You’ll have to use Google Translate if you don’t speak Spanish, though.

And who are these Barcelona pickpockets anyway?

It’s quite a mix, actually. It’d be easy (and despicable) to go the racist way and say it’s only immigrants. But alas, it’s way more complex than that.

  • There’s white Spaniards, of course. And those are the hardest to spot because they blend in with the other locals.
  • There’s Spanish gypsies. Not as many, though, because the local gypsy communities have managed to successfully integrate in the society and have quitted crime for the most part. And the few clans that continue to be in crime, they aren’t into the type of crime that concerns tourists. Although you can still see the occasionally couple of middle-aged ladies selling flowers (and trying to get a hand on your pocket).
  • There’s Romanians and other Balkans, mostly gypsies. They tend to be more olive-skinned than Barcelonans. They often go in groups mostly made of females, dressed with long skirts, their hair in long ponytails or braids. Although they’ve lately started learning how to blend with the local fashion. They walk the tourists streets and also act in the subway.
  • There’s Moroccans. Usually men, and they are often more aggressive than the rest. They mostly act in La Rambla and el Raval, but can also be seen in other areas.
  • There’s South-Americans. They usually blend in quite well with the rest of the locals, what makes them harder to spot. They like to use techniques where they talk to you to distract you, and they also act in the subway.

Where should you be most aware of pickpockets in Barcelona?

When you are out and about sightseeing around Barcelona, pickpockets can be lurking pretty much anywhere were tourists go or where it's crowded. Stay specially vigilant in the next areas:
  • La Rambla. It’s a busy street, there’s lots of things to see there, there’s street performers… The perfect scene of the crime! You might sometimes spot groups of girls on a side of the walkway, looking up and down. That’s a suspicious behaviour in La Rambla. Locals don’t “wait” there: we walk. So they are probably Romanian gypsies trying to spot their next victim. 
  • Tourist sites with long lines. They can act as if they are also waiting in line, so they can reach your wallet when you are distracted. Or they might approach you begging or asking for directions, or selling you flowers.
  • Sagrada Familia towers. The towers in Sagrada Familia are narrow and private physical distance sometimes becomes almost non-existent. There’s pickpockets that are happy to pay the entrance fee knowing they can make a nice booty there… Of course, if they are caught they are arrested by the police. But by then your wallet might be already gone…
  • Barcelona metro. Crowds and tunnels that allow them for an easy scape. Be specially aware of escalators and at the moment of entering or exiting a coach. Attacks inside the coaches are also a possibility.
  • Barcelona Beaches. Leaving your stuff unattended and going for a swim is the worst idea. There’s also thieves than grab and run.
  • Restaurants. Specially outdoor cafes, but in general also inside. Bags hanging in the back of your chair are in dangers. So are cellphones or wallets seating on the table.
  • Aerobus line. Getting to the airport is your last opportunity to be pickpocketed. And unfortunately, it happens. The lines to board are often targeted by pickpockets that will take your stuff when you less expect it.
  • Ciutadella Park. Planning to head there to lay in the grass? What can happen to you is similar to what happens on the beach. 

Here is how to avoid pickpockets in Barcelona:

So let’s focus on how to avoid pickpockets in Barcelona so you can have a safe and happy vacation. Barcelona is a great city and exploring it doesn’t have to be scary. Just following a few easy safety tips can help you staying safe and happy throughout your stay. And these tips are valid not just for our city: these general safety rules that will also help you avoiding pickpockets in Barcelona and Europe in general.

1

Be confident and smart

Since you are reading this post, you are starting with the right foot! So far you've learned how Barcelona pickpockets look like and where you are more likely to cross them.

I’ll also teach you how to recognize the most common pickpocket scams below, too, and how to react.  And because knowledge is power, you are well armed to stop fearing them. That’s important because pickpockets can sense fear… And they know that if you are scared, that probably means you have something they might want to get!

The only time (in over 20 years) that I got a client effectively pick-pocketed under my nose was a lady that was totally freaked out about walking around Barcelona. So relax: take precautions, but be cool and confident. After all, you are on holidays!

