5 Myths About PickPockets

Security Expert Spencer Coursen discusses 5 common myths about pickpockets

Many travelers are concerned about identity theft, worried about a thief using an RFID reader to get their passport info or watching an ATM to steal a pin code. But what about pickpocketing, one of the world’s oldest crimes? It may not merit headlines, but it’s still a threat to tourists in many parts of the world. The old-school “lift” approach can be as devastating to a traveler as the new-school “tech” approach. Here’s a look at five myths about pickpockets.

1. I only travel to countries where pickpocketing isn’t an issue

Those countries don’t exist.

“Pickpocketing is one of the most widespread crimes in the world,” says Spencer Coursen, founder of the Coursen Security Group. “Anywhere goods and services are exchanged for currency is an area of pickpocketing appeal.”

Preparation for theft is a good idea regardless of where you’re heading. That starts with making photocopies of key documents, such as passports, vouchers, rail passes and even prescriptions, making sure to leave a copy with someone at home. Having a couple of extra passport pictures is also a good idea in case your passport needs to be replaced. You might also want to think about your choice of wardrobe.

“It’s an unfortunate fact that when you think about traveling somewhere, there will also be someone who thinks they can take advantage of your visit,” confirms  Adam Rapp, founder and designer of  Clothing Arts, which makes pickpocket-proof pants and other travel clothing designed to foil common thieves.

2. I’d feel it if someone stuck his hand in my pocket or bag and tried to remove my wallet

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll feel anything.

“It is a practiced profession, and like any sleight-of-hand demonstration, employs distraction, misdirection and even compassion to enable success,” Coursen says.

Coursen adds that “a skilled practitioner will use their environment to their advantage. Subway cars, busy crosswalks and crowded elevators are all normal ‘bump’ environments where we willingly participate with an expectation of normal crowd dynamics. In this environment, it’s very unlikely you would think twice about someone pressing up against your purse or pocket. “

Rapp agrees that pickpockets are very hard to spot and that the theft is almost always discovered too late. There’s every chance that the pickpocket is far more skilled at theft than you are at observation.

“Working pickpockets, the key word being ‘working,’ train to be very good at stealing from you and doing so without you noticing,” Rapp says. “They’ve done it to many before you and will continue to do so long after they’ve taken your wallet. Thinking that you’ll be sure to catch them trying to steal from you is like saying that you can predict when it will hail.”

Rapp’s product was inspired during a trip to Xian, China, in 2007, a much-touristed city “where theft is a major problem and where signs says ‘Beware of Pick-Pockets’ everywhere.” Walking in a tunnel beneath the giant Drumtower, a major tourist destination, “my companion felt a tug on her backpack. She turned around and spooked the team of pickpockets who were going for both of us at the same time. They disappeared into the crowded mass of people behind us. This is when I looked down at the wide open pockets of my chinos.” So he decided to create a product that puts “security right into the pockets of my travel pants.”

Security Expert Spencer Coursen discusses 5 common myths about pickpockets
Security Expert Spencer Coursen discusses 5 common myths about pickpockets

3. I always keep my money and passport in an inside pocket

Inside pockets of jackets and front pockets of jeans are all commonly thought of as more difficult to access. But to a trained pickpocket, that won’t make much of a difference. If they target you, it’s more than likely that they’ll get at your valuables.

“Pickpockets know exactly what you keep where,” says Coursen. “A good pickpocket will ‘mark’ their target in order to determine the likelihood of success. Many pickpockets will surveil retail shops, hotel lobbies, and popular areas of attraction to identify targets of opportunity. “

What are they looking for? Coursen says that ideal targets “are not local, alone, paying in cash or have recently visited an ATM, displaying an inherent vulnerability such as talking on the phone, wearing headphones, or carrying items in their arms.”

Old-fashioned money belts can be useful, says Rapp, since accessing them is difficult for both you and the pickpocket. They can be unwieldy, but offer a level of protection against pickpockets you can’t get with standard pockets.

4. I always avoid crowds, so there’s not much of a chance that I’ll get pickpocketed

While crowds certainly offer a pickpocket a better chance at anonymity, pickpockets don’t limit their activity to crowds alone, Coursen notes. “Pickpockets often work in teams and will orchestrate a scenario to engage their mark. A common scenario may employ a ‘pick and roll,’ a ‘sandwich,’ or a ‘stall,’ where the target will be forced to stop suddenly and then be accidentally ‘bumped’ from behind by the ‘lift.’”

