I saw a pickpocket in Paris. Tips to stay safe in France.
Family and friends generously dish out tips on being safe in Paris, such as how to spot suspicious characters, or how to guard our belongings against pickpockets. Over the years, I have also heard a fair share of horror stories about Europe.
So before a trip to France, it’s always good to read up and be aware of the tactics of pickpocketers and scammers. Read on for some good tips or jump to the section you prefer:
- Tips to Stay Safe in Paris, France
- Victim of Crime
- My experience with pickpockets and suspicious characters in France
Tips to Stay Safe in Paris, France
As the Chinese saying goes, 知己知彼 百战不殆 (translated as “Know yourself and your enemy, and you will win every war.”). Here are some articles for you to understand the tactics of the “enemies”: pilotplans.com/blog/is-paris-safe, fr.usembassy.gov, www.tripsavvy.com, bonjourparis.com.
I’ve summarised some of the travel tips from the articles. Though the list below is not comprehensive, it will help to make your trip to France safer and more enjoyable.
In Paris or France,
- grab and run happens. Knowing this, I used a crossbody phone strap while in France. Or you can access your phone from the bottom of your bag when you need to use it. Generally, don’t be engrossed in your phone and be aware of your surroundings. Hug or hold your belongings close to you.
- Do not leave cash or valuables on café tables.
- In the metro, best to avoid seats closest to the doors. The thief might grab and exit just as the doors are closing. I was with my friend when this happened to him years back in Australia.
- once touch is considered sold, whether you want it or not. Street sellers might shove rings or things into your hand. Just go on your way. If you touch or hold it, the sellers will force you to pay. And if you refuse and argue, pickpockets might come into that confusion too. Best to buy your local items from markets or shops, rather than directly off the street.
- ATM machine is a hotspot for crime – scammers, thieves and pickpocketers.
- Stay super watchful or have someone on the watch while you transact at ATM machines.
- Do not talk to anyone when entering the pin code or amount. Tell any person hovering around you to back off. If they persist or behave aggressively, cancel your transaction and find another ATM.
- Do not offer or receive help on how to use the machine.
- A comment in one of the articles (edited for clarity): At an ATM around Châtelet–Les Halle, three kids about 10 to 13 years old came from behind me. One of them put a paper on my ATM screen, and another tried to key in the amount and validate it. Luckily, I pushed the cancel button and shouted at them and they fled. I was lucky because they would have snatched the money. I went inside the bank and told the security personnel. He said I should be aware of this as it is very common.
To guard against pickpockets in Paris or France,
- do not sign a petition, take a survey or give money for donation. Ignore, or just wave them away and say you’re not interested.
- do not put your phone or valuables in your back pocket.
- be extra vigilant at train stations, metro, areas around popular tourist attractions, or generally very crowded places.
- have someone on the watch while you transact at ATM machines.
- know that pickpockets often work in groups. One attempts to distract you while another goes for your valuables. I know it’s hard not to be distracted though. They can distract you by engaging in conversation, asking for money or donations, or showing you things like a ring.
- know that pickpockets can be of various ages, young and old. They might even dress up as tourists carrying selfie sticks and wearing fanny packs.
In your travels to any country,
- hide your passport and emergency cash stash well in your accommodation. Instead, carry photocopies of your passport as you travel around.
- have copies of your IC, passport and travel documents in your luggage. Store the softcopies in your email inbox and phone. In case of missing documents, it’s easier for you to prove your identity when you replace your documents or make a police report.
- stay in well-lit streets and avoid deserted ones, especially for solo travellers.
- store your valuables and cash in a money belt or compartments of your bag. Don’t put all your cash in your wallet, but separate it out in your bag.
- wearing a fanny pack or a sling bag (worn in front) is a good way to keep your things in your view.
- use small-denomination notes to avoid drawing the attention of scammers and pickpockets.
- take precautions, be aware of your surroundings and use common sense.
- buy travel insurance.
Victim of Crime
If you have unfortunately become a victim of crime,
- Yell for help or for the police immediately.
- Stay calm and remember as many details about the perpetrator, like how they looked, or what they wore. Take a picture if possible. The more information you have, the better the investigation.
- File a police report before your departure from France.
- Contact your bank or credit card company to cancel the stolen cards.
- Contact your travel insurance company and let them know your situation.
My experience with pickpockets and suspicious characters
I was always looking behind my back. “Stay close to me”, I kept telling Grace. The many warnings and safety tips about Paris had made me hyper-vigilant. In contrast, we were more relaxed when we went to Belgium previously with two-year-old Grace. We were nonchalant about the city being famous for pickpockets, but thank God nothing happened to us. Perhaps ignorance is bliss because this time I was on such high alert that Grace picked up my fear. She felt Paris was a dangerous place filled with many bad guys. Oops, my bad.