2

Don't send a "next juicy victim" vibe

It is important to make yourself less noticeable. Tourists often carry more cash on them than locals do. That’s one of the reasons they are targeted. So… first of all, don’t look like a tourist!

The next step is not to show off your wealth. You might think they won’t notice your Rolex watch under your sleeve. Or your wedding diamond ring. Or your gold chains. But they have eagle sight and can tell a fake from real. Do you really need them on your trip? You better leave them at home or at the hotel safe. Remember that snatching a watch, ring or chain requires a more aggressive action from the side of the pickpocket… Do you really want to be in that position?

And this should go by itself, but unfortunately it often doesn’t. Use common sense: do not consider the back pocket of your jeans a safe place for your wallet or phone (it’s not!).

3

Accessories that help you protect yourself from pickpockets

Pick-pockets prefer easy victims: so make things difficult for them. Carry your bag with the zipper opening facing forward: pickpockets usually operate from behind, so make it difficult for them to reach the opening!

There are bags that are specifically design to stop pickpockets. But if you aren’t going to buy one in purpose for your trip, any bag with a long strap that you can cross over your chest is always a good idea.

My favorite bag to travel safe has a flap over the opening, what makes it even more difficult to pickpocket. And wear your backpack in front of you (or don’t keep anything important inside: they are experts opening backpacks without no one noticing).

There’s also neck wallets that are very difficult for pickpockets to reach. But I don’t like them that much because they immediately single you out as a tourist.  And there’s money belts that hide under your cloths. But you’ll still need a wallet for small amounts unless you are comfortable stripping every time you need to pay for something… A bonus is that you can use them also when you go out jogging or training back home.

And since Barcelona pickpockets are also after your cellphone, the best way to avoid being stolen is having it attached to you. I bought a lanyard case after “losing” it twice in the bus when I had my baby and I was distracted handling the stroller… Never “lost” it again since.

And I love my good old jacket strap not just so I don’t forget my jacket laying when the weather suddenly becomes too hot. But I also use its carabiner clip to secure my purse to my chair when I’m eating out.

And last but not least, if you are ready to go next level, because you are terrified… (You shouldn’t be, but I get that sometimes emotions are hard to get under control so better be proactive to make you feel safe). Did you know there’s pickpocket-proof clothes?

There’s jackets, pants and shirts with secure pockets and hidden openings that will be the nightmare of any pickpocket that decides to target you! They aren’t cheap, but they can be used on your daily live too.

What kind of scams use pickpockets in Barcelona?

1

The flower ladies

Imagine you are in Spain and all of a sudden you cross a smiley couple of middle-aged ladies that look very Spanish. They approach and offer you a carnation. Wouldn't you feel like you were a character in the opera Carmen? 

But it’s time to get alert: they want to see where your wallet is. And if you open it, they’ll pretend they want to help you with this foreign currency that you aren’t used to. And that’s when you’ll think they are taking some coins but they’ll be getting a few bills without you noticing!

Where? In the Gothic Quarter around the Cathedral and occasionally near the Picasso Museum or around Sagrada Familia.

What to do? Say sternly “No, thanks” and step away. Shush them if they try to follow. But in general they don’t want trouble and will go find another victim.

5

The piggeon poop or the stain trick

We are geared to trust people. Specially when they want to help us. But if all of a sudden someone approaches you saying you have pigeon poop on you, or some other kind of nasty stain for what matters, don’t believe them!

It’s just an excuse to get close enough to you. And while one of them (they work in couples) will “clean off” the stain, the other will clean off your pocket.

Where? Anywhere where people walks around: La Rambla, Passeig de Gràcia… Or where there’s many pigeons, like Plaça Catalunya.

What to do? Step away saying “No, no, no!”, even slapping their hands (softly, you don’t want to be accused of hurting them!) if they are already touching you. Get away as soon as possible, and just in case, get in some cafe and head to the bathroom to check if you’ll need some cleaning: sometimes they go to the extend of staining you on purpose to make it seem more real.

