Alex Haddox: Are You Aware

I have traveled all of my life. I have been to nearly every state in the United States, all over Mexico, Europe, South America and even Africa. Regardless the hemisphere, continent or even local language, the most common thieves you will come across are pickpockets and purse-snatchers. Our topic this month is methods to protect against these universal bandits.

To help thwart pickpockets, keep your valuables on the front of your body and against your body. Specifically, not your back pants pocket or coat pocket. The inside pocket of your coat may be on the front of your body, but unless you keep it zippered or buttoned, it is simple to access with a simple bump. The front of your person is a more sensitive area, making your valuables more difficult to lift undetected. You are far more likely to react to someone touching the front of your thigh than brushing against your backside.

Carrying my wallet in my front jeans pocket once saved me from being pickpocketed. I was in middle school at the time, and as kids play around like they do, the current gag was to run by and yank wallets from back pockets. It was always done in fun and never subtly, but it forced me into the habit of carrying my wallet in the front of my pants.

We were at Disneyland on a school field trip. I was in a crowd of my friends waiting for a ride when I felt a soft, fingertip pressure on my left buttock. Then I heard a woman say, “Nothing here.” I spun around to see a woman disappearing into the crowd and standing above me was a giant of a man glaring down at me with clenched fists. He was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the crowd. In my mind’s eye as a young teen, he was as big as Godzilla with a look on his face that clearly said he would beat the crap out of me if I made a scene.

Here was how they worked their attempt at larceny. It was a two-person team. The woman was the lifter and Godzilla was the muscle. She walked up to me and turned so that we were back to back and she was facing Godzilla. She dropped her right hand to her side and pushed backwards against my left rear pocket. When all she felt was my backside instead of a hard wallet, she called it off. Meanwhile, Godzilla was watching me to cover her escape should she be discovered. Had my wallet been there, she would have snatched it and bolted while Godzilla ran interference. I have no doubt I would have taken a severe beating if I had made a wrong move.

The most common method used by pickpockets is to bump into you, which gives them the excuse to make contact and distract you. During the contact, he or she lifts the desired item out of your bag, purse or pocket. Another common process is a two-man team, where one person distracts you with a question, bumping into you or dropping something, while the second person lifts your wallet.

When it comes to lifting, it can be done by anyone, and he or she can look like anybody. The perpetrator can be a child, a professionally dressed woman, a man, or any combination of types and teams. You cannot pick these criminals out of the crowd simply by the way they act or dress.

In France, outside the Eiffel Tower, pickpocketing is so egregious that the police have posted signs in several languages warning tourists about the pickpockets. What happens there is that everyone has their necks craned up to look at the tower and the pickpockets walk around and lift valuables while people are distracted. Everyone’s eyes are on the skyline and oblivious to what is happening on the ground. There are two lessons to be learned here. One is that this sort of thing can happen at any monument or site where you look up. The second is my standard theme: awareness. You can look, gawk, ooh and ah at the sites, but do not lose your situational awareness. When do criminals prefer to strike; when the victims are distracted and vulnerable.

In Peru, a popular tactic to steal items from tourists involves slashing bags, especially backpacks, with knives or razors. The thief comes up behind the victim with a sharp blade and slices open the bottom or side of the bag. As items pour from the sack, he or she grabs anything that looks valuable and runs away with it.

A friend of mine, who spent several years living in Argentina, told me that thieves there use a razor or needle to slash your hand to get you to drop whatever you are holding so they can pick it up and run with it.

The final tip is for women carrying purses or bags. This technique can be used whether you are traveling, out on the town, or even just shopping. When walking with someone, keep your bag between you and your companion. For example, if your friend is walking on your right, keep your purse or bag on your right side. Conversely, if your friend is walking on your left, keep your bag on your left side. This reduces the availability of the bag to someone walking by and will make it more difficult for the thief to reach into your bag, cut the strap or snatch it from you.

Of course, we must not forget a critical rule of safety: always keep one hand free. Do not encumber yourself by carrying so many bags that you need to use both hands. Always try to keep one hand free to defend yourself.

Traveling is one of the joys of life. When you venture forth in search of adventure in exotic lands, retain your awareness, take small protective measures to ensure none of your memories include calling home to replace money stolen by a pickpocket.