My takeaway, be cautious, but don’t be too focused on the “enemies” that you take the joy out of your holiday. Enjoy the beauty of the city and not the potential ugliness of it.
“Hello, miss”, I turned to the voice and jolted. A face was at a palm’s length distance from mine. The man was of a medium build, with ruffled hair and rugged clothes. We were surrounded by train passengers making their way to the platform, yet I felt unsafe. A red alert flashed in my mind, “So fast?! We just arrived in Paris and– what does he want?” Alone with my two girls, I was attempting to carry a small rolling suitcase up the stairs and follow my husband who was lugging up our heavy luggage.
“Do you need help with the luggage?” he asked and I heaved a slight relief inside of me. I thought he had wanted something from me. I had mistaken a kind man for wanting to help. Then again, in hindsight, I was not sure if it was genuine help, or if it was a distraction attempt to pickpocket. I hate to doubt but it’s hard not to with all that I’ve heard about Paris.
Another time, I was standing alone with the girls on the streets. We were waiting for my hubby. “Excuse me,” a couple who looked like tourists approached us for directions. “Yes? I am not sure where it is, sorry,” I replied and turned to walk away with my girls.
I took being able to blend in like a local as a compliment and was basking in joy when suddenly it dawned on me. That could have been a distraction and an attempt to pickpocket. I suspected even though there was no one else besides us and the couple. Now you see, I became highly suspicious of strangers in Paris talking to me.
On another occasion, I was alone with Grace and the sky had turned dark. We went ahead of hubby and Joy because we had wanted to take photos with the Centre Pompidou lighted up in red. Taking it from different angles, we somehow ended up in a shadowy corner of a tree. It was not a deserted corner, but one beside a pavement of pedestrians and with shops lining the side. An unkempt man walked towards us, staggering occasionally, muttering something. I couldn’t hear and didn’t want to know. I grabbed Grace’s hands and whisked us away from him.
The above three incidents happened when I was alone with my children, but nothing really quite happen to my hubby in Paris. So if you are a lady (with or without children), be cautious!
Somehow it’s amazing to see characters mentioned in stories and warnings coming to life in our travels. They are real. We were approached by people to do surveys. Ignore them, someone had cautioned me, or tell them you don’t know how to speak English. We saw them near major attractions such as Arc de Triomphe.
Be careful of the Gypsy mother and her children. This warning flashed in my mind when we crossed paths with this exact combination in Strasbourg (France). A woman was sitting at the side of the road and two young children squatted in front of her and blocked our view on what was on the floor — were they counting money in a bowl, or playing with something else?
We were walking toward them and wanted to see what they were doing. We got close enough and right before we could glance at what was on the floor, the two children jumped and ran away from the lady right before us. It caught us by surprise, and all of us stopped in our tracks. Naturally, we would watch on with curiosity and let our guards. My children were especially curious and easily distracted too.
Good thing, a warning of such an incident came to mind and I, firmly or rather fiercely, shouted at my children in Mandarin to move on and keep walking. My shout scared my children and the other two children. I did that on purpose to throw any pickpockets off guard with my unexpected response. The timing of the children running away felt so calculated. So I rather look like a crazy mother and be safe than sorry.
A police officer patrolling the platform of Châtelet station came to us and said, “Excuse me, tourists? Keep your belongings in your pocket, there are many pickpockets in this station.” Ironic though, shouldn’t I then not put them in my pockets? We walked away and I thought of how much we stood out as tourists that a police officer had to approach us.
A day later, I was back at the same station (Châtelet) by myself. I alighted the train with the crowd and noticed this group of tall guys standing in the middle of the platform and blocking the way. I walked past them and climbed the stairs behind this elderly man with his cabin luggage. Another man caught up with him and walked near like they knew each other, father and son perhaps. The son looked like he wanted to talk to his father, but soon he turned around and signalled “nothing” to someone far behind him. He continued his way and walk ahead of the elderly man.
Did I just witness a pickpocketing attempt? Did I see his hand near the elderly man’s pocket? Did it go in? Was he signalling to that group of tall guys at the bottom of the stairs? Then I remembered that this was the station that the police officer warned us about. Good thing I was cautious and had my hands in my coat’s pocket, holding on to my handphone.
Although there were brushes with suspicious characters, thank God we didn’t lose anything or were hurt in any way during our trip to France, especially in the extremely crowded Christmas market at Strasbourg. Phew!
Let me know if there is anything else to look out for. Or share about your first-hand experience! Leave your comments below. Love to hear from you. :)
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SAVE IT, PIN IT.
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