On nearly getting pickpocketed in both Lisbon and Madrid

My trip to Lisbon introduced me to another tourist phenomenon: pickpockets.

It was around 10:30 in the morning, and I got on the train to head into town, planning to climb the steps through the Alfama district to visit the castle which looms over the city. The morning rush was over, and the Metro car was nearly empty.

Just before the doors closed, a group of about four twentysomething guys stumbled onto the train, walking unsteadily and talking quite loudly among themselves. I found this immediately suspicious. They are acting drunk, but who is drunk at 10:30 in the morning? At 10:30, you're hung over, not drunk. And even if you are drunk, you are drunk in the comfort of your home, not stumbling around the subways.

Even though the subway car had only about three people, and there was plenty of room to spread out, this group of pretend-drunks hung around close to me. I went on high alert.

A few seconds later, one of the guys "stumbled" into me and thrust his hand into my pants pocket. I immediately grabbed his hand and yanked it back out, making sure he didn't get anything, adding a shout of "Hey!" (I don't speak Portuguese, so I couldn't say anything more eloquent.)

Still keeping up the ruse of just being a bunch of loud-mouthed drunks, the group of would-be pickpockets stumbled off the train just as the doors closed. Well, three of them did. One of them didn't quite get off in time and stood with his face against the wall until the train reached its next stop, at which point he ran off.

After Lisbon, I headed over to Madrid, and on the Metro I was on one of the long escalators connecting between two train lines, and I caught the person behind me surreptitously trying to unzip an outside pocket on my shoulder bag. He hadn't made much progress, but just to make sure he didn't get anything, I said hello and shook his hand.

Bonus chatter: Getting targeted by thieves in Europe seems to be a tradition for me. During the Berlin phase of a previous visit to the continent, a thief tried unsuccessfully to steal the camera out of my hand. Sweden treats me well, though. I don't get targeted by pickpockets; just people trying to recruit me into some sort of organization.

[Raymond is currently away, possibly being pickpocketed this very moment.]

Comments (15)
  1. Robin Williams says:

    "but who is drunk at 10:30 in the morning?"

    You’ve obviously never visited a Wetherspoons pub in the UK.

    Cheap beer + 9am opening = disaster!

  2. Messiant R says:

    Getting targeted like that is probably related to your ethnicity. It’s common to see asian tourists in europe with a nice (and therefore expensive) camera, so who knows what other riches they carry around..

    As for the hand shake.. sounds like a good approach to confuse them and have you run off.

  3. Maxim says:

    All the thieves "know" that the Chinese carry large amounts of cash (unfortunately, this is somewhat true).

  4. Mike says:

    Tourists make great targets because they rarely come back to make a positive ID in a lineup, and will often not even bother reporting it.

    I had some cash lifted from a pocket in a little bar in Nassau once. I was just thankfull that I had dumped most of my money in my hotel safe, and chalked it up to experience. After all – who wants spend one of their few days in paradise stuck in a police station giving statements – over a lousy $64?

    And I’d bet the thieves count on attitudes like that.

  5. David says:

    A good tip I learned from a Canadian back in Buenos Aires: use a safety pin to block your zippers. Taking them out requires that extra work that will put off most pickpockets.

    Another thing I learned from my own experience is: acknowledge their presence. If you suspect someone, just ask them a question, it doesn’t matter what language you use. The idea is once they know you are aware of their presence, they’ll think it twice before trying anything.

    Once you make it a little harder and you take away the surprise factor, most pickpockets will give up. Unluckily that’s not enough to keep robbers at bay (and you’ll find plenty of those in the shady areas of Buenos Aires).

  6. D. Garlans says:

    My best pickpocketing story was in Madrid, when these ladies came up and threw a giant map in our faces and started asking us for directions… long story short, we noticed a few minutes later that one of our bags had been opened and the wallet missing.

    However, where it gets good, is the fact that the wallet was actually our dummy pick-pocketing target, filled with fake credit cards and a nominal amount of cash.

    And where it gets even better, is that when they were stealing the fake wallet, the nominal amount of cash actually fell out and was still in the bag.

    The best part of it all though was that after we filed the police report, a few hours later, the Madrid police department called us up at our hotel and brought the wallet back, because someone had found it and turned it in.

    I found that extraordinarily impressive, and it left me with a very positive feeling about the police, and the general public, of Madrid.

  7. Andy says:

    What I never understand is people who wear their backpacks on their front; you might as well stick a massive glowing neon "I AM A TOURIST!" sign to the top of your head.

    Probably does more harm than good, if you ask me.

  8. Mauricio Macri says:

    You haven’t been in Argentina.

  9. Paul Gomme says:

    Carrying a mousetrap against a double layer of card in your outside trouser pocket is a fun game to play. It’s a good system; you don’t get repetitive failures…

  10. Sven says:

    Today’s comic from "The Book of Biff" seems appropriate to this entry: http://www.thebookofbiff.com/2010/05/10/1020-nick/

    I’ve never been personally pickpocketed, but someone raided my then-girlfriend’s backpack right under her and my noses once.

    Also, Porto > Lissabon, if only for the the Port Wine. :P

  11. Kirill says:

    Pretty smart that you shook his hand to make sure it was empty. I was told to carry one of those wraparound your stomach zipper holders with your valuables (e.g. money, passport, id, etc.) in it. It is underneath your clothing and very inaccessible for pickpockets.

  12. Cheong says:

    Another tips for travelling (China specific, I think…), stay high alert near railway stations. Either walk with large group of people you know, or NOT walk with-in large group of people.

    Yet another tip from one of my friends who is from police: When you’re carrying a backpack on your back, make sure you pinned a piece of "bulletproof cloth" (not sure how it’s called in English) at the bottom. Thieves are known to use cutters to cut a hole at the bottom of backpacks to steal things. The cloth can 1) effectively stop things from falling out, 2) prevent the thief from continue attempt to cut the cloth.

  13. Aaargh! says:

    who is drunk at 10:30 in the morning?

    First-year students during their university’s introduction week ?

  14. 640k says:

    I always carry a metal briefcase with handcuffs attached.

  15. izdelava spletnih strani says:

    jup, handshaking is pretty smart. But i guess you have that ‘tourist’s friendly look’ which attracts thiefs.

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