5. When I visit a new city, I avoid bad neighborhoods

“Avoiding a neighborhood is not exactly going to prevent a good or bad experience from happening,” Rapp says. “Pickpockets will go where the tourists go. Planning your visit and being aware of your surroundings is the best way to not look like a tourist, plus make the most of your visit. “

Many of us know our home neighborhoods very well, Coursen points out, but it’s not so easy to be so certain of unfamiliar environments. Street signs don’t say “Bad Neighborhood Ahead.”

“In most cases, it’s an individual’s own actions that make them a target,” Coursen observes. “Like lions in the wild, predators don’t target the strongest among us, they target the weakest. Being aware of one’s own environment is important. But acting with a positive protective posture is more so:  Awareness + Preparation = Safety.”

This article by Everett Potter originally appeared in USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/advice/2016/05/11/pickpockets/84179812/



Security Expert Spencer Coursen specializes in threat assessment protective intelligence and vulnerability reduction. Coursen Security Group Logo.


Ten International Travel Safety Tips

As summer approaches, and your vacation plans begin to take shape, it’s important to prepare for both fun and safety in equal measure – especially if your travel plans will take you abroad.

Safe international travel is all about using good common sense. While some of the world’s more historic locations may not be in the safest parts of the world right now, it is still possible to plan a fun, memorable, and safe trip with the appropriate amount of planning. Baghdad may not be the most hospitable location right now, but it is still possible to find a few good places to get a great ice-cream cone or some fresh hummus without putting yourself in any kind of extreme danger. I’ve been blessed with the good fortune of having traveled to 163 different countries, and I’ve experienced something beautiful and memorable in all of them.

Still, there is something to be said for traveling smart. These ten tips will start you off on the right foot.

  1. Get yourself a Country Assessment Report that provides the most up-to-date information related to your area of travel and register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
  1. Identify “safe havens” anytime you are outside of your hotel and establish locations for your colleagues to regroup if you should get separated, like the restaurant where you had lunch, or where you stopped to buy that bottle of water. Know where to go and know how to get there.
  1. Know who to call if in trouble. Have the phone numbers of the US Embassy 24-hour hotline pre-programmed into your phone and be sure to test the numbers. Sometimes the international dialing codes can be tricky and you don’t want to be figuring out if you need the +1 before the number when you’re in the middle of an emergency. Another best practice is to learn where the Embassy is located and confirm that you know how to get there. This means which door is for you as an American — NOT where everyone else is going to apply for a visa. Just ask the friendly U.S. Marines — they know the area well and are always willing to help.
  1. Be careful of what you eat and drink when outside of the hotel. As a general rule, if it’s an empty restaurant, it’s not worth the risk. Ask your hotel concierge, or consult online reviews like Yelp for help. The food cart is NOT your friend.
  1. Don’t bring attention to yourself. Avoid showing off your expensive jewelry or your wad of cash. Try to use your credit cards as much as possible and only have enough cash for tips. Have money set aside for tips ($1 and $5 only) in a “tip” pocket. If you pull out a roll of $50s and hand the guy 2 dollars, be prepared to do some haggling. Fair warning.
  1. Call your mobile phone company. Be wary of overseas roaming charges on your mobile devices. Contact your mobile provider before you leave to get the specifics on your international talk and data plans. Hotels will often have the ability to rent you a local phone. Calling cards are always a good idea too, but buy them here at home, as many of the offers overseas are scams. It’s worthwhile to use the free Wi-Fi in the local coffee houses to communicate with loved ones back home via email.
  1. Safeguard your passport. If you are traveling to any developing nation, leave your passport locked away in your hotel safe and carry a laminated color-copy of your passport instead. If you’re ever asked to show ID you won’t have to worry about it being taken and held ransom for “donations.”
  1. Know the best insurance options. Overseas medical insurance isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. In many countries, out-of-pocket expense for routine medical care (prescriptions, stitches, emergency dental, and x-rays) will be cheaper than the co-pay for using your insurance back home.
  1. Use your resources. Talk to friends who have been there in the past, utilize the hotel concierge, read the embassy home page, google safety tips for the area you’re going to visit, educate yourself on exchange rates and overseas ATM fees, and read up on the local news.
  1. Trust your gut. If something feels “wrong” walk away. Your unwillingness to offend should never be greater than your willingness to defend. You’ll never see any of these people ever again, so don’t concern yourself with being rude. Safety first!

One last thing. Take more photos…you’ll wish you had later.


Spencer Coursen is the President of Coursen Security Group. He is an expert security consultant, threat assessment advisor, and protective strategist who is dedicated to reducing risk and preventing violence. His systems and strategies help corporations, non-profit organizations, schools, and at-risk public figures ensure the certainty of safety for all involved.




@SpencerCoursen / @CoursenSecurity