6

Scams involving clipboards, large maps and the like

Clipboards are involved in two different types of schemes. One of them is unique to them. You'll be stopped by young people holding a clipboard and wanting you to sign a petition. As soon as you know they'll be asking you for a donation.

Which is a lie because the organization they claim to work for does not exist. 

Where? Usually in places where it’s easy to corner you, like the escalators in the Hill of  Montjuic or the streets leading you to Park Guell. 

If you see them in Plaça Catalunya, don’t worry: real NGO position their staff there to get sign-ups. But they are looking for locals and are not interested in tourists. If they stop you, answer in English saying you are not from here and they’ll apologize and let you go.

What to do? Do not believe them, do not stop. If they are blocking your way, bump your way past them. They’ll complain, but too bad for them.

The other thing pickpockets do with clipboards is to use them to block your view, so you don’t see what their other hand is doing. Usually, getting to your wallet. This can be done with anything large enough to cover enough of their bodies. 

So you’ll also see people acting as confused tourists with a large map and asking you for directions. Why the heck would a tourist ask another tourist for directions? You ask a local! The only reason to ask another tourist is if you are hoping to pick their pocket and use the map as a cover and distraction. If also seen beggars doing that… carrying an empty pizza box! 

Where? Passeig de Gracia, Gothic Quarter… Pickpockets disguised of beggars prefer anywhere where there are long lines to get in a site. 

What to do? Do no let them approach. “No, no, no” should be your mantra here.

7

The fake policeman

You don’t see it very often, but… it can still happen! Policemen don’t have a reason to approach a tourist by their own initiative. If somebody comes and asks for your ID, credit card number or other private document out of the blue… Don’t trust them!

Where? Probably in La Rambla late and night, or near bars and nightclubs where tourists get drunk. It’s easier to trick a drunk than a sober person.

What to do? Keep walking saying “No, no, no” and get away. I doubt they’ll chase you if they are pickpockets. And if they really are the police, they’ll soon have someone else join them (a policeman on a motorbike, probably) and you can always tell them you thought they were pickpockets trying to scam you. 

8

Pickpockets in the subway​

Pickpockets work usually in groups in the subway. If you see 3 or 4 young girls (sometimes they might be accompanied by a big man, too), that rather than talking to each other are mostly casting quick looks around them…

In the platforms

Where and when? Usually close to the platform entrances (often where the front and end wagons, but some stations have the doors in other locations). They act quickly when passengers start entering and exiting the train.

What do they do? They usually use the “sandwich” technique: one gets in front of the victim blocking the entrance to the train, while the ones behind pickpocket and run away with the wallet.

What can you do? Head to the center of the platform or as far from the platform gate as possible. If you see a suspicious group of people, get away. Even consider missing the next train to see what they do. Wait for the train seating on a beach or leaning on a wall so nobody can stand behind you. And try to be the last to enter the coach, to avoid the sandwich technique.

Did you know there was a time a local lady tired of seeing the same pickpockets acting in the subway day after day started alerting the other passengers by blowing a whistle? People cheered her for her bravery.

In the platforms

Where and when? Usually close to the platform entrances (often where the front and end wagons, but some stations have the doors in other locations). They act quickly when passengers start entering and exiting the train.

What do they do? They usually use the “sandwich” technique: one gets in front of the victim blocking the entrance to the train, while the ones behind pickpocket and run away with the wallet.

What can you do? Head to the center of the platform or as far from the platform gate as possible. If you see a suspicious group of people, get away. Even consider missing the next train to see what they do. Wait for the train seating on a beach or leaning on a wall so nobody can stand behind you. And try to be the last to enter the coach, to avoid the sandwich technique.

Inside the carriages

When and where? Whenever it’s very crowded. 

What do they do? They take advantage of people pressing against each other so they can pick your pocket or open your bag without you noticing.

What can you do to protect yourself? Whenever it’s possible, seat down: they can’t pickpocket you when you are seating. If seating is not an option, lean on a wall so they can position themselves behind you. If that’s not possible either, keep your hands on your pockets and your bag in front of you. Stay vigilant.

At the escalators

Where? At the exit of the escalator.

What do they do? Sandwich technique with a tweak: the person in front of you bends down to “collect something that fell”. It’s the end of the escalator and you were ready to get out, so you trip over the guy. That creates a distraction that allows the second bad guy behind you to pick your pocket.

What can you do to protect yourself? Take the stairs. Or if you must do the escalator, leave at least two or three steps of distance with the person next to you and check who is behind. If they still try it on you, don’t be afraid to push the one in front to get through and get out of the there ASAP.

8

Pickpockets in outdoor cafes and restaurants

I know: they won't even leave you in peace at mealtimes! This is why you must be ready to recognize suspicious behaviors and prevent being pickpocketed. Because having to interrupt your meal sucks.

Where? Mostly outdoor cafes and restaurants. Managers usually don’t let beggars and vendors inside their venues, but it can also happen indoors. 

What do they do? Approach with some excuse to distract you (beggars or vendors, for instance), while an accomplice acts taking advantage of that. Other times they’ve been seen acting as a group occupying a table, making noise or fussing and immediately leaving without ordering. Their accomplice then can get the bag you left hanging in the back of your seat (or open it up and take something). Or they can steal a wallet or cellphone laying on the table. They could use the pizza box technique I explained before, so you can’t see they are grabbing it. 

What can you do to protect yourself? Keep your bag in your lap, or between your feet so they can’t grab it and run without you feeling it, or attached to the chair with a carabiner. Do not leave wallets or cellphones on the table when eating outdoors.

What to do if you get stolen anyway?

If truly hope you don’t have to experience that. That’s the entire point of writing this long post! But if it does happen, here is what to do and what not to do:

  • Do not fight back or try to do after them. Unless you are an Olympic athlete faster than them, or a massive culturist that can beat their ass (but even that could get you in trouble if they report you!). I have seen a huge Russian tourist punch a pickpocket an get his money back. But I also know a colleague who yelled to stop a pickpocket in the subway and the other pickpockets spat her… On her face! Yuck!
  • Report to the police. Unless there was violence involved, the easiest way is to do that online. That’ll save you a lot of time. But if there’s been an aggression, you need to head to the Police Station. But first call your hotel: some of them are allowed to take complaints at their concierge desk. I know, filing a report is such a time waste when your stay is short. But you’ll need an official document to claim money back from your travel insurance.
  • Cancel your credit cards. Call your bank to cancel your credit cards and see if they can send you a replacement or some cash for the rest of your trip. Tip: often bank apps allow you to block or cancel a card from the app, which is way faster if you have them on your phone (and the phone wasn’t stolen).
  • Block your phone, if it was stolen. Don’t use the “find my device” service to go confront the thieves: you’ll just get in trouble. Instead, you can use it to disable your phone as an authorized device and close your Google/Apple accounts with a session open on the stolen phone. If you had Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Apple Pay or another app for credit card payments, make sure to lock it remotely too. 
  • Go to your Consulate. If your passport was stolen and you’ll need it to fly, go to your Consulate ASAP to get a replacement or temporary ID. My recommendation is to leave your passport at the hotel and use your driving license as an ID when you are required one to pay by credit card. At least if your driving license is lost, you can wait to be back home to get a copy (that is, unless you were planning to rent a car on this trip).
  • When you get home, if you had a travel insurance. Make sure to claim a compensation. You’ll need your police report and any other document, testimonial or prove you can provide.

Now you know how to protect yourself from pickpockets in Barcelona! Travel safe!

Marta

Author Marta Laurent Veciana

AUTHOR BIO

Marta is the founder of ForeverBarcelona. She is a passionate tour guide that loves Barcelona and loves writing too. She is the main author of our Blog, and is committed to sharing her knowledge about Barcelona and her best tips with our readers